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).
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?
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!!