If you enjoy baking or cooking, you’ve likely encountered recipes calling for arrowroot powder or xanthan gum. Both ingredients are commonly used as thickeners and emulsifiers, helping to add texture and prevent separation in sauces, soups, baked goods, and more.
However, while they share some similarities, arrowroot and xanthan gum have key differences you need to understand before deciding which to use. We’ll look closely at how these two popular ingredients compare, so you can determine when to use arrowroot vs. xanthan for the best results.
A Brief Overview of Arrowroot and Xanthan Gum
Let's start with a quick rundown of what each ingredient is and why it's commonly used:
Arrowroot is a fine, white starch powder extracted from the roots of tropical plants like cassava and tapioca. It's praised as a natural thickener and substitute for ingredients like flour or cornstarch. When mixed with cool liquids, it rapidly produces a clear, glossy gel that helps thicken sauces, puddings, fruit fillings, and gluten-free baked goods.
Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide additive created through bacterial fermentation of corn sugar. It's widely used as a thickener and emulsifier in many processed foods, including salad dressings, toothpaste, and even ice cream. Xanthan gum has a powerful thickening ability at very small doses. Just 1 tsp can thicken 1 cup of liquid. It creates a slimy, stable emulsion or gel when hydrated.
Key Takeaway: Arrowroot is a natural starch thickener extracted from plant roots. Xanthan gum is a additive polysaccharide thickener produced by bacterial fermentation.
Now that you have a basic understanding of each ingredient, let's delve deeper into the differences between them.
Comparing the Source and Creation of Arrowroot vs. Xanthan
The first major difference between these popular thickeners is their source and production:
- Arrowroot is extracted and purified from the starchy tubers of tropical plants like cassava, maranta arundinacea (the "true" arrowroot), and tapioca. The starch is washed out from the pulpy tuber mash and dried to produce the fine white arrowroot powder.
- Xanthan gum begins as a sugar solution derived from corn, wheat, or dairy. This is fermented with a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris. The bacterial digestion produces the xanthan gum polysaccharide, which is then dried and ground into a fine powder.
So arrowroot is a natural plant derivative, while xanthan relies on bacterial fermentation and human processing. This can influence consumer preferences based on food philosophies like veganism, paleo diets, or preferences for organic, non-GMO ingredients.
Taste and Flavor Impact of Each Thickener
Another difference between these options is their impact on a recipe's taste and flavor:
- Arrowroot has a neutral flavor and does not significantly alter the taste of a dish. It's often favored in sweet recipes like puddings, jellies, or fruit fillings where clarity of fruit flavor is desired.
- Xanthan gum has a slightly sour, bitter taste in larger quantities, due to the production of acids. This taste can come through in the finished recipe, especially in acidic foods. The flavor impact is minimized by using small ratios of xanthan.
So arrowroot is a better choice when you don't want to influence the original flavors of a recipe. But xanthan gum can still work well in small doses or for recipes where some acidity is desirable.
Thickening Power and Gelling Properties
The ability to thicken liquids into gels or emulsions is the primary use for both arrowroot powder and xanthan gum. However, they differ in thickening power:
- Arrowroot has moderate thickening ability. Usually, a ratio of 2 tsp per 1 cup of liquid is needed to create a significant viscosity change. It produces clear, glossy gels. However, arrowroot gels are not very strong and can break down with heavy mixing, high heat, or in acidic environments.
- Xanthan gum is a far more powerful thickener, with 10-20x the gelling power of starches. As little as 1/4 tsp can thicken 1 cup of liquid. It creates a slimy, velvety texture in liquids. Xanthan gels strongly resist shear thinning or breakdown.
So arrowroot requires more quantity for thickening, but xanthan creates much stronger, more stable gels at very small dosages. This makes xanthan gum preferable for acidic recipes or those requiring heavy mixing of the gel.
Reaction to Heat and Acidity
Another key difference between these thickeners is their reaction to heat and acidic ingredients. This determines which recipes they are best suited for:
- Arrowroot loses some thickening power and begins breaking down at temperatures above 79°C/175°F. Boiling it for too long can result in a thinner liquid. Arrowroot also begins to degrade in acidic environments below pH 4.5, so it works poorly in very acidic recipes.
- Xanthan gum is highly heat stable, withstanding boiling, baking, and retort canning temperatures without losing viscosity. It also readily thickens acidic liquids, making it ideal for recipes with vinegar, citrus juice, or wine.
So xanthan gum is the better choice for recipes involving intense heat or acidic ingredients. Meanwhile, arrowroot works better for quicker heating, gentle cooking, or non-acidic recipes.
Gluten-Free and Gut Health Considerations
Both arrowroot powder and xanthan gum are valued in special diets:
- Arrowroot is gluten-free and paleo diet-approved. It contains only trace carbs/calories and is easy to digest. This makes arrowroot useful for gluten-free baking or as a thickener for those with sensitive digestion.
- Xanthan gum is also gluten-free and keto-friendly. Some studies suggest it may also slow digestion, blunting glucose and cholesterol uptake. However, excess xanthan gum can cause bloating, gas, and laxative effects.
So those with celiac disease or on special diets like paleo can use either. But arrowroot may be better tolerated by those with very sensitive digestion.
Cost and Availability
The final difference we'll look at is cost and availability:
- Arrowroot powder is widely available at most supermarkets, health food stores, and online retailers. It's typically around $5-10 for a 1lb/500g bag. Organic or special arrowroot varieties cost more.
- Xanthan gum is also fairly widely available, sold with specialty baking goods or in the gluten-free aisle. However, it usually costs $10-15 for just a 2-4oz/50-100g bag. So you get much less quantity for a similar price as arrowroot.
So xanthan gum comes at a higher price per unit weight. But a little goes a long way, making it economical for recipes needing just a teaspoon or two.
Key Takeaway: Arrowroot has more availability and economy for bulk use. But xanthan gum offers unique gelling power at smaller doses, offsetting the higher price.
Quick Comparison Table
Here is a quick reference table summarizing some key differences between these two popular thickeners:
|Source||Tropical plant roots||Bacterial fermentation|
|Taste Impact||Neutral||Slightly bitter/acidic|
|Thickening Power||Moderate||Very high|
|Heat/Acid Stability||Degrades over 175°F/pH 4.5||Excellent heat/acid stability|
|Special Diet Suitability||Gluten-free, paleo||Gluten-free, keto|
|Cost||$-$$ for 500g+ bags||$$ for 50g bags|
Choosing the Best Thickener for Your Needs
So when should you choose arrowroot vs. xanthan gum for your recipes? Here are some guidelines:
- Use arrowroot when you need a neutral-tasting thickener for gentle heat recipes or low-acid foods. It works well in fruit fillings, puddings, broths, gravies, and gluten-free baking.
- Choose xanthan gum when you need to thicken acidic liquids or sauces involving high heat. Xanthan gum excellently thickens and emulsifies salad dressings, gluten-free baking, and frozen dessert bases.
- For general purpose use or cost savings, arrowroot offers excellent value and is easier to source in bulk. Xanthan gum is preferred for recipes where you need its specific gelling and stabilizing properties.
- Those following gluten-free, keto, or paleo diets can use either thickener. But arrowroot may be better tolerated for people with digestive sensitivities.
Key Takeaway: Arrowroot suits gentle cooking and neutral flavored recipes. Xanthan gum excels when intense thickening or heat/acid stability is needed.
Example Recipes Using Each Thickener
To give a better idea of appropriate uses for each ingredient, here are example recipes favoring arrowroot or xanthan:
- Fruit pie fillings
- Coconut pudding
- Homemade ketchup
- Dairy-free soups
- Gluten-free cookies
Xanthan Gum Recipes:
- Salad dressings
- Gluten-free bread
- Sauces with wine or vinegar
- Soups with lemon/tomato
- Dairy-free ice cream
This illustrates how arrowroot suits milder cooking with neutral flavors. Xanthan gum is ideal for intense flavors and conditions involving acid, heat, blending/vigorous mixing.
Possible Substitutions Between Arrowroot and Xanthan
Can arrowroot and xanthan gum be swapped in recipes? Generally, yes - but you need to adapt the ratios:
- As a rule of thumb, substitute 1 tsp xanthan gum for 2 tbsp arrowroot for similar thickening power.
- For gluten-free baking, you can replace 2 tbsp xanthan gum with 2 tsp arrowroot + 1 tbsp cornstarch.
- For thick sauces, swap 2 tbsp arrowroot for 3/4 tsp xanthan gum.
- When using xanthan gum as an arrowroot substitute, start with very small doses like 1/4 tsp per cup liquid, and gradually increase if needed.
Getting the xanthan gum to arrowroot substitution ratios right takes some trial and error. But with care, these versatile thickeners can often be swapped in recipes.
Key Takeaway: Xanthan gum and arrowroot can be substituted in small measured ratios, but the quantities must be properly adapted.
Is arrowroot healthier than xanthan gum?
Arrowroot can be considered healthier as it is an all-natural ingredient, while xanthan gum is a processed additive. Arrowroot also contains some fiber and nutrients, while xanthan gum has no nutritional value. However, xanthan gum is generally recognized as safe by food regulation bodies.
Can you use arrowroot instead of cornstarch?
Yes, arrowroot is an excellent substitute for cornstarch as a thickener. Simply replace cornstarch with an equal amount of arrowroot. Arrowroot creates clearer gels and has better performance in acidic foods.
Can you use arrowroot in place of flour?
Arrowroot doesn't contain gluten, so it can't fully replace the properties of wheat flour. But arrowroot can substitute 20-25% of the flour in recipes to lighten texture and increase moisture retention.
Is xanthan gum good for keto diets?
Yes, xanthan gum is a nearly zero-carb way to add thickness and moisture to keto recipes. But use it sparingly, as overdoing xanthan gum can cause digestive upset. 1/4-1/2 tsp per recipe is usually enough.
Is xanthan gum hard to digest?
Some people do experience bloating or laxative effects from xanthan gum. It can also inhibit the proper absorption of some medications. Start with small doses and avoid xanthan gum if you have IBS or other digestive conditions.
Arrowroot powder and xanthan gum are both incredibly useful for thickening and stabilizing foods. Understanding the differences in taste, reactivity, and gelling power will help you choose the right one for your baking, cooking, and special diet needs.
Whichever you choose, arrowroot and xanthan gum are pantry staples that offer versatility and functionality across a wide range of recipes - both sweet and savory. Now that you understand their unique properties, you can deploy them for maximum benefit in your kitchen creations.