X is for Xanthan

xanthum (3)

stenciled-xanthan-stars photo by vsimon

Texture is the biggest challenge in gluten free baking. Gluten free bakery has evolved from gritty, crumbly, and dry, to nearly indistinguishable from the glutinous original. You can thank xanthan for that.

Xanthan creates structure in the batter that traps gases from yeast, baking soda, or baking powder. The batter can rise, so a muffin is taller and easier to chew than a hockey puck. Yeast bread rises over the edge of the pan and becomes a work of art.

Xanthan also improves the “crumb” of your baked treat. You get a tender product that does not crumble on your fork, and in your lap, before you can get that bite into your mouth.

Xanthan is sold as an off-white powder that is surprisingly expensive per ounce. But it is powerful stuff; small amounts make a big difference in the final texture. And it is shelf stable. So you may only need to replace that $10 bag of xanthan every few years. I consider it a good investment in happy eating.

Mixing xanthan and water is a bit like oil and water. It does not work. Only in this case, xanthan absorbs water so quickly that it will form slippery little clumps, with dry powder on the insides when you try to mix it directly with any liquid.

For best results, thoroughly mix xanthan into the dry ingredients in a recipe. That way each powdery bit can absorb its own liquid without lumps.

Maybe you have a favorite gluten filled recipe you want to convert to gluten free. Here are some guidelines on when to add xanthan.

When do I need it?

No need

Flat things like pancakes. Crusty things like waffles. Crumbly things like the toppings on fruit crisps. Or little things like small cookies.


Size matters. If the item is taller than an inch, or bigger than 3 or 4 inches in diameter. Examples include muffins, cakes, big cookies, or quick breads.

Other ingredients matter too. If there are many eggs in the recipe, as in angel food cake, they can give the necessary structure and you might not need xanthan.

Lots of flax seed meal can make xanthan unnecessary too. See vegan millet muffins for xanthan free recipe.

Fruit and vegetable purees like banana or pumpkin might add enough structure so you do not need xanthan.

And using whole grain gluten free flours in place of highly refined starches may reduce the amount of xanthan needed. Some whole grain gluten free flours have protein contents similar to wheat. This helps with the desired texture.

For sure

Yeast breads. Don’t you love an artisan looking loaf of bread? And you might even want to make a sandwich. A simple sandwich must be the ultimate gluten free luxury. You need bread that is structurally sound and tall enough to slice. Xanthan will save the day here.

Pizza crust. The best pizza is hand held. You need xanthan for a sturdy crust.


tart-cherry-pie-slice photo by vsimon

Piecrust. Again, structural strength is important. Xanthan makes the dough stretchy enough to roll out. You may still need help from two pieces of parchment paper, but it can be done. You want a clean cut of the finished piecrust without excessive crumbling. And a slice that will come out in once piece. Well, maybe not the first slice. But wheat piecrusts sometimes have the same problem.

Crackers. It is a rare person who makes their own crackers. But if you do, you will need xanthan. It really is just like rolling out very thin pie dough.

How much do I need?

It depends on what you are making. This is just a general starting point. If the finished item is too crumbly, add more xanthan to the next batch. If it is too gummy or leaves a slimy feel on the tongue, use less.

Per cup of flour

½ to 1 teaspoon in muffins and cakes and quick breads

1 teaspoon in yeast breads, piecrusts and crackers

Metric measure: 1 teaspoon xanthan equals 4 grams.

Why not guar gum?

Good question. Guar serves the same purpose as xanthan and is less expensive. Some recipes may use larger amounts of guar, though still small. But some people note that they react to guar. Since xanthan is inexpensive over the long term, xanthan won out.

I would love to hear your comments on xanthan or other alternatives.

11-30-09 This post was submmitted to the December edition of the Gluten Free Lifestyle Blog Carnival. Hosted by Kim Hopkins, The Food Allergy Coach. Product reviews, tasty recipes and useful tips are included.  Thanks Kim!