Believe it or not, the smooth creamy texture of your favorite brand of ice cream doesn’t actually come from the cream itself. A relatively new culinary innovation called xanthan gum is what you’re actually feeling. If the mouthfeel of your homemade attempts are missing the mark, this curious substance might be the ingredient you’re lacking.
But creating texture is just one culinary use for xanthan. Naturally, it derives a bit of skepticism from purists. After all, it’s cultivated from the strain of bacterium responsible for black rot in leafy greens. However, since the FDA cleared it for consumption in the 1960’s, it’s been sought for its ability to stabilize emulsions and suspend small solid particles. It’s especially popular in gluten-free products due to its ability to create “sticky” or doughy consistencies hard to attain without gluten.
Just as working with xanthan in a culinary context can accomplish a variety of tasks, there are a lot of ways of food styling with xanthan gum. Because of its versatility, there’s no one way of working with it. Being able to manipulate attributes like viscosity is incredibly helpful when it comes to getting food to maintain an organic look while simultaneously increasing workability.
Say, for instance, you’re photographing a turkey dinner. In such a scenario, a little bit of gravy is a necessity to communicate that the dish isn’t dry. However, it would likely roll off the sides of the roast, inevitably soaking up into sides of mashed potatoes. Styling with xanthan gum could provide the gravy with a little bit of thickness to really help it stand out.
Xanthan gum is far from the first thickening agent to pass by our periphery. However, it’s got a major advantage over more traditional options such as cornstarch or gelatin. Styling with xanthan gum takes very little guesswork, as concentrations of less than 0.5% can produce dramatic results. What’s more, it’s effectiveness means that just a few ounces can last even the most prolific food stylists quite a while. Don’t be hesitant to embrace the unusual origins and nature of xanthan gum. With practice, it can improve the appearance of anything from pudding to pineapple juice.