In a bind
In my gluten free baking classes, I teach my flour blend – a 50% wholegrain blend that gives good results across a broad range of recipes with the added option of adding extra wholegrain to an individual recipe to increase the nutritional content and general ‘heartiness’, for example in some of my breads, or of adding extra starch for extra lightness.
The flour blend is only half the story though. In using gluten free flours we are omitting the gluten protein that helps stick the flours together so the end product isn’t dry and crumbly.
Enter the binders – added to each recipe in varying quantities depending on the result required. And that’s where it gets a little tricky. Different binders work best for some recipes and not for others. In my baking classes I teach you to use all of them in turn, so you are confident with how to use them.
Types of binder:
The first commonly used binder is xanthan gum. Produced by the fermentation of a starch by a bacterium, xanthanoma campestris, this is an incredibly sticky white powder. I used to joke with students to be careful never to drop the open bag on their newly washed kitchen floor. Until I did exactly that. It is no exaggeration to say I needed a paint scraper to get it all off. I am not a great fan of using xanthan gum – it simply doesn’t agree with me – giving me the same intestinal distress as gluten does. I only worked this out after I started testing recipes in earnest for classes and tasting many more baked goods regularly. It’s worth bearing this in mind if you start having symptoms after starting to bake more – something you might otherwise have put down to cross contamination.
The second binder I use regularly is pixie dust. After posting a picture on Facebook with a jar in the background labelled ‘pixie dust’ I had an email from a follower asking what it was. Apparently the poor lady was concerned as she had googled it and found a reference to an amphetamine called the same thing. As I was teaching in Singapore at that time, with its zero tolerance to drugs, I was quick to pressure her that I wasn’t doing that Dutch coffee shop kind of baking! Pixie dust is a mixture of flax seed, chia and psyllium husk, devised by Dr Jean Layton, from the excellent site Gluten Free Doctor all ground together in a high speed blender or a spice grinder. I reproduce her recipe for it at the bottom of the page, with Jean’s permission. If you don’t have one of those then you could buy pre-ground flax and chia and mix it with the psyllium husk. Always store ground seeds, including the pixie dust mixture, in the fridge, as once the seed coats are broken down, the omega 3 fatty acids are exposed to oxygen and can quickly go rancid. So into the fridge or freezer they go.
The third binder I use is psyllium husk – also called ispaghula husk or isabgol, from the outer part of the seeds of the plant Plantago ovata which grows in India and Pakistan. It is commonly used to treat constipation and in fact in America is found with the label ‘colon cleanser’. At first glance it might seem a strange addition to baked goods – but its property of becoming mucilaginous when added to water and holding that moisture in gluten free bread baking works a treat.
Lastly, the other component of pixie dust, ground flax is enough to bind some mixtures. I prefer to use the golden flax seed as the lighter colour is less obvious in baked goods, but either work fine.
How to use the binders :
The golden rule with xanthan gum is to always mix it with the dry flours before adding any wet ingredients, otherwise it will be impossible to incorporate it evenly into the recipe. The amount needed per 100g flour increases as we move across the chewiness scale from cookies and muffins to cakes and then breads. Roughly, I would use 1/8 tsp per 100g flour for cookies and muffins (if actually needed at all), to 1/4tsp per 100g for cakes and up to 3/4 tsp per 100g for breads. Other writers might use more than this, but for the personal reasons started above, I try to reduce the quantity to a minimum.
Pixie dust can either be incorporated into the dry ingredients (like xanthan gum) or added to the wet ingredients ahead of mixing the dry ingredients, giving it time to ‘gel’ first. I tend to use the latter method as I think it gives a slightly better result and also mixing time is reduced, which is important for those students without a stand mixer! Jean Layton advises using the substitution of 1/2 tsp xanthan gum with 10g pixie dust. I have found this level to work well for cookies and cakes but I find less is needed for breads – so exactly the opposite with xanthan gum. For breads I would recommend using 5g pixie dust as a substitute per 1/2 tsp xanthan gum (so 30g pixie dust as a sub for 1 tbsp xanthan gum). Any more in breads gives a very wet ‘gummy’ result.
I usually add psyllium husk to the dry ingredients before adding the wet ones and then allow sufficient mixing time for the psyllium to absorb the water
Note : My recipes have been written each with a particular binder in mind, and I have not tried all the binders in all the recipes.
- 60g golden flax seed
- 30g white chia seed
- 15g psyllium husk
- Grind all ingredients together until floury.
- Store in the fridge or freezer until needed.
- See post above for quantities to substitute for xanthan gum.