Xanthan gum is one of those vaguely familiar ingredients many of us can't quite define. You've probably eyed it on the ingredients list while spooning ice cream out of a carton or squeezing dressing onto your salad. Perhaps you've spotted it in a gluten-free recipe and wondered what it is. Is it a plant? A chemical? Is it bad for me?
Let xanthan gum be a mystery no longer! As ChefSteps cofounder and CEO Chris Young explains in the video below, it's a thickener and stabilizer -- one of those workhorse ingredients that keeps your salads dressed, your smoothies smooth and your gels gelled. A little xanthan goes a long way, making liquids creamy and solids sticky without ever diluting flavor or muddying the color. As a stabilizer, it holds oil and water together, which prevents you from, say, opening a package of cream cheese to find a shrunken block sitting in a puddle of moisture.
Xanthan gum is versatile, too. It works at a wide range of temperatures and pH conditions, so you can use it just as easily for soups as for sorbets. A final trick up this trusty thickener's sleeve: It makes liquids thixotropic, meaning they stay in gel form when motionless and turn to liquid when shaken or stirred -- a property that explains how ketchup can flow out of the bottle.
But is xantham gum natural? Yes. Like vinegar, beer, or sourdough starter, it's made through the fermentation of sugars -- in this case by the bacterial species Xanthomonas campestris, which you'd otherwise find causing leaf spot on broccoli, cauliflower or those pretty rows of kale you painstakingly nurtured at the community garden. After the bacteria do their work, the xanthan gum is purified, dried and made into the unassuming white powder you can find at the grocery store.
That's right... the grocery store. Look for it in the baking aisle or gluten-free section. If your local supermarket doesn't carry xanthan gum packets, you can try a health food store or order it online. Feel free to use it whenever you need a pinch of that thixotropic magic. At ChefSteps, we blend in just a few milligrams to make our milk-free "lattes" thick and foamy and our egg-free ice cream smooth and velvety. If you're on a gluten-free diet, a spoonful or two of xanthan gum will put the spring back in your bread, the fudginess back in your brownies, and the chewiness back in your chocolate chip cookies.
And if your friends raise their eyebrows at the funny-sounding name, just tell them xanthan gum is all natural. Or pass around some freshly baked, gluten-free cookies and watch everyone's doubts fade away.
Watch the video below for an up close and personal look at this fascinating ingredient!