Some people are suspicious of ingredients with unfamiliar names, such as xanthan gum. We are frequently asked, “Aren’t your dishes chock-full of chemicals?” Well, yes, but all foods are, including the most natural and organic ones. But nearly all of those chemicals are derived from natural ingredients or processes that have been used for decades.
First discovered by USDA scientists in the 1950s, xanthan gum is fermented by plant-loving bacteria, characterized by sticky cell walls. It is no less natural than vinegar or yeast. We think xanthan gum is one of the best discoveries in food science since yeast.
It is used as a thickener or stabilizer in a wide variety of foods found on grocery store shelves. Many canned or prepared products contain xanthan gum: salad dressings, sauces, soups, and baked goods — particularly those that are gluten-free because xanthan gum can perform some of the same functions as gluten.
Xanthan gum is one of the most useful food additives around; it is effective in a wide range of viscosities, temperatures, and pH levels. It is easy to use, has no taste, and generally works quite well. And it can thicken liquids at extremely low concentrations – as little as 0.1% by weight can yield a thick liquid, and 0.5% by weight can make a thick paste (this is why it is best to weigh out xanthan gum with a digital scale rather than use volumetric measurements). Traditional thickeners like flour typically require far larger amounts to do a similar job. The quantity matters because the more thickener you have as a fraction of the total mixture the more likely it is to impose an undesirable texture and inhibit flavor.
Ready to try xanthan gum? Take a look at our recipe library for recipes for Spinach Pesto, Jus Gras, and Wasabi Cream. Check back later this month, when we’ll be showcasing more recipes from Modernist Cuisine at Home that use xanthan gum.