Ever wonder what xanthan gum really does to your bread? If you’ve done much gluten-free shopping or baking, you’re familiar with xanthan gum. It’s an ever present ingredient in packaged gluten-free foods like bread, doughnuts, muffins, and cookies. It’s included in many gluten-free cake mixes, pancake mixes, and measure-for-measure flour blends. Gluten-free recipes often recommend the addition of xanthan gum.
Sometimes described as a thickener, stabilizer, or binder, xanthan gum is a polymer composed of sugar residues secreted by the microorganism Xanthomonas campestris — the same bacteria that creates black spots on broccoli and cauliflower. It was approved for use as a food additive in the US in 1968.
While it’s generally accepted within the scientific community that it is safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum per day, you may want to think twice before consuming too much due to its laxative effect. Many people with compromised or sensitive digestive systems report experiencing increased discomfort and bloating after consuming even minor amounts.
Now that you know what it is, let’s look at what it does. I’ve been baking bread — lots of bread. I’m trying to finish up the original recipes that will comprise Volume 1 of Cooking2Thrive’s Breads and Crackers recipe card set. I begin each new recipe by creating a gluten-free flour blend that will give me the mix of protein, starch, and texture needed to create a pleasing crumb and appropriate rise for the particular muffin, biscuit, cheese cracker or bread I’m baking.
After several tests, I baked a delicious sandwich bread with a good rise. My tasters loved it! My only concern was that the slices tended to crumble a bit on the 2nd day. Without too much thought I decided to try the traditional gluten-free solution to this problem. Don’t ask me why. I haven’t used gum in a recipe in the past four years.
Nonetheless, I went out and bought two small packets of xanthan gum and added 2.25 tsp to the bread recipe — slightly less than was recommended for a recipe containing just over 3 cups of flour. I left everything else the same. The dough immediately seemed drier and more gooey, not really more sticky to the hands, just more glommed together. The amount of rise totally changed. And the bread had a slimy texture I couldn’t stand to eat.
You may have read that xanthan gum increases the elasticity of gluten-free dough. That is not my experience. What it seems to do is function more like glue that pulls the flour grains closer together. In the case of bread, that means more density, a lower rise, and a slightly slick texture.
Rather than abandon the idea of using xanthan gum, I baked a second variation using .25 tsp xanthan gum. The result was better, but still noticeably different from the original recipe containing no gum. Finally, I baked a loaf that included .125 tsp xanthan gum. As you can see in the illustration below, even that tiny amount changed the texture of the bread, but the result tastes good and holds together better than the original as the days go by.
When the final version of this recipe is published, I may have landed on an even better way to reduce crumbling over time, but you can benefit from my trial and error right away. Now that you can see what xanthan gum is really doing to your bread, you can explore the options of minimizing or eliminating xanthan gum for improved taste and texture.