By Fred Decker

Health food stores and the natural foods section of your supermarket are filled with strange powders of uncertain importance, and until you need one, they all look rather the same. If you find yourself needing to deal with a dietary restriction, though, they can quickly become staples in your kitchen. If you choose to go low-carb or are forced to go gluten-free, for example, guar gum can quickly become a common item in your pantry. Even if you don't have any dietary restrictions, it's an intriguing ingredient with some very interesting uses.

Selection of various gluten free flour
credit: yulka3ice/iStock/GettyImages

First, Here’s What It Is

A lot of the ingredients you see in commercial foods are mystery chemicals from a factory. Guar gum isn't one of those. It's actually made from a bean that grows in India and Pakistan. Beans in general are high in soluble fiber, and guar beans are higher than most. Guar gum is that soluble fiber, extracted and refined. When you mix it into liquids, it sets into a gel, so it's useful to cooks in a lot of ways.

Add It to Your GF Baking

One of the biggest challenges you'll face when you're switching to a gluten-free lifestyle is coming up with baked goods that have the right kind of texture. That's because one of gluten's main roles in flour is providing the elasticity that gives bread its fluffiness and chewiness. Other baked goods, such as cookies, biscuits and quick breads, don't rely on the gluten as much, but it's still part of what gives them their texture. If you're baking with flours that don't have gluten, adding guar gum can help give your doughs and batters some of that same elasticity you'd normally get from gluten. For breads, you may need up to a tablespoon of the powder for every cup of gluten-free flour, but for less-demanding uses, recipes might call for as little as 1/4 teaspoon.

Thicken Sauces With It

Thickening sauces isn't as difficult to do without gluten, because if you can't use flour, there are other starches such as cornstarch, arrowroot, tapioca and potato starch to fall back on. It's more complicated if you're low-carbing, because all those starches are refined carbohydrates. Guar gum makes a pretty effective replacement thickener in either case, giving you a nicely translucent sauce without changing its appearance. Guar gum has one major advantage over those other thickeners, because it actually doesn't need heat to do its job. That means you can use it to thicken things like salad dressings or smoothies, as well as gravies and other hot sauces.

Challenge Yourself With It

Guar gum makes a useful tool when you're working around special dietary requirements, but it's a fascinating ingredient with lots of uses beyond sheer necessity. If you're looking to expand your culinary horizons, guar gum can help you achieve some pretty cool effects. If you add it to frozen desserts like ice cream or homemade freezer pops, for example, it helps give them a smoother, softer consistency instead of freezing hard. A sauce that's thickened with guar gum can be frothed into a stable foam that you can spoon over your foods for a restaurant-style presentation.

If you don't like the high-sugar content of conventional jams, you can use guar gum to turn berries or fruit into fresh-tasting refrigerator jam instead. This little handful of suggestions is barely the tip of the iceberg, so once you've added guar gum to your pantry, it's worth digging through recipe sites for additional ways to use it.