I was recently talking with my wife and wondered why and how is lecithin used in baking and cooking. I know how to use it to make bread but I wondered what else it could be used for. So, I did some research and some actual testing to find common ways that lecithin is used in both baking and cooking.
So, how and why do you use lecithin in baking and cooking? The two biggest reasons to use lecithin are to mix two things together that don’t want to be mixed (emulsify them) and to add a natural preservative for shelf life. How to use lecithin is a bit trickier question and is mostly determined by what you are trying to bake or cook and what you are trying to achieve. I’ll go into more detail below.
Why Use Lecithin in the Kitchen?
First, lecithin is a natural preservative and will add shelf life to whatever you’re baking or cooking. If you look at the ingredients of most commercial goods, you will notice lecithin in almost everything. That is because it will add shelf life to products without adding any harmful chemicals.
Second, and maybe more importantly, it is a great emulsifier. “Emulsifier” is a fancy way to say that it helps two or more things mix together better. The definition of emulsifier is “a substance that stabilizes a mixture, such as a food additive used to stabilize foods.”
An example of this is trying to get oil and vinegar to mix together for a dressing. You can put them together and mix them with a whisk and they seem to mix together. However, this emulsion, will only be temporary and soon they will separate. If you add an emulsifier such as lecithin to this and then mix it together the emulsion will stabilize and become more permanent. This is because the oil and vinegar are now bonded together. The lecithin has one side of it that likes oil and one side of it that likes vinegar so it links them together. The best way for me to visualize this is to think of Legos. They have one side that has bumps and one side that receives the bumps. One side likes the bumps and one side likes the holes so it joins them together and holds them there. As you know, there are many ingredients in cooking and baking that don’t mix well or need to be smoother or more consistent so this is why you would use lecithin in cooking. I know in baking bread it will make the dough hold together better and help it rise more making it lighter and fluffier.
Forms of Lecithin
There are three main forms of lecithin that can be used in baking and cooking. The three forms are liquid lecithin, lecithin granules, and lecithin powder. As I researched this across the internet, it appears that each form is preferred by different people. My favorite is liquid because I feel like you can use it for all forms of cooking and baking. Let’s review each of the forms.
Liquid Lecithin – Liquid soy lecithin has a brown or almost light yellow color, almost no odor and a very bland taste. In a glass container I think it has a color very similar to motor oil although the consistency is much different. It is a little more runny than honey and it is messier than honey. It doesn’t come off of surfaces very easily (it sticks to ingredients too as talked about above) and it is hard to clean up. That is one reason I really like the Fast Easy Bread lecithin because it comes in a squeezable bottle that helps prevent messes. Another tip I’ve learned from my wife to avoid messes is to indent the amount of lecithin you need into the dry ingredients and then squeeze the liquid lecithin directly into the ingredients. Liquid lecithin doesn’t need to be dissolved to be used where powder and granules do. Lecithin can be used in cooking to make foams or emulsions (mixtures). One side effect of liquid lecithin is that it may have more influence on the color of the finished product than the powder or granules. Usually this isn’t much of a problem because you use such little amounts.
Powder Lecithin – Powder lecithin is lecithin that has had all the moisture removed from the lecithin and has been blended into a fine powder. Powder lecithin is usually referred to as oil-free lecithin because it has had all of the natural soybean oil removed. Because it’s finer than granules, it usually dissolves faster and easier than the granules. It doesn’t have any color side effects like the liquid but because you need to dissolve it, it will take more time and more effort. Also, if not dissolved completely, it will make foams gritty or with an unpleasant texture.
Lecithin Granules – Lecithin granules are my least favorite to cook and bake with because they require the most effort to dissolve them. I’ve read of horror stories about how long and how hard it is to dissolve the liquid lecithin granules. This is especially true if you are trying to make a foam or drink or even a dressing. For example, I read one story where they used it to emulsify a drink and said it worked great “as long as you don’t mind drinking the granules.” I read about people trying to dissolve it and they ended up powdering it in a blender to get it to dissolve (seems like they should just buy the powder or liquid form). Another story I read said that they couldn’t dissolve the granules in water by stirring for a long time. Then they tried dissolving them by soaking them in oil and stirring. Lastly, they put them in water and stirred them after letting it sit in the water for an hour. With all that trouble, I suggest going for the liquid or powder lecithin. Even if your recipe calls for granules, I would suggest using the liquid and I will talk about substituting the granules with liquid later in this article.
Types of Lecithin
There are several types of lecithin as described below.
Soy Lecithin – The FDA in the US lists Soybeans as a food allergen but soy lecithin does not contain sufficient soy protein to cause allergic reactions. I am most familiar with soy lecithin and therefore I prefer it over the other types. Also, the chemical makeup of soy lecithin and any other type is indistinguishable.
Egg Yolk – There is lecithin found in egg yolks. Eggs are a common baking and cooking ingredient and it’s no wonder that it has lecithin that occurs naturally to help mix things together. You can see this happen in cookie dough when you mix in the eggs it seems to make everything mix better. Egg yolk is approximately 9% lecithin, 16% protein and 50% water, and the rest is made up of fats and carbohydrates by weight. So, a decent amount of egg yolk is made up of lecithin. The only problem is that egg yolk has many other components such as fats and proteins. It isn’t easy to just add egg yolk lecithin to a recipe. You can purchase egg yolk lecithin powder for baking/cooking on Amazon but it is more common as a supplement.
Sunflower Lecithin – Sunflower lecithin is another common type of lecithin. It is similar to soy lecithin and comes in powder, granules, and liquid. Some people prefer the sunflower lecithin just because they hear soy and think it could cause allergic reactions. Also, sunflower lecithin can be made in a similar method to olive oil using a cold pressing system and many claim this raw process makes it superior to soy lecithin.
How to use lecithin in baking recipes
Most baking recipes use either a flour or starch (for gluten free). To use liquid lecithin in baking I suggest you use this simple ratio of about 1.5% of lecithin by weight of the flour (great weight charts found here weight conversion found here). For example, if your bread recipe calls for five cups of bread flour and one cup of bread flour weighs 120 grams then the total weight of the bread flour is 600 grams. Therefore, you would need about 1.5% of that weight in liquid lecithin. That is about 2 teaspoons which would weigh about 9 grams (1.5% of 600). Now, if you are using a powder or granule form then you should only use about 65% of the liquid conversion. I find it easiest to start with the liquid conversion and then just multiply it by .65.
How to use lecithin in cooking froths, foams, or airs
Foams are great in cooking for three reasons. 1) They feel lighter than a plain sauce. 2) They add texture. 3) They spice up a plate with design and decoration. Lecithin is perfect for converting juices and watery liquids to froths, foams, or airs. You can use lecithin to make bubbles and create stable froths that have the bubbles that can last from 30 minutes up to an hour. The ratio of liquid lecithin to use in a froth, foam, or air is about 1% by weight. So for every 100 grams of liquid that you are foaming, you should add 1 gram of liquid lecithin. Again, for powders or granules, you should convert that to 65% or .65 grams. You should whisk or blend the foam to get the air bubbles to form. Some great examples of foams that you can make are basil foam, lemon foam, corn foam, mustard airs, etc. Hint, if your foam is collapsing, try using less lecithin first.
How to use lecithin in mixtures or emulsions.
An emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that don’t want to stay mixed together and typically don’t. Lecithin comes in handy here as mentioned above to keep these ingredients mixed and held together (think Lego blocks). The ratio for emulsions is 1% of liquid lecithin by weight. For example, 1 gram of liquid lecithin to 100 grams of liquid emulsion. You should see the emulsion start to stabilize and smooth out immediately upon adding the lecithin. Again, a 65% conversion rate of powder or granulated lecithin should be used. Common emulsions in cooking are salad dressing (such as vinaigrettes, vegan ranch dressing), chocolates, vegan mayonnaise, icings, frostings, ice creams, margarine, and confections.
Hopefully this will answer your questions about how and why to use lecithin in cooking and baking. I know I was a little confused before I researched this and experimented with it. I’ve tried to consolidate what I found here and I tried to have it make sense to a below average baker like myself. I would love your comments to know if I helped you.