If my email box is any indictor, some of you have been wondering if psyllium husk REALLY is the next best thing since sliced gluten-free bread. This bulk laxative, fiber supplement, and colon cleanser is produced from the seed of the Plantago plant (a plant that has a long history of medicinal use here on earth).
I wondered about it, too, especially since several cookbook writers and many bloggers started using it a couple of years ago to replace xanthan gum across a wide range of recipes. I tried it back then in my favorite vanilla cupcake test and didn’t really like it. The cupcakes came out an off-color, denser, gummier, and they had a taste that wasn’t like a normal vanilla cupcake; i.e. if you didn’t already know by the color and density, then the off-taste gave it away as a gluten-free cupcake. (I had used this same test as when I wrote The Big Gluten-Free Flour Test: Thomas Keller’s Cup4Cup versus Authentic Foods GF Classic Blend.)
But just recently, a new gluten-free cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen claiming “revolutionary techniques” and “groundbreaking recipes” said psyllium husks powder was far better than xanthan gum in gluten-free bread. In fact, the cookbook said it “resulted in a more delicate crumb” and “provided a stronger protein network that trapped gas and steam” in their bread recipes. Sounded like I needed to do a little more testing! Trouble was, I didn’t want to make their bread. It had mostly white rice and starch in it (34 ounces out of a total 42.25 ounces, or 80%), with only a little brown rice flour thrown in almost as an after thought (to reduce the “starchiness” of all the starch they added, and to “add flavor notes” to all the flavorless starches they used). I stopped using rice flour in bread back in 2003 and even though I test flour mixes that contain it every now and then, I’ve never returned to it. I not only like the taste and texture of bread made with my millet and sorghum bread flour mix, but I think we need gluten-free flour diversity in our diet. Even though I don’t eat a lot of baked goods, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use rice flour in every baked good we do make (wasn’t that part of the problem with wheat- that it was everywhere?).
First consideration: I needed to create a test that made sense for my recipes and my bread flour mix which contains millet, sorghum, potato starch, tapioca starch and corn starch. Would psyllium husks powder work with flour blends and recipes that weren’t in the new “groundbreaking” cookbook? Yes, according to the blogosphere where there are hundreds (if not thousands) of permutations of various gluten-free recipes using psyllium husk in place of xanthan gum.
Second consideration: I needed a bread recipe so simple and basic that the nuances of the effect of the psyllium husks powder would be obvious to me. The bread recipe would have to have very few ingredients, so I could see what happened when I took out the xanthan gum and replaced it psyllium husk. Otherwise, why bother adding another new expensive ingredient I didn’t need? I already had a recipe that worked well.
And to those of you who really hate the idea of xanthan gum because it comes the secretions of the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria after a glucose induced fermentation frenzy, well I can’t talk you out of it. But I’m personally ok with helpful bacteria and the science behind how xanthan gum is produced from corn or wheat or cabbage glucose (glucose is sugar- not protein). Anyway, according to microbiologists the world over, especially those who are working at the American Gut project, we are all filled with lots of helpful bacteria – and their excrement. I’m thinking a little more bacterial excrement now and then isn’t going tip the balance in my body.
And to those of you think psyllium husk is healthier than xanthan gum because it gives you added fiber, my thought is this: ideally, we should be getting our soluble and insoluble fiber from natural, whole plant sources because in addition to feeding the healthy flora in our guts, real whole foods offer nutrition to our bodies (plant sources including cruciferous vegetables, leafy green vegetables, squash, sweet potatoes, nuts, seeds, and fruit, especially pears, apples, and berries). 100% pure Psyllium husk is simply empty calories.
And to those of you who are really just looking to be more “regular”, I’ve heard rumors that butternut squash is the “white knight of poop”. Just saying.
The Submarine Sandwich Bread – Psyllium Husks Powder Test
I choose my very basic and easy to make Submarine Sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Baking Classics. It’s so easy that I use it in “introduction” classes to gluten-free baking. The bread contains only 1 1/2 cups of my bread flour mix, 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum, active dry yeast, water, and a tiny bit of salt, sugar, and olive oil. No eggs. No milk. No other funky gluten-free add-ins – other than the xanthan gum. The recipe reads like a wheat submarine sandwich bread recipe, except for the flour and the xanthan gum, and it makes a good tasting, golden brown loaf with a nice soft, airy crumb structure.
I also choose this particular recipe because it has a nice slow rise; i.e. it isn’t fast rising like a pizza crust or bread sticks. I wanted to take psyllium husk out for a proper test run.
I did a lot looking into just how much psylliun husk to use and I can only say that there doesn’t seem to be any set rule for home bakers. Every cookbook writer or blogger seems to have their own notion about just how much to use. And that notion seems to depend on the flour mix, or lack there of, and the baked good they’re trying to make. The first non-industrial baking recipes to use psyllium husk for came out in cookbooks and on websites for individuals with diabetes and people who were trying to keep their glycemic levels low by adding fiber to their diet. Since then, writers recommend using anywhere from a tiny bit to 5 or 6 tablespoons per loaf.
Even London based food writer, Dan Lepard, who seems to be one of the first food writers to popularize the notion of adding psyllium husk to gluten-free baked goods, did so to add fiber (in May, 2009). Scroll down to the question “What about fiber?”
Of course, he also said it gave his mostly cornstarch bread (“cornflour” in England) a crumb and crust “more like wheat bread”. But he used it with xanthan gum in that first published bread recipe (link above). And he uses a little more than 2 tablespoons of it (25 grams). That’s a lot of colon cleanser.
In a later recipe without xanthan gum, Lepard used 50 grams (there are about 10 grams per tablespoon) and dairy, and another 25 to 50 grams of flax seed in his all cornstarch bread. Then, some time after Dan Lepard’s column ran in The Guardian, psyllium husk went from being used as a fiber add-in to a texture enhancer to a stand-alone replacement for xanthan gum for home bakers.
In reality, psyllium husk was being studied as a possible substitute for gluten in industrially produced gluten-free breads as far back as the early 1990s (when Bette Hagman introduced the first gluten-free” flour mix”, xanthan gum, and the use of extra eggs, egg whites, and powdered milk to gluten-free home bakers). But again, depending on the proportions, the flours and the other ingredients used (which often included dairy, eggs, bread enzymes, or other highly processed ingredients) the industrial testing results varied widely.
I decided to test three combinations: 1 level tablespoon psyllium husks powder, 2 level tablespoons psyllium husks powder and 1 level teaspoon psyllium husks powder against 1 level teaspoon xanthan gum in my submarine sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Baking Classics.
I shaped the bread a little longer and thinner than a regular submarine sandwich bread and baked it in a 2 1/2-inch wide French bread pan. I used Yerba Primi Psyllium Husks Powder that I purchased at a Whole Foods for $9.49 for a 12 ounce jar (a jar that wouldn’t last too long if I were using the same amounts that Dan Lepard and many others use in their breads).
The Test: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Gluten-free submarine sandwich bread – shape and size
Top made with 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
Bottom made with 1 tablespoon psyllium husks powder
Gluten-free submarine sandwich bread – surface texture
Top made with 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
Bottom made with 1 tablespoon psyllium husks powder
Gluten-free submarine sandwich bread side by side slice
Left made with 1 tablespoon psyllium husk powder
Right made with 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
How did the bread made with 2 tablespoons of psyllium husk powder turn out? When it came out of the oven it was really tight and small. Interestingly, so was the bread made with only 1 teaspoon. So how do I explain it all?
The final loaf volume of gluten-free loaves depends on the stability of the gel formed by the hydrocolloids added to the dough. Xanthan gum is a thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier and foaming agent. It provides structure and is stable over a broad range of temperatures. Pyllium husk, however, forms a gel that is stable only up to temperatures of about 176ºF (80ºC) (1), depending on the amount used in the recipe.
So while psyllium husk is very useful for holding in the carbon dioxide based gas bubbles during proofing, once you put the bread into a hot oven and it starts to bake and the internal temperature rises, the loaf will ultimately collapse – IF you are depending only on psyllium husk to give structure to the bread.
Many of the cookbook writers or bloggers who feel they are successfully creating baked goods using psyllium husk to replace xanthan gum create recipes that contain eggs. For example, all the recipes in the ATK’s new “groundbreaking” cookbook use 2 large eggs and 3 tablespoons of psyllium husk powder to make a bread that is 80% starch and contains a little more than 3 cups of flour.
What is happening in their recipes is this: at the point where the psyllium husk starts to fail as a gel, if the bread contains tapioca starch or even potato starch (which many do), the tapioca starch can act like a bridge until the egg proteins take over to help hold the bread up. The tapioca is able to act like a bridge because it gelatinizes at a higher temperature than psylium husk (or potato starch, for that matter). Then, the proteins in the egg provide some of the structure necessary to hold the bread up. But if you’ve ever made a bread that uses just eggs, and no xantham gum, for extra added support, you already know that the xantham gum does a better job.
Writers whose recipes don’t contain eggs, often contain other seeds, sometimes in large quantities. And some cookbook writers and bloggers create recipes that really just rely on a combination of heavier whole grain or non-grain flours that would produce a pretty solid bread (read: dense) with or without psyllium husk.
The recipes that depend on other seed gels (like flax seed gel) instead of eggs to help the psyllium husks powder provide structure have a similar problem. Although I sometimes use flax seed gel as an egg replacer when I bake for people who have egg allergies, it really is better suited to helping hold things together (as an emulsifier). Flax gels are weak structure builders because they don’t have the relatively strong protein network of eggs to reinforce dough and batters. As a result, fully baked cakes, muffins and breads won’t be as light and airy when using flax seed gels to replace eggs. (Flax seed gel also won’t act as a foaming agent, which you would need to make an angle food cake).
Xanthan gum makes a prettier, better textured, better tasting, lighter and more airy bread than psyllium husk in my simple submarine bread recipe. Perhaps if I had to add eggs or egg whites to it in order to create a decent loaf, the test outcome would be different. But I don’t. The recipe doesn’t contain seed gels, or any other out-of- the-ordinary gluten-free add-ins. In fact, none of my artisan breads contain do: not my Focaccia, French-Italian bread, pizza crust, multigrain artisan bread, or any of the rest. My thinking when I developed these recipes was this: wheat pizza crusts and wheat baguettes don’t contain eggs or gels; I wanted to maintain the integrity of original recipes to the best of my abilities. I won’t be adding eggs or seed gels to any of my artisan breads, so it looks like I’ll be sticking with xanthan gum- at least for now.
The bottom line is this: it is possible to use psyllium husk to replace xanthan gum in gluten-free breads. You just have understand that your end product will look and taste even more like a gluten-free bread.
(1) Haque, A., Richardson, R. K., Morris, E. R., & Dea, I. C. M. (1993). Xanthan-like weak gel rheology from dispersions of ispaghula seed husk. Carbohydrate Polymers, 22(4), 223-232.