Ever wonder about this mystical term – xanthan gum – that you read on the labels of gluten-free baked goods? What is it? Why is it? How can you use it to your gluten-free advantage? In this season of homemade sweets, we all want to know how to give our gluten-free baked goods that little bit of chewy texture we’ve been missing all these years.

Xanthan gum is a great friend to the gluten-free baker. It adds viscosity to baked goods, replacing the elasticity that is lost when gluten proteins are omitted from recipes. Its name is a bit mysterious (the lead-off letter “X” will add intrigue to any word), so I was surprised to discover that word “Xanthan” is actually a clue to the origins of this GF kitchen staple. This natural thickener is derived by fermenting sugar by Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria which causes black rot on vegetables, like the kind you see on broccoli. Xanthan gum is well-known in the gluten-free world, but it has other uses, especially where viscosity or a gel-like consistency is needed. For example, xanthan gum is used in many salad dressings, ice creams, sauces, creamy cosmetics, and toothpastes.

Xanthan gum is not cheap; half a pound from Bob’s Red Mill will cost you twelve bucks. Fortunately, a little xanthan gum goes a long way in recipes, so if you’re going to be doing a lot of gluten-free baking from scratch, it’s worth the initial investment. It comes in the form of a white powder, and most recipes only call for a teaspoon or two. Once you learn the name, you’ll see it everywhere: almost all gluten-free recipes for bread, pizza crust, cakes, or cookies require xanthan gum and it can be found on most of the ingredient labels for gluten-free baked goods and gluten-free baking mixes.

So let’s hear it for xanthan gum, your mighty ally in the gluten-free kitchen! How do you use it to make your gluten-free baked goods better?