A Guide to Binders in Gluten-free Sourdough Baking
Baking with gluten-free flours has one main difference from baking with wheat: the gluten. Gluten is a protein in wheat that binds baked goods to create light and airy breads and well-formed pastas and biscuits.
Obviously, gluten-free baked goods have the distinct disadvantage of lacking the binding that creates the wheat products we are familiar with. However, there are ways to replace the binding action of gluten with other binders. Many binders are already used in baked goods, such as eggs in various wheat-based pancakes and desserts.
It is important, therefore, to include a binding agent in many gluten-free baked goods, especially the ones which are dependent on gluten for structure, such as yeast breads, pastas, and the like.
Psyllium husks come from the seed of the plantago plant, a native of India and Pakistan. They are known as a great source of soluble fiber. Because of this fiber, they are highly hygroscopic, meaning they love to absorb moisture.
In gluten-free baking this is important as it allows for the binding of moisture, which creates a less crumbly gluten-free baked good. Psyllium husk is especially useful in gluten-free baking that requires the structure that gluten provides. So, yeasted loaf breads, rolls, pasta, and pizza dough are all aided through the addition of psyllium husk. In fact, many people find that breads that require a rise before baking have much improved results through the use of psyllium.
Some people may be sensitive to psyllium, so judge it on an individual basis.
Xanthan gum is a commonly used binder in gluten-free baking. It is derived from a complex chemical process involving the fermentation of sugars and the precipitation from a growing medium. In gluten-free baking, it is helpful in binding and thickening, which makes for a more gluten-like baked good.
Some people react negatively to xanthan gum, so be sure to watch for trouble when using it.
Guar gum is derived from the ground endosperm of guar beans. The husks of the seeds of the guar bean are removed, the seeds are milled, and an off-white powder is then produced. In gluten-free baking, guar gum is used much like xanthan gum. It provides binding, elasticity, and structure for baked goods that do not contain gluten.
Sensitivities to guar gum are less documented than with xanthan gum. However, it has been shown that some individuals can react negatively to guar gum, specifically if they have a sensitivity to soy, as it has been shown to be an airborne contaminant of commercial guar gum.
Chia seeds are derived from a flowering plant that is a part of the mint family. It has a long and significant culinary history, especially in the areas of Central and South America. In health food circles, chia has become increasingly popular. Its high quantities of omega-3 fatty acids and protein have made it a popular food for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike.
The mucilaginous properties of chia make it an excellent addition to gluten-free foods. Chia provides binding and structure where gluten-free foods may be lacking. Because it is known as a wonderful food all on its own, many have turned to chia, as well as flax, as a natural binding agent in gluten-free baked goods.
The flax plant has a long history as both a food and a fiber source. The seeds of the flax plant, also known as linseed, have been ground to make a meal or pressed for their oils for generations. Much like chia seed, flax produces a mucilaginous gel when mixed with water.
These mucilaginous properties lend structure and binding to gluten-free baked goods. The food quality of flax, being high in fat and fiber, are well-loved. Therefore, flax is an easy addition to baked goods.
Eggs are used in gluten-free and wheat-based baked goods alike. They aid in rising baked goods, as well as binding them, which is why many gluten-free baked goods utilize additional eggs. Egg yolks, in particular, contain lecithin which is a well-known binding agent.
Egg whites are mostly protein and are incredibly sticky when mixed with just about anything. They bind together cookies like macaroons all on their own. Between the emulsifying ability of the yolk and the binding ability of the white, eggs make an excellent binder.
Too many eggs can leave gluten-free sourdough baked goods tasting of egg; think quiche, rather than bread. Finding a balance between eggs and the other binding agents above is critical in creating gluten-free sourdough baked goods that are reminiscent of their wheat counterparts.
Not every type of baked good requires a binding agent, or as much of a binding agent. Many wheat-based recipes that call for a light kneading or mixing so as to not toughen the baked good can actually work quite well without any binding agent. Other bread products that rise or form due mostly to the gluten content in wheat do well with one or more of the binders listed above.