Gluten, and to some extent starches make breads and cakes the bouncy, airy and spongey thing they are. They make doughs stick together, be elastic and malleable, so they can be pulled, stretched, twisted and shaped in a wide range of forms.
This elasticity importantly allows doughs to trap air during baking to create crumb, give lift, and produce the soft pillowey textures one associates with cakes and breads.
When you use almond flour, coconut flour or nut butter and get rid of the gluten and starches, you lose the elasticity and “togetherness” of the dough – it cracks, splits or crumbles because it’s got nothing to bind it together.
It also means the doughs have nothing to give them structures to expand and trap air. in baking, which result in dense and flat bricks rather than edible breads.
This is where these binders come in – like glues, they help hold the doughs together and make them (somewhat) elastic, to lend some of the properties starches and gluten give baked goods- minus the gluten and the sugars.
Do bear in mind that the three binders I go through below are all soluble fibres. Like all fibres they can have some effects on digestion, by helping to get “things”…. moving… (gastrointestinally speaking!). You might feel this particularly if you’re just starting to increase your fibre intake, but in of itself it is not a bad thing.
Note that technically egg is an amazing binder and multitasker: it helps dough stick to itself, and, especially when whipped heavily, gives incredible lift on its own (no need for leavening).
However, to get the same results (as gluten/starchy baked goods) you often need a HUGE amount of eggs per recipe (8, 10, even 12 eggs per bread!). For me, this is (usually) a waste of perfectly good eggs (which could be made into omelettes and infinite other dishes), and results in very cake-like breads in the best of cases, and very eggy (think scrambled eggs in loaf form!) soggy crumbs in the worst of cases. Use eggs wisely!
I quite literally dream of the day I manage to put together the exact combination and proportions of ingredients to result in a dough that properly springs back then proved and prodded. I’m not there yet, but I don’t lose hope.
In the meantime, the below three binders will do for now.
Psyllium husk is a soluble fibre that comes from the husks (shells) of the seeds of a plant (Plantago ovata).
You can find it in powder form, or in the larger husk granules (like the photo above, which I use), and is usually available in health/nutrition stores, some supermarkets and online.
When the psyllium is mixed with water and left to rest for a few minutes, it increases in size by absorbing the liquid and becomes a gooey, slimy paste. When added to almond/coconut flours, it results in more cohesive, elastic and springy doughs.
Recipes rarely call for huge amounts of psyllium husk, because it bulks up and we usually only use it for it’s gel-like qualities, so a little goes a long way.
The one quirk psyllium husk does have is that some brands can turn the baked goods a multiple range of shades of purple! Whilst the purple hues may make the finished product look rather odd, it does not affect the taste, consistency or edibility of the product. It’s a matter of doing a bit of research and trying out a few brands until you hit one that is purple-free!
Xanthan gum is also a soluble fibre, created through a process of fermenting sugars with a bacteria (Xanthomonas campestris) which occurs naturally in some foods.
The result is ground into a fine powder which you can find in the baking section of some large supermarkets or online.
Like psyllium, when you mix xanthan gum into doughs (or anything) with moisture/water, it becomes a goo-like substance that makes doughs stick together and become elastic.
People have conflicted opinions about xanthan gum: as a soluble fibre it helps get the digestive system moving which in large quantities causes havoc with some people; and because it’s produced in a lab some people are uncomfortable with using it.
However, know that it already is an ingredient in a huge amount of products you usually use, from chewing gums and gummies; to toothpaste, shampoo and shower gel; to even commercial soups, sauces and salad dressings!
In baking it can generally be substituted by psyllium or guar gum, but I don’t have any experience with this.
Like psyllium, we only use it for it’s gel-like qualities so I don’t use it on everything. Recipes usually call for quite small quantities of it (1tsp or so at a time), so I am happy to use it when I feel it’s needed.
Too much xanthan gum and you can end up with a gummy rubber rather than a pillowey bread, so do use with care!
Flaxseed are, well, as the name implies, tiny seeds from the flax plant. There are two types- golden and brown, and I find they’re interchangeable, although the brown tends to have a stronger nutty flavour.
It is considered a “superfood”, packed with omega-3 and fibre, so you can find flaxseed in most supermarkets and health stores, either in seed form (above), or ground up as flaxseed meal.
When flaxseed is mixed with water, like psyllium and xanthan gum, it becomes a gooey paste. This happens whether the flaxseeds are whole or ground up, but the finer they’re ground the more homogenous the goo will be, so the stickier and better for baking.
I only buy flax seeds (not meal) as sometimes I use the whole seeds (in cakes or crackers, for example) and it only takes a few seconds to blitz/pulse it into a powder in a dry food processor/grinder if needed.
Also, because flaxseed is an oily seed it’s better to grind it right before using to keep the oils from going rancid. In any case, store the linseed (ground or not) in the fridge to preserve its freshness.
I find flaxseed is less glue-like than xanthan gum or psyllium, so when used for those purposes you end up needing more quantity. This is not bad as of itself, and I quite like the subtle nutty taste it brings, but some people are not huge fans and prefer not to taste and use smaller amounts.
Know, though, that flaxseed and water is a great substitute for egg in certain cases if you want to go vegan (or have run out of eggs!) – but more on this later.