Starches and binders have the unique ability to hold a lot of liquid, and are valuable when cooking and baking gluten-free. Many starches and binders also act in a similar manner to gluten, and can help to bind the liquids and the flours together, creating a sticky dough, and fluffy (as opposed to crumbly) baking. These starches and binders are very neutral in taste, and can enhance the end result without influencing the overall flavor; however, they do not have as much nutritional value as grains and flours. They are considered secondary ingredients, and are used more sparingly than other flours when baking.
Arrowroot Powder (Flour) Arrowroot flour is harvested from the rhizomes of a plant that grows in the Caribbean; it is not a grain product. It is nutritionally limited, but very easy to digest, and can be used as a gluten-free flour in baking. It works well in combination with other flours. It also works well as well as a thickening ingredient fruit sauces and desserts, but is not recommended to be used for meat gravies or dairy products, as it can give them a slimy texture. When thickening a sauce, arrowroot powder is best mixed into a small amount of water until dissolved (which is also known as making a slurry), and then added to the mixture at the end of cooking, as continued heat will make it loose it thickness. One tablespoon with thicken one cup of liquid.
Corn Starch is a familiar ingredient, known to thicken sauces, puddings, and gravies, and end up in holiday shortbread. Corn starch is made from the center part of the corn kernel. Baking with corn starch adds lightness, and works well in combination with other flours. When adding cornstarch to a liquid, it is first important to make a slurry with the corn starch. One tablespoon of corn starch can thicken one cup of liquid. However, products made with cornstarch do not freeze well.
Gelatin is an animal by-product. It is used in yogurts, puddings, marshmallows, and gummy candies, and can be found in gluten-free baking as well. It is also used to replace fat and volume in low-fat products. It is worth sourcing out organic, and/ or grass fed labeled gelatin products, as it is an animal product. If a recipe calls for gelatin, and you would rather not use this product, try experimenting with the other starches listed here to achieve the same volume and texture.
Guar Gum is derived from the Guar plant, which is primarily grown in India. Guar gum is extracted from the outer part of the seed or bean of the plant, and is considered a form of dietary fiber. A very small amount is needed to thicken a product, and it is most commonly found in dairy products, and dairy alternatives because it is so good at suspending solids. It has eight times the thickening ability of cornstarch. However, like cornstarch, it does not freeze well.
Potato Starch is made from the extracted starch of the potato. I actually have a recipe that includes a woman’s recollection of her mother making potato starch by shredding the potatoes, squeezing out the starch onto cookie sheets, and then placing the sheets out in the sun to dry, resulting in a very fine potato powder! Potato starch is a good thickener, and also works well in baking, in combination with other flours. When planning to freeze baking, it is recommended to use potato starch in the flour mixture.
Psyllium Husks are a product of the Psyllium plant, which also grows primarily in India. The outer layer of the seed, called the husk, is a form of insoluble fiber, and is used commonly as dietary fiber. It can create a very gelatinous texture in sauces and soups., and should be used sparingly. It can also be used in gluten-free baking, acting as a binder and creating volume, as it absorbs so much liquid.
Tapioca Starch (Flour) is made from the dried cassava root, and is therefore grain-free as well as gluten-free. it’s growing regions include South America, Asia, and Africa. It has very few nutrients, and is virtually flavorless. It can be used to thicken sauces and gravies. It is also commonly used in gluten-free baking when used in combination with other flours.
Zanthan Gum is heavily relied upon in gluten-free baking. It has the ability to bind gluten-free flours and starches together in a way that mimics the texture of cakes, pastries, and muffins made with wheat flour. It is made from the outer layer of an inactive bacterium. While it is completely safe to consume, it is on the list of at-risk foods for GMO cross-contamination, and is worth the effort to find a reliable source for this product. Most recipes require 1-1 1/2 teaspoons of zanthan gum, so while it seems pricey, a little goes a long way.