Gluten Free Substitutions Part VI: Binding Agents

by Jenn on August 15, 2010

in GF Substitutions,Gluten Free

Guar Gum

Welcome to the next installment of the Gluten Free Substitutions series!  Now we are really getting into the meat of GF ingredients, and this post is all about one of the more enigmatic of the categories of gluten free – the binding agents.  I like to think of these as the “gluten replacements,” because their inclusion often serves to give gluten free dough those glutenicious properties like elasticity, and air trapping.  The air trapping is especially important because without being able to hold the CO2 made by yeast or baking soda, baked goods can’t rise.  Elasticity (caused from development of a strong network of gluten proteins) is good because it allows one to work with the dough, or hold it together so that it doesn’t turn into a crumbly mess after baking.  Of course a binding agent’s presence doesn’t guarantee gluten free perfection as the other ingredients are important too, but often it helps.

So just what are these mysterious ingredients?  Let’s go through some of them –

Eggs.  One of the most recognizable of binding agents, this is for sure an ingredient you already know of.  In many baked goods eggs can help “glue” ingredients together or act as a levening agent, and so in many gluten free recipes you will see higher egg amounts listed in the ingredients compared to their glutenicious equivalents.  Eggs are often a great binding agent in light and fluffy cakes.  Glutenicious versions that use cake flour instead of all-purpose or bread flour already have lower gluten content – so some of the glutenicious properties (like elasticity) are really not so important in those cases and eggs work wonderfully.

Gelatin – This is probably the next ingredient you are most likely to already know.  Agar agar is a vegan/vegetarian alternative to gelatin (made from seaweed), and the two are for the most part interchangeable.  I’ve done some baking with them, but they really aren’t the most ideal agents for many types of baked goods, because they can oftentimes make for a brittle product.  If you are making something flat that doesn’t need to be soft, maybe this is fine.  I’ve got a thin pizza crust recipe that I’ve been making for the past few months or so that uses gelatin and has come out great.

Gums – These are by far my most-used gluten free binding agents.  Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide from fermentation of sugars by a specific single celled critter and used in many food products.  For example, you are very likely to find this in commercially produced salad dressings, because it makes a good emulsifier – i.e., it can keep oil and water together well.  Guar gum (pictured above) has similar properties and is also a polysaccharide, but comes from a plant, the guar bean.  When combined together, they have a synergistic effect on viscosity (how thick something becomes, i.e. how well your dough will hold together).

EDIT – UPDATE! – Flax meal and chia also can have some interesting gum-like properties – check out the comments below by Erin and I Live in my Lab for more information!

Does every gluten free good need a binding agent?  Well, that’s a good question.  Some can get away without them, and for some they are critical.  For example, pancakes don’t need them.  I’ve made many pancakes and waffles in my day without adding in any kind of binding agents (other than the normal requirement of eggs in the recipe).  But other things have turned into disasters.  My first try at gluten free bagels ended in complete and utter failure.  And I finally realized the reason was that I was missing a binding agent.  See the difference?

Bagels, Gluten Free

Uggh there was nothing I could do with the failures but toss them.  That was painful.  I hate throwing away food, especially food from expensive ingredients like all those flours!  It’s not my only failure from lack of binding agents, but it’s definitely one I wasn’t able to salvage.

Sometimes I’ve been a bit luckier and been able to transform some of my gumless failures into successes – just not quite the originally planned ones, like these flatbread rounds that were originally supposed to be tasty fluffy gluten free bread –


But just because gums are my most common binding agent doesn’t mean that only the gums are the end-all be-all route destined towards gluten free baking success.  After all there are gluten free bread recipes out there that don’t use any gums and still get raves by those who try them (the one linked uses eggs as a gluten replacement – I would love to try it but haven’t gotten my hands on flax meal yet).  Playing with eggs adds the extra challenge feature of messing with the dry/liquid ingredient ratio, which may take a little bit more work to get a recipe with the consistency and texture that you like.  I haven’t quite unlocked the secret to knowing when a gum vs. a different type of binding agent is necessary, but usually some type of agent is needed, especially in breads.  If you are going to be developing your own recipes, replacing the property of gluten is one of the critical factors to think about.

So now I turn it over to you – Have you created your own GF recipes before?  How do you use binding agents? Any favorites in your baking?  Please share!!


iLiveinmyLab August 15, 2010 at 10:17 pm

The key idea behind hydrocolloids and gums for breads is that you want to be able to keep your starch granules in a viscous solution that allows for hydration of starch granules, as well as expansion of air cells until gelatinization of the starch occurs (thus hardening up your interior). I completely agree with you on the idea of gelatin being a poor choice for use in gluten-free products (especially breads). Gelatin is a protein and when added to dough it will absorb more water (thus your water ratio will be slightly different) AND post baking it will retrograde much more quickly than the gelatinized starch. Initially this will cause a soggy sloppy bread (which some find appealing) and then after it quickly dries out it will become hard as a rock. In the recipe you linked I would bet money that it’s actually the large amounts of flax meal helping to improve the viscosity as a gum replacer rather than the eggs. When hydrated the oils in the flax create a nice viscous solution more similar in baking properties to a gum than an egg.

Jenn August 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Thank you so much for all of the great insights! And thanks for the information on the flax meal – I definitely did not know that about flax. Given what you say about the flax being able to provide viscosity, that makes a lot of sense given the proportion of flax meal in that recipe. I have never worked with flax meal before, maybe I should add it to my list above of binding agents. Thanks again for such a valuable comment!!

Erin Swing August 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Ditto what IliveInMyLab said. While doing my gluten-free formulation research Alicia Fundacio in Spain, I went thorough the majority of elBulli’s “texturas”. Both gelatin & agar agar made for extremely brittle & easily fractured GF baked goods. It other words, yes to eggs (our biggest friend in GF baking). Yes to guar gum &/or xanthan gum: a must have for successful GF bread. Yes, flax seed meal add some nice rheological properties. Great subject Jenn! Very difficult to tackle.

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 2:45 am

Thanks Erin! Sounds like I need to get my hands on some flax seed meal to play with!

Anna November 16, 2014 at 3:28 am

Jenn, I usually add flax meal to most things I am baking because it’s sooo good for the body. Although I’ve seen flax meal for sale, I have never bought it. I use an inexpensive coffee grinder ($10) to which I’ve put the flax seed into. Then I just hold the button for a few seconds till it is the consistency I need. By fresh grinding for I’m mediate use, I’m able to save a lot of the nutrition that would otherwise be lost after grinding and sitting on the store shelf.

Rosa August 15, 2010 at 11:29 pm

I guess you have to experience a few failures in order to get successful results! Gluten-free baking is so much more tricky…



Jenn August 16, 2010 at 2:46 am

Ha sometimes it’s more than a few…and then sometimes it’s none at all – it’s just that the failures hurt a bit more with the cost of some ingredients…

Theresa August 16, 2010 at 12:54 am

I usually use gums in bread making. I often throw together a few flours, yeast and gums in an attempt to make bread. It often works, but I’ve found that it is almost failsafe if I bake mini breads in my Texas muffin tin.
Great post!!!

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 2:47 am

Thanks! What is a TX muffin tin? I don’t think I’ve heard of one before…

Deanna August 16, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Jenn – if you can’t find any flax seed meal over there, I’d be willing to do some care package swappage with you. :) I’m sure there’s something fun you could send back.

Chia seeds do similar things to flax seeds – but they’re more expensive.

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Oh great to know about the chia seeds too! Oooh I think a care package swap sounds like a great idea!

Anna Johnston August 16, 2010 at 3:11 pm

This is really good information. I’ve not used flax meal to bind either but one thing I know from experience you need binders with this type of cooking. Thought you might like to check out The Intolerant Chef who is doing some great stuff with gluten free recipes.

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Thanks for the link, I’ll def. check it out!

Linda August 16, 2010 at 4:39 pm

I have known that people use flax seed meal to replace eggs in recipes, so I’m not surprised to learn that it’s a good binder. I haven’t tried doing much with it though, partly because I don’t seem to handle much of it very well. That’s interesting about the gelatin because I have used it some of my breads. I always use it in my foccacia bread/hamburger buns recipe and they turn out great, but I will try experimenting with omitting it. Thanks for a great post.

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm

I’d be curious to know if you see a difference switching out gelatin for a gum in your bread recipes. Let me know how your experiments go!

fooddreamer August 16, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I use xanthan gum fairly frequently and it’s worked well when utilizing nut flours or a combo of nut flours and flax seed meal. Iliveinmylab’s info is fantastic, and I will be sure to keep it in mind when baking low carb, GF yeasty things!

Jenn August 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm

I thought her info was fantastic as well! I use mostly guar gum because that’s what I can get easily here, in the States I used a lot of xanthan gum though.

bunkycooks August 16, 2010 at 11:14 pm

There is so much to balance with gluten-free cooking and baking. I know this is helpful for people that need or want to learn to do so.

Jenn August 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

Thanks, I hope it is!

lvanderb August 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm

It makes me quite happy to see chemist types investigating GF free baking! This gives me hope!

Thanks for the information about gelatin.

A couple of things that I use are:
chia gel – more of a preservative and general holder of things together and
expandex tapioca starch – produced in Canada, but I have to buy it online, I can get away with just replacing 1/4 cup of starch in a bread recipe with this and I can use 2 tsp xanthan gum instead of 3 tsp in a loaf of bread.

Jenn August 18, 2010 at 9:02 am

Oh great info! What is in expandex tapioca starch? That’s not one I’ve heard of before…

lvanderb August 18, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Hi Jenn,
Well, Expandex is a non-gmo modified tapioca starch. Expandex website –
Vic and Hallie have done quite a bit of experimenting with Expandex – & some Expandex information and FAQs
Expandex is fairly easy to get in the US, at least online with the help of the Expandex website, however they are currently looking for a certified gluten-free distribution center in Canada… sigh… my kitchen will not qualify.

Kelly August 19, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Wow, great info. I live in Germany and often need to sub ingredients for recipes from my American books. I am surprised you haven’t found flax seeds, though. In German they are called Leinsamen. Around here you can get crushed flaxseed in any Reformhaus (German equivalent of a vitamin store) and in many supermarkets. Xanthan I have not seen at all here, so I have been subbing with Guar gum. Have you used Locust bean gum(Johanneskernbrotmehl in German)? That is also widely available here and is found in many gluten-free mixes and products.

Jenn August 19, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Thanks! I have found flax seeds, but not flax meal yet. Thanks for the German translations, those will be very useful to me! I use guar gum as well, but used mostly xanthan when I was in the U.S.

lvanderb August 20, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Hi Jenn, flax meal is fairly simple to make if you have a coffee grinder – I actually stopped buying flax meal and just make my own now. Use the finest grind – I think about 1/4 cup of flax seeds makes almost 1/2 cup of flax meal. Flax meal has a very short life, so if you make extra, store it in the freezer.

Jenn August 21, 2010 at 9:40 am

oh good to know! def. have a coffee grinder, I also have a mortar/pestle.. I’ll have to make some of my own sometime :)

InTolerantChef August 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm

What a fantastic topic! So many people are stumped when baking gluten free. I learnt a couple of things myself! Just put onto your blog form Anna Jhonston, and I think it’s fantastic. I am looking forward to reading more.

MC December 31, 2010 at 5:01 am

Sooooooo glad I stumbled across your site and the 15 weeks of gluten free subs. :) :) :) I’ll have to look again when I have more time, but I’m so glad I found it.

I use flaxseed meal (grind it myself in a coffee grinder to make it fresh) a lot because I use it in the place of eggs right now. But I didn’t know it was a binder. I always thought that eggs were just an emulsifier to blend oil into recipes… but I guess not! Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make dairy, egg and gluten free crepes that actually taste right, but I think I’ve got it now… or at least almost. :) Thanks again for the valuable insight here!

Jenn December 31, 2010 at 9:44 am

Thanks!! What an awesome idea to grind flaxseed meal in a coffee grinder – much easier than a mortar/pestle, and food processor just flies the little seeds around :)

Gene Henderson September 25, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Thanks for the help

Jenn September 25, 2012 at 9:50 pm

You’re welcome!

Kristi November 8, 2012 at 7:36 pm

I have a GF banana muffin recipe that I adore. I’m wanting to try to make a variation on it using applesauce instead of bananas. I read somewhere that I would need to add additional binding to the recipe in order for it to work – does anyone know if this is true? If it is, how much of what should I be adding? I would think that I would add either an egg (giving me some issues with the wet to dry ingredient ratio) or more xanthan gum. If I have to add a binder, should I be decreasing the amount of applesause?

Jenn November 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Muffins are the same basic recipe as quick breads, and I don’t believe that you should need any extra binding agents for them. I have had great success with quick bread recipes using the exact same amount of egg and no addition of xanthan gum. If you want to add in applesauce, use it to replace the fat part of your recipe and you should be fine. For a denser richer muffin, use it to replace the liquid part of the recipe instead. In my experience both work great without any additional need for a binding agent, at least in muffins and quick breads.

Robert Mayer February 7, 2013 at 5:48 am

I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of GF baking recipes and often the biggest challenge is winding up with something that holds together. My latest effort was a paleo-style muffin using almond flour, but I realized that it needs some help from a binding agent. I’ve got some flaxseed meal in the pantry that I’ve never used, so maybe that will do the trick.

My question is this… is there some sort of rule of thumb to follow for determining the ideal ratio of the base flour (particularly almond flour) to flaxseed meal? If I were going to take a wild guess, I might go 3:1, but I’d rather rely on the advice of someone with first-hand experience.

Kirsty May 16, 2013 at 1:05 pm

We make our own sausages from venison and pork trim, but I’m not happy with the beef meal we buy from the butcher ( horrible orange stuff ) I am keen to know if I can use something else to bind my sausages. Perhaps chickpea flour or flax seed flour, but not sure ratio to water added and kgs of meat?

Ala June 10, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Hi, I have been baking for eight years in the gluten free area…
I have for the first time tried to use coconut flour in baking muffins and of course, since I haven’t baked anything in a period, I created the most tasty muffin “pieces.”
What my muffins lacked was a binding ingredient, or the right amount.
I opted not to use eggs as a binder, but used a teaspoon of chia, and a teaspoon of baking powder instead. It was so clumpy and absorbent that I added twice the amount of liquid called for to the recipe I was following.
My next batch I will add more chia, and xanthum gum, as the muffins were tasty, beautiful, moist, yet lacked anything to pull them together. I will mix it a little longer but am afraid of over mixing…
Any helpful hints would be greatly appreciated, and any ideas on what to do with tasty muffin pieces…
Thanks, Ala

Suzanne in BC August 21, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Greetings! Regarding binding/rising agent such as eggs, ground flax seeds and egg replacer. I developed a bread recipe our household enjoys. The texture is fabulous when fresh and would last on the counter for 7 days if we didn’t eat it all in the first 6 hours! It freezes well although the texture changes somewhat.

I ran a taste and texture test. Made three separate loaves but baked them at the same time. First one used eggs, second one ground flax seeds and water(let sit 20 mins before adding to bowl), third one used egg replacer( mix with water and let sit 15 mins). The rise was great on all. Good thing I tagged them or would have been able to tell the difference (okay the flax has a more whole wheat appearance). Same baking time.

Testers reported could not tell which was made with real eggs or replacer. They spotted the flax on immediately. Blind testing for taste was the same result. The final test was toasted slices with butter and homemade strawberry jam…testers all said “more please”.

So there you have it. My bread is from blends of flours and other things not a packaged flour mixture. Near me are bulk food stores, grocery stores and an oriental market (also carries Mexican and Indian items). I enjoy baking and cooking GF. The household is happy to devour whatever is set before them. Friends and family can never tell the difference. It takes a bit more time but smiling faces and happy tummies are worth it.

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