Sometimes, I have a soup, sauce, or dressing and I wish it had more body. What I need is a fast, convenient thickener that, unlike flour and starch, doesn't need to be heated to work.
Found it: A very cool thickener with a weird name that turns out to be a kitchen superstar. It's magical! Super-convenient: 1/8 or 1/4 teaspoon and a hand blender are all you need to go from watery to wonderful.
I was dismayed that I could not find a simple guide to using it, so I did some experiments.
Want just the basics? OK:
- Easy to find online or in stores. One bag will last a lifetime since you use 1/4 teaspoon at a time and it is shelf-stable.
- No heat required: Just blend it into the liquid. Works for hot and cold! Salad dressing, sauces, etc.
- Use a hand blender or blender and sift the powder into the whirring mixture, because it clumps easily.
- Use 1/8-1 teaspoon per cup of liquid. A light dose adds body; medium to thicken; more to gel. Easy to overdose: Go lightly.
What is it?
First, let's get past the funny name and fears of test tubes. Xanthan gum is an approved food product made by fermenting sugars. It's very commonly used in food products such as salad dressing (which is one of its killer apps!). It's common in gluten-free baking because it produces the thickening and elastic properties needed for baked goods like bread and pizza dough.
Some key advantages and characteristics:
- All it does is thicken. It adds no flavor.
- It's very simple to use: add to water- or oil-based mixtures and hit it with the blender or immersion blender.
- The amount controls the thickening. Use a small amount (1/8 teaspoon per cup) to add body to a liquid; or 5-10 times that much to make a gel.
- The thickened mixture is cloudy but still transparent (like jelly or cornstarch or tapioca-thickened foods).
- Unlike starch-based thickeners, it doesn't require cooking to activate its thickening power.
- In fact, it's immune from heat. Some thickeners lose their power with boiling — not so, with xanthan gum, which retains its superpowers. Freezing also does not affect it.
- Xanthan gum is easy to find and economical. Most groceries in my area carry the Bob's Red Mill brand and it is easy to find online. If it seems expensive, you should know that one bag is a lifetime supply, since you generally use 1/4 teaspoon at a time. Shelf life is indefinite.
- Seems to be safe but some people report intestinal distress, even in the small quantities suggested here.
Using xanthan gum
I found a lot of contradictory information online and decided to try my own experiments to come up with some guidelines.
First: How much should you use? Applications usually call for 0.1% to 1% by weight and this range was pretty good. At 0.1%, the thickening is just noticeable — think of the difference between juice and water. Ramp it up to 1% and it's a thick gel.
I made a video that shows different amounts. In the video, you will see what 0.25% looks like (1/4 teaspoon in 100 ml of water, blended using an immersion blender), then what 1% looks like, then a real-life application of salad dressing.
For the video, I made a quick vinaigrette using a standard formula of one part vinegar to three parts of olive oil, with a little mustard as an emulsifier and some herbs. Whirring it with the immersion blender yielded a nice salad dressing. I added 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum and blended again. I started with 1/2 cup (125 ml) of dressing, so this maths out to 0.5%. Which is more than I would want in a dressing.
Rule of thumb
As you can see in the video, xanthan gum is powerful. It takes only small amounts.
- For a cup of liquid, as little as 1/8 teaspoon makes a difference and in most uses, you will use 1/4-1/2 teaspoon per cup of liquid.
- In the salad dressing example, that's more than I would ever use — use just 1/8-1/4 teaspoon per 8 oz (the video shows 1/4 tsp in just 4 oz.)
- To use, add the powder and mix with a blender or an immersion blender. If you mix without a blender, it's not as thick and prone to clumping.
Recipes and conversions
Some recipes will list the amount in grams, typically 1-2 grams. Few cooks have scales that can measure weights that small. I found little consistency in web resources so I took to the kitchen and did a few tests, measuring out 6 teaspoons of xanthan gum and weighing.
Here's a handy table.
Xanthan gum measures
I measured 1 teaspoon as 2.5 grams but note that the product can be packed to get 3-4 grams, so you may see some variation from other sources. I used Bob's Red Mill brand. Other brands may measure differently. But don't worry about variations — if you use 3.5 g when you were intending to use 2, the difference will not ruin the dish.
|By weight||Teaspoons||% when added to 8 oz. (250 ml)|
|1/4 gram||~1/8 tsp||0.1%|
|1/2 gram||~1/4 tsp||0.25%|
|1 gram||~1/2 tsp||0.5%|
|2.5 grams||1 tsp||1%|