When it comes to making sauces and soups at home, most home cooks use cornstarch (6 carbs per tablespoon), arrowroot (1 carb per tablespoon), and or potato starch (7 carbs per tablespoon) as thickeners. Of the three, cornstarch is the cheapest, most readily available, and therefore the most common. Made from corn, it of course contains carbohydrates, not a lot mind you, but enough to make a difference, especially if you are on a strict low carbohydrate high fat (LCHF) diet. While there are a few slight instances when I will still use a minimal amount of cornstarch as a breading or coating enhancer, like many LCHF / Keto devotees, I stared using xanthan gum (7 carbs per tablespoon) as my thickener of choice. At first glance, xanthan gum seems like a poor choice for a LCHF / Keto diet thickener as 1 tablespoon contains 7 to 8 grams of carbohydrates, however, it also contains 7 to 8 grams of fiber, which means that it is not absorbed by the gut making it zero net carbs. Since it is zero net carbs, it is an excellent LCHF / Keto thickener. Having said that, what exactly is xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum is a thickener used in many commercial sauces that you find on your grocers shelves, most commonly salad dressings and sauces. It is very popular among the gluten free community to give some body to baked goods that are made with non-gluten flours (almond, coconut, etc.) for people who are gluten intolerant. Of all the common thickening agents it is probably the most expensive, but a little xanthan gum goes a long way. Most often xanthan gum comes in a powdered form, but a few manufacturers offer it in a granular form, but they are both used in the same fashion. The xanthan gum I use which I purchased at Walmart comes in small 1 tablespoon packets, but it is available in bulk on the internet.
In the medical field in which I work, xanthan gum is used in products designed to thicken liquids for patients with dysphagia (trouble swallowing). Two of the brands that I have personally seen are 'Thick-it Clear Advantage', and 'ThickenUp Clear'. It should be noted that these products also generally contain a small amount of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and maltodextrin (for bulk to make measurement easier), therefore larger quantities are needed to thicken liquids. You should not be using these thickeners, so if you have a family member that is using any of these, leave them alone, the maltodextrin contains too many additional carbohydrates. The xanthan gum that we will be using to thicken liquids should not have either of these ingredients. In fact, the only ingredients listed on the package should be xanthan gum. So now that you know what xanthan gum is, let's see how to use it.
Measuring Xanthan Gum By Weight (Most Accurate)
The most accurate way to add xanthan gum to a liquid is to do so by first weighing the amount of liquid you want to thicken, determine how thick you want the liquid, and then add the appropriate amount of xanthan gum by weight. Generally, less than 0.5% per weight of the liquid is required to achieve the desired thickness of most liquids. I have included the most common percentages per weight of the thickening power of xanthan gum to achieve a desired thickness of a sauce. This is of course subjective, but it is a good starting point.
An emulsion: 0.1% (0.225 grams of xanthan gum)
Light or thin sauce: 0.1 – 0.3% (0.225 – 0.675 grams of xanthan gum)
Medium or moderately thick sauce 0.3 – 0.6% (0.675 – 1.35 grams of xanthan gum)
Heavy or thick sauce: 0.7 – 1% (1.575 – 2.25 grams of xanthan gum)
For example: One cup of water (8 ounces per volume) weighs 8.3 ounces per weight or 225 grams. Therefore if you are making a light sauce, you would use: 0.225 – 0.675 grams (225 x 0.1% = 0.225) of xanthan gum. For a medium or thicker sauce, you would use: 0.675 – 1.35 grams of xanthan gum, and for a thick or heavy sauce, you would use 1.575 – 2.25 grams of xanthan gum.
Measuring Xanthan Gum Using Household Measurements (Least Accurate, but Most Common)
Because many home cooks here in the United States do not have a scale that weighs in grams and even when they do, many prefer to use common household measurements. I am no different, even though I have a scale that weighs in grams, I use common household measurements simply because it is fast and efficient and I have the experience of thickening liquids after cooking for eighteen years in a professional kitchen. Therefore, for those of you who want to use common household measuring spoons, I have included the following information to help give you a starting point to help you thicken your sauces using xanthan gum.
1 teaspoon weighs about 2.5 grams
¾ teaspoon weighs about 1.875 grams
½ teaspoon weighs about 1.25 grams
¼ teaspoon weighs about 0.625 grams
1/8 teaspoon weighs about 0.3125 grams
When using common household measuring spoons, I would start with the spoon size slightly smaller than the thickness of the sauce that you desire. This allows you to add some additional xanthan gum as needed just in case your sauce is slightly thinner than you desire. It is always easier to thicken a sauce by adding more xanthan gum, than it is to thin a sauce that is too thick. The following measurements will thicken 1 cup of liquid to the follow states. Keep in mind that the thickness of your sauce can be subjective, or a matter of perspective, but I have tried to include the best descriptors that I can.
1 teaspoon, really thick or heavy sauce, almost pudding like consistency.
3/4 teaspoon, creates a thick or heavy sauce, similar to a blond roux.
1/2 teaspoon, creates a medium thick sauce, that pours in dollops.
3/8 teaspoon, creates a medium sauce, similar to pancake syrup.
1/4 teaspoon, creates a medium thin sauce that just coats the back of a spoon.
1/8 teaspoon, creates a very light or thin sauce, similar to a lite syrup.
Using these household measurements may create a sauce that is slightly less thick than if you measured out the xanthan gum by weight, but you can always add a little more a pinch or sprinkle at a time depending on your preference. When using this method, whatever the size of the teaspoon (1, ¾, ½, ¼, or 1/8th), try and use a level amount of xanthan gum per measuring spoon to insure the most accurate measures.
Chef's Note: When using xanthan gum, I combine all of my sauce ingredients in the bowl first, then start adding the xanthan gum 1/8 of a teaspoon at a time. Allow the xanthan gum to sit for 1 – 2 minutes to give it time to come to it's full thickening potential before adding additional gum as needed.
Putting It All Together
While xanthan gum is a great thickener, but when not used carefully, your sauce can get lumpy. So in this section of the article I am going to share a few techniques that I use to avoid creating a lumpy sauce. First, and foremost, do not dump the entire contents of the xanthan gum into your sauce at one time as it will definitely clump, and leave you with little blobs of varying size ruining your sauce. Xanthan gum needs to be added in small amounts so that it can be totally incorporated into the liquid in order to reach it's potential thickening powder. The following steps or techniques are the ones that I use in order to make sure my sauces and soups are nice and thick and not clumpy.
Technique Number 1 – When making a small amount of sauce (1 to 2 cups) I mix my sauce by hand starting out using 1/8 measurements at a time. This may take more time, but it does help to get the xanthan gum more even distributed when mixing. I hold the measuring spoon with one hand at about a 45 degree angle over the bowl containing my liquid and lightly tap it with my finger, while mixing the sauce in the bowl with a wire whip. This method works almost flawlessly, but requires a little dexterity.
Technique Number 2 – When making large amounts of sauce, I prefer is to get my immersion blender and place it in the pot or saucepan of the liquid to be thickened and start the blender, then slowly add the measured out amount of powdered xanthan gum needed to thicken my liquid. Using this method, I have the least clumping issues as the xanthan gum generally gets totally incorporated before it has time to clump up, but it still happens on occasion. If you decide to use this method when blending hot liquids you must take extra precaution as you can easily get burned.
Technique Number 3 – Not really a separate technique, but more of a process. When making soups or stews which require thickening, I make a one cup batch of heavy sauce and add it to the soup or stew as opposed to trying to thicken the soup or stew after it has been cooked. This technique works especially well for gumbos and chowders which require thickening. The amount of heavy sauce that you add to the soup, gumbo, or stew depends on how thick you want your final product to be.
There are probably many other tips and techniques on the world wide web on using xanthan gum, but these three are the ones that I use whenever I need to use xanthan gum to thicken a liquid. While they work extremely well, I realize that they are not the only viable methods, so experiment and find out what works best for you.
Chef's Note: Almost all of the sauces that we made in the restaurant that required arrowroot, cornstarch, potato starch or other thickening agents were strained through a cheesecloth to ensure that it was super smooth regardless of the talent of the chef. At home I never do this, but comfort cooking is defiantly different than professional cooking. My point being, if your sauce has small lumps then simply strain them out with a small strainer, that's what the professionals do.
Gastrointestinal Discomfort (A side note)
Xanthan gum is an effective laxative (it has about 7 grams of fiber per tablespoon), and some people are more sensitive to it than others. Users on some of the gluten free and Ketogenic / LCHF forums mention it's laxative effect, and some have complained of a bloating feeling. Used in larger quantities, xanthan gum is defiantly an effective laxative, but when used in small quantities such as when making sauces, most people show not signs of these effects. Personally, I have, nor have any of my family had any of these experiences, but that doesn't mean that yours will not.
Used not only in commercial sauces as a thickening agent, xanthan gum has been used in the medical field for some time as a thickening agent for patient's suffering from dysphagia. Because all of the carbohydrates from xanthan gum come from fiber, it is not digested by the gastrointestinal (GI) system making it essentially carbohydrate free. So if you are looking for a LCHF / Keto thickening agent for your sauces, soups, chowders and stews that will not kick you out of ketosis, then xanthan gum just may be for you. While in rare cases some individuals may have some slight GI discomfort, the majority of people who use xanthan gum do not experience any of these effects.
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10 Facts About Xanthan Gum, www.foodeducate.com, Accessed May 10, 2017
How To Use Xanthan Gum, Amazing Food Made Easy, Accessed May 11, 2017