As you explore gluten-free cooking, you’ll discover that one of the purposes of wheat (or, rather, wheat flour) is to serve as a binder for the various ingredients in the recipe. A binder, to oversimplify, is used to hold ingredients together. Gluten, with its stickiness, is really good at this function.
Gluten also helps baked goods hold their structure while adding elasticity — this lets you form your breads and crusts before baking. Gluten also helps retain moisture. For baking, in particular, gluten is very important.
Eliminating gluten from your recipe means you’re eliminating a very effective binder. Which means, yes, you need to replace this binder with something equally effective. And, yes, different types of binders have different properties. Here’s a primer to help you make binding decisions in your own kitchen.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. I’ve tried to focus on ingredients that are generally easy to find.
- Almond Flour: I like to use almond flour in conjunction with eggs to bind crab cakes and zucchini cakes. It adds a small amount of flavor, but doesn’t overwhelm other flavors.
- Chex Cereals: Rice and Corn Chex are gluten-free, and can help make a panade, which is usually made by soaking bread in milk, used in meatballs and meatloaves.
- Chia Seeds: Chia helps bind and add structure to gluten-free foods. Chia creates a gel when mixed with water, and helps gluten-free baked goods retain moisture. Chia is neutral in flavor, so it won’t overwhelm a dish. Chia should be used in conjunction with other binders because it isn’t strong enough to help baked goods retain structure.
- Corn Flour: Corn flour is used in breads, tortillas, and other foods.
- Eggs: Eggs are fantastic binders. The yolks bring water- and fat-based ingredients together. The whites have protein that help foods hold their structure. Eggs also help baked goods rise. If you don’t eat eggs, chia, flax, and psyllium seeds can work as replaceents.
- Flax Seeds: Like chia, flax seeds create a gel when mixed with water. The fat and fiber in the seeds means flax works well in baked goods. Flax seeds add a nutty flavor to baked goods. Flax is strong enough to give gluten-free breads structure, but works better with another binder such as chia or psyllium.
- Gelatin: Gelatin is a protein-based binder that works very well in ingredients to be served cold or cool.
- Guar Gum: Guar gum binds and adds some elasticity to baked goods (it’s not as not as elastic as xanthan gum). It helps the finished product retain its structure.
- Milk: Milk proteins, like egg whites, coagulate during cooking. Milk is helpful in conjunction with starch-based binders like oats and rice. Evaporated milk has a higher ration of protein to liquid, making it an even stronger binder in recipes.
- Oats: Oats have starch, which helps give structure to foods such as meatloaf. While you can use oats alone in some recipes, the absorbent quality of the grain generally requires you use an egg or other binder to as well.
- Potato Flour/Starch: Potato starch is a common ingredient in gluten-free baked goods. It brings many useful qualities to the table. Potato flour is great in foods formed into patties — crab cakes, zucchini fritters, etc. And, potato buds/dried potato flakes are great in meatballs or meatloaves.
- Psyllium Husk: For many people, xanthan gum works poorly with their digestive systems. Psyllium husk has emerged as a favorite alternative (I generally substitute it for xanthan gum on a one-for-one basis in recipes). Psyllium absorbs moisture like crazy, making baked goods less crumbly. It also adds fiber to recipes.
- Rice: Like oats, the starch in rice helps foods hold together.
- Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is a staple of gluten-free baking for good reason: it works very well. It’s useful for binding and structure, and helps with elasticity. It binds and thickens, but some people react poorly to this ingredient, so pay attention to how your system reacts.
What other binders do you use in your gluten-free cooking?
Tip of the Week
When baking gluten-free items from pre-made mixes, read labels carefully to determine what “additional ingredients” may be needed. Eggs, xanthan gum, or other ingredients may need to be added in order for the mixes to work properly.
Menu of the Week
Since having a terrific meatloaf dinner at Burbank’s Story Tavern, I’ve been craving meatloaf. I’m eager to steal their idea of giving the slices of meatloaf a quick pan fry to crisp them up before serving leftovers. Also, I’m just plain looking forward to the leftovers!
- Meatloaf with Ketchup Glaze
- Quinoa Pilaf with Butternut Squash (or Sweet Potatoes)
- Steamed Green Beans