The Science and Art of Paleofying—Part 2 Binders

November 20, 2012 in Categories: by

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Creating paleo adaptations of our favorite recipes (a.k.a. paleofying) helps us stay on board with paleo through the holidays (and many other times of the year), help us feel like we can still celebrate and partake in all of the fun and food luxury of the season.  I know that many of you are pulling out your old favorite recipes and wondering what to do with them (I’ve had many questions lately about rules of thumb for flour substitutions, and alternatives for those with nut or egg allergies).  I am too.  I have several family favorite recipes that I am tackling this year.

Paleofying is as much an art as it is a science.  I vaguely remember a time when I did not have extremely well-honed cooking instincts (I think that was back in middle school).  But even starting out as a fairly good cook, there was still a learning curve to all of these new ingredients and to baking without gluten.  After a year of paleo baking (and blogging!), I have a much better understanding of how to adapt conventional recipes now and thought it was high time I share some of this knowledge and experience with you, in addition to my perfected recipes.  This is the second in a 4-part post series to help you start the process of adapting your recipes.

This post is the second in a 4-post series.  In the first post, I discussed paleo flours and other ingredients that add bulk to a recipe.  This post will discuss binders (ingredients that hold baking together).  Part 3 will discuss leavening agents, fats and sweeteners.  Part 4 will discuss some strategies for doing iterations and troubleshooting your recipes.  You may also be interested in some of my posts that reference paleo baking ingredients:  Important Pantry Items for The Paleo Baker, Paleo Flour Substitutes, Sugar vs. Sweeteners, and Is Sugar Paleo?).

Binders are ingredients that help hold baking together.  The most common binders are eggs and gluten.  Most of us are happy using eggs (although I will discuss egg substitutes here too).  But replacing the binding power of gluten can be quite a challenge.  Once you’ve figured out your flour substitutes, you still might need to add or change other ingredients to help your baking hold together.

EggEggs are by far the best binder in the paleo toolkit.  If your recipe needs a little help holding together, adding an extra egg (or two) is a great strategy.  If adding a whole eggs adds too much moisture to your baking, try just adding an extra egg white (which is the part of the egg that really does the binding job).

If there are eggs in your recipe, they might be there to act as a binder or for another purpose.  Eggs can bind, but they can also add moisture and add lightness to a recipe.  If an egg is adding moisture (often the case if the recipe calls for several eggs) and you want to use a liquid sweetener instead of granulated sugar, you can try using 1 or 2 less eggs.  If eggs are just there to add moisture, replacing with any wet ingredients is pretty straight forward if you have a reason to avoid eggs.

To add lightness to a recipe (especially cakes and breads), try beating your eggs for 3-5 minutes before mixing with your other ingredients (see my paleo “multigrain’ bread for an example).  A very powerful strategy for cake recipes is to separate the eggs and beat the whites until stiff peaks form and then fold into the other ingredients (see my holiday trifle recipe).

But, eggs are not the only binders in town.  You might want the flavor contribution of another binder or you might be trying to avoid an overly eggy taste in your baking.  Adding too many eggs can also give that omelet type texture that might not be what you’re looking for.  And, since eggs to add liquid to a recipe, you might be battling with too moist of a dough or batter.  Many people are sensitive to eggs and want to avoid them completely. There are some great alternatives to eggs for your paleofying adventures.  The binders below might be used in conjunction with eggs and some of them as egg substitutes (exact substitutions are mentioned where appropriate).  These work in a variety of ways (some better than others).  You’ll also note that many of the ingredients listed below were also listed as flour substitutes.  Keep this in mind as you adapt your recipes.  Depending on your recipe, you may want to use one or several of these binders to get a bit more hold.

Nut and Seed Butters—Almond Butter, Sunflower Seed Butter, Tahini, Hazelnut Butter, Macadamia/Cashew Butter, Sprouted Macadamia Butter, Walnut Butter, Pecan Butter and others.  Adding nut butters to replace or add to the fat ingredients in a recipe can actually help a recipe hold together quite well.  This is because of the fiber and the fats in nut butters.  This is a great strategy for cookies and squares since it also doesn’t add much moisture.  I wouldn’t recommend substituting all of the eggs in a recipe with nut or seed butters, but you could substitute 1 or even 2.  To use as an egg substitute, substitute ¼-1/3 cup nut butter for each egg.

Flax meal (a.k.a. ground flax seed)—Flax can add hold and elasticity to a recipe when added either as a dry ingredient, replacing some of the flour, or as a wet ingredient, replacing or adding to eggs.  1 Tbsp of ground flax seed mixed with 3 Tbsp of water (and left to sit for 2-3 minutes) makes a very reasonable egg substitute.  There is no difference between regular ground flax seed and ground golden flax seed in terms of kitchen chemistry, although you might desire the look of one versus the other.  Sometimes a recipe needs the hold of an egg but not the moisture that an egg gives.  In this case, you can mix 1 Tbsp of ground flax seed with 1½-2 Tbsp of water (see my paleo chewy granola bar recipe as an example).  Chia seeds can be used similarly, but chia is a pseudograin and Prof. Loren Cordain comes down pretty hard on them in his book The Paleo Answer.  Another similar seed in hemp seed.  I haven’t seen a good argument for or against them (but maybe a good option for those who are sensitive to flax but not seeds in general).

Mashed Banana—You know how bananas feel pretty slimy when you mash them?  That’s what makes bananas such a great binder.  It’s because of the starch and fiber in bananas (this is true for plantains, yucca, and taro too).  Slimy=good binder.  The only downside is that bananas have a habit of overwhelming whatever other flavors you have going on, so this really only works if you want a distinct banana flavor in your baking.  To substitute 1 egg, add 1/4 cup mashed banana (about ½ of an average sized banana).

Applesauce or grated apple—Apples are high in pectin, a fiber that has a fair bit of thickening and binding ability (pectin is added to jams to make them gel).  Pears can also work here with not quite as much binding ability.  Applesauce also adds moisture, so this is a great binder for cakes of all kinds (muffins, brownies, coffee breads, etc.).  It’s also not so strong of a flavor that it can be hidden by other ingredients.  Chunky applesauce (applesauce that is fork mashed as opposed to blended) can add a nice texture to muffins and coffeebreads.  Blending applesauce will give a smoother texture to your baking.  Grated apple is a neat trick to add a binder to fruit pie fillings. To substitute eggs with applesauce in a recipe, sub 1/3 cup applesauce for each egg.

PumpkinPumpkin puree can act as a binder (starch and fiber) although not as well as banana or applesauce.  It also has a flavor that is very easy to mask.  To substitute 1 egg, add 1/3 cup pureed pumpkin.

Pureed Plantain (ripe or green)—Both green and ripe plantain puree can add substantial hold to a recipe (yep, fiber).  Green plantains add more starch and a little less hold than ripe plantains, but have a very neutral flavor (watch this video from my YouTube Channel to learn more about green plantains). Ripe plantains are fantastic binders and add a little sweetness, but similar to bananas, ripe plantains add a distinctive flavor.  To substitute 1 egg, add 1/4 cup mashed ripe plantain or 1/3 cup mashed green plantain (1 average sized plantain typically yields ¾ cups puree).  I’ve used plantain as a flour and binder in my perfect paleo pancakes, paleo crepes, and decadent double chocolate cookies.

GelatinThis works brilliantly as an egg substitute for custards, cakes and muffins.  Dissolve 1 Tbsp of gelatin into 3 Tbsp of warm water and substitute this for 1 egg.  If you substitute too many eggs with gelatin, you will get an overly spongy, chewy texture, so if your recipe calls for several eggs, you can replace half with gelatin and half with one of the other egg substitutes listed here.  Gelatin has the added benefit of adding some protein in the form of those healing amino acids glycine and proline.

AgarI always use gelatin in lieu of agar, since gelatin is so healthy.  However, agar works similarly.  To replace a whole egg, dissolve 1 Tbsp agar powder into 3 Tbsp water.  You can also use agar as an egg white substitute.  For each egg white, dissolve 1 Tbsp plain agar powder into 1 tbsp water. Whip, chill and whip again.

PectinPectin is a fiber naturally found in fruit (the reason why apples make such a good binder).  You can buy pectin powder (usually with the canning supplies) and add 1-2 tsp to bread and cake recipes as a binder (see my hot cross bun recipe as an example).  Be cautious with this one though because the added fiber can be tough for some people to digest.

Tapioca StarchTapioca starch or flour is ground dehydrated cassava root (also called yucca and manioc).  It can act as a binder in a recipe that doesn’t add to the wet ingredients (this can be very helpful if you are substituting a liquid sweetener like honey for granulated sugar in a recipe).  Keep in mind that tapioca is a gluten cross-reactor and that Prof. Loren Cordain comes down pretty hard on bitter cassava root (the sweet cassava is what is typically found in stores and used to make tapioca) in his book The Paleo Answer.

Honey and MolassesReplacing granulated sugar in a recipe with a liquid sweetener can be tricky, but honey and molasses do help hold baking together and can contribute a nice chew to cookies.  Maple syrup does so as well but to a lesser extent.  I will discuss these as a sugar substitute more in the next post in this series.

Pureed Root Vegetables—Yucca (aka Cassava, aka manioc, aka yucca) is brilliant at holding baking together.  Peel it and cube it (removing the tough string that runs down the middle of it) and boil as you would potatos in salted water until the pieces slide off a knife when posed (typically 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of your cubes).  Drain and mash by hand with a potato masher or strong fork.  It is incredibly slimey and will do bad things to a blender or emersion blender (I haven’t tried it in a food processor and have no intensions of trying after what it did to my hand blender).  It’s also tough to clean, so clean anything by hand (a dishwasher won’t touch it).  For an example, see my paleo biscuits recipe.  Taro is very similar.  To use taro, steam whole taro roots (unpeeled) for 10-20 minutes depending on the size, until soft enough to pierce with a sharp knife but still a little firm.  Let cool, peel, and mash by hand.  Taro and yucca also are a little sweet, which can be very helpful in some recipes.  Other pureed vegetables can help hold baking together too.  Typically, the starchier they are, the better.  Other great options are mashed sweet potato, parsnip, winter squash, and carrot (pumpkin and plantain have already been covered).

Coconut oil (and other fats)—Adding some extra fat to your recipe will help it hold together.  Coconut oil is probably the best for holding baking together and gives baking a bit more chew (great for cookies, brownies, etc.).  Palm shortening, butter or lard will give it a bit more lightness and still help it hold together.  As a general rule ¼ cup of oil is equivalent to 1 egg.

I hope this will get you started on your paleofying adventures.  As you play more and more with these ingredients and get to understand their properties better, it will be easier to intuit what will work in any particular recipe.  But, I still have recipes that take me many iterations to get right.  And of course, if you adapt a recipe that is absolutely awesome, you are welcome to contact me using the form on this page to discuss sharing it on the blog.


Thank you for these posts, Sarah! I’m looking forward to the next two!

My problem with a lot of paleo baked goods is that they do use a lot of eggs (muffins in particular). I am not a fan of the texture the eggs give — if I wanted to eat an egg muffin, I’ll just make a scrambled egg muffin! I’m hoping these substitutes will work in the dozens of recipes I’ve wanted to try, but have avoided in the past when I notice how many eggs they called for.

Thank you for your posts. I am getting a ton of information from your blog right now. I have pointed a couple of people I work with to your blog also.

I’m loving these Paleofying posts! Also, I noticed you didn’t mention arrowroot in this one. It doesn’t work as a binder? That would partly explain why I haven’t had much luck paleofying in the past…

This is amazingly helpful. I hadn’t thought of gelatin in baked goods! I am on the AIP and so far, coconut milk panna cotta is my only go-to dessert. Quick question w/r/t eggs: do egg yolks alone bind as well as the whole egg? I am hoping to reintroduce egg yolks soon and would like to know if that means I could add some baked goods.

I’ve started using a tablepoon of hemp seeds(cannabis sativa) a day. It has gamma-linolenic acid(GLA), gamma tocopherol, β-caryophyllene, chlorophyll, a small amount of stearidonic acid. I read in many sites about benefits of hemp such as depression and some relate it to the alpha linolenic acid content of it but it must have something to do with other nutrients of hemp, most likely what I’ve listed.
It improved my cold hands significantly and I think it has anti-depressive properties on me(link below says β-caryophyllene does it but I couldn’t find the study).
The cold-hand improving thing must be mostly GLA, it increases prostacyclins and prostacyclins increase blood flow in hands, though gamma tocopherol may also be contributing a tiny little.
Hemp seed hulls may have detectable amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol(THC) but I think it must have enough cannabidiol(CBD) to counteract the effects of THC and maybe more. CBD is a good thing.
I read that hemp may improve psoriasis also though I didn’t check if it’s supported by science or not.
Borage oil contains much more GLA and much less linoleic acid so maybe switching to borage oil may be better even though hemp seeds doesn’t do anything wrong to you when you reintroduce after elimination.
What should the source of GLA be, and how much ?

I don’t know doses, but I’ve heard that a smaller dose is better and that you can even take it every couple of days. I think the rationale behind that is that you want GLA to compete with AA but not DHA and EPA for prostaglandin formation. I think I remember Robb Wolf talking about this in one of his older podcasts, so that’s probably the best source for more information.

Hi, I have a question not so much about baking but about gelatin. If I wanted to use it as a supplement (in smoothies or something)… is it really the best? If we’re talking about Great Lakes, the green one is hydrolyzed, right, meaning it’s a single amino acid? But aren’t di- and tri-peptides easier to digest (especially with glycine)? If I were to use the red/orange can and just pour it into the smoothie, would I benefit? What form is that in? If I allowed it to “activate” and gel in cold water first, would that help? I’m not sure what the chemical reaction is that makes it gel. Thanks!

Hi Sarah,

First, I want to thank you for all your hard work and research. I have both of your books and have given your first book to several friends and family members. I believe food holds the key to our health and your books unlock the door 🙂

Second, in your reference to tapioca starch do you mean yuca? Yuca and yucca are not the same and come from 2 different botanical families. According to Wikipedia, Yucca is a genus of perennial shrubs and trees in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae. Yucca is the genus name for 40-50 species of a perennial shrub or tree that is grown primarily for decorative purposes.
On the other hand, Yuca comes from the Euphorbiaceae (spurge) family native to South America. Yuca is an extensively grown tropical vegetable that has other common names, such as cassava, manioc, and tapioca. The yuca tuber can be roasted, boiled, and fried. Because it is starchy and high in carbohydrates, it can be used as a substitute for potatoes. You mistakenly make the same reference under pureed root vegetables.

Third, please accept my apology if you truly mean yucca and direct me to where I may be able to purchase the yucca root.

That’s so interesting, I love it when I find out something new! I did not realize there was a difference. We have tons of YUCCA plants here in southern California, I assumed those were the YUCA roots in the Mexican markets. Now I know. To be fair to Sarah, I think almost everyone (restaurants, grocery stores, the internet, etc) is unaware of the distinction and uses the “cc” version so we know she means manioc/cassava/yuca root! And now I know not to go foraging for yuccas in the foothills.

Sarah, thanks for the great info. I’ve yet to find a paleo bread recipe that is close to grain bread. Ones I’ve tried tend to be heavy, spongy, dense, and don’t rise as much as I’d like. I’ve made flaxseed meal bread in a flat pan that I liked, but it’s still not bread and probably has more fiber than I need. I also was not aware of gelatin. Maybe I’ll try that in lieu of some of the eggs. I will say though that after being on Paleo for about six months now, I’ve lost about 42 pounds, I feel good and I was able to quit my blood pressure meds. So, some of these food frustrations are well worth it.


Do you have any idea if peeling and dehydrating cassava neutralizes the natural cyanide and other worrisome toxins? I am looking to make a homemade flour and I was curious as to whether or not I should consider doing additional cooking prior to dehydrating it.

does anyone know a brand and where to buy gelatin in Canada? The Great Lakes brand recommended in all of Sarah’s recipes is stupid expensive here! Like $69 stupid! Is there a comparable product here in Canada we can use?

Have you ever experimented with precooked cassava? It seems to be an AWESOME bread crumb substitute. So thankful for you and all your work, Sarah!

P.S. I just breaded pork cutlets with it and prepared some as cream of wheat… AMAZING!! Now please tell me it’s AIP-OK? 😉

Hi there! Thank you for all your posts.

I just want to make some simple BLUEBERRY MUFFINS! I cannot find a recipe anywhere (and my last turned into a very sad mush).

We are recently mostly AIP…Yes, mostly…the seeds have been hard to give up.

We are not using eggs right now.

My son has a severe nut allergy so we’ll be using coconut flour for the recipe.

I can’t have bananas right now (they hurt my stomach and recently showed up on a food sensitivity test), plus I don’t like them anyways, so that is out for a substitute.

I have flax meal (although we are trying to stay away from seeds for right now, that seems like a good sub from what I hear). I am concerned about heating flax. I heard you should not heat flax. Any info on this?

I have recently thought about taking gelatin (as I am too exhausted to make bone broth just yet), but I am unsure, especially putting in baked goods. I have heard scary things recently and am now unsure about the product (Not guaranteed to be grass-fed, not made from bones, but instead hides and skin, some say it tastes bad, someone else claimed to have smelled a bad smell, and they are also processed). So, for now, until I get more information, I will at least hold off using the in baked goods.

I need a recipe that uses just coconut flour. I thought of using a combo of applesauce and butter or shortening perhaps? Or applesauce and avocado? Ghee? Coconut Oil?

The suggestions in this post seem great. I am just unsure which combo and which proportions, especially working with coconut flour. I do not want another mishap.

Also, nix on the raw honey, as that should not be heated either, from what I understand 😉

If ANYONE out there can help I’d greatly appreciate it!

We’d love a recipe for blueberry muffins that are grain-free, nut-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, banana-free, free of any weird uncertain product and hopefully have all the ingredients I already have here in my kitchen 🙂

We just want to eat some simple tasty BLUEBERRY MUFFINS!!!

Hi, Ani…

I thought you might like to know that AQUAFABA (the brine that comes in a can of chickpeas) works wonders, not only as a binder, but to leaven as well. Actually, it works BETTER than many other binders.

I know that beans are not paleo, but you don’t have to eat the beans, It’s just the juice that’s in a can of chickpeas. I’m paleo and I use it all the time.

Aquafaba makes AMAZING whipped peaks just like egg whites if you whip it, so it can be used like a whipped cream on top of desserts, But I don’t eat desserts because I don’t like sweet foods. However, I use it to make paleo bread.

It’s something you might try. It’s really cheap.

Have fun !!!

Hi, in regards to using gelatin as a substitute, if I were to use the Great Lakes brand, would I use the green or red container? Thank you!

Hi Sarah,

Do you know of anything that will emulsify coconut oil into the morning brew? I’ve tried gelatin and a stick blender but still get oil floaties on top. I’m thinking to try a little tapioca starch next. Since the brew is hot it should cook the tapioca and might hold everything together in suspension. What do you think?

Have you tried sunflower lecithin? I keep it on hand because I make a lot of natural cosmetics such as hand lotions and face creams, etc. I also use it when I make natural salad dressings. It works very well for both and I’m thinking it may work in coffee. However, it’s a powder (at least the one I buy is and I’m not aware of a liquid) so I’m not sure if it will clump in your coffee… maybe look for a liquid variety instead. I don’t approve of soy so I don’t use that kind.

I’m a coffeeholic (decaffeinated) and I, too, use coconut oil and butter in my coffee so I might try this myself !!

What about emulsifying coconut milk to use in hot tea or in other non-baking applications that want for a creamy topping? I was using Native Forest brand, but then noticed it has guar gum. So now I’m using organic, additive free coconut milk, but it’s not milk-like at all. I really miss creamy coconut milk. Is it possible to emulsify it?

I’ve started playing with coconut flour and I would like to know what are the best binders for making muffins or cupcakes – light and fluffy baked goods. Secondly, what are the best binders for crepes or thin wraps that won’t fall apart. Thank you.

With coconut flour you really need a lot of eggs. It may be best to start with already paleo recipes that use coconut flour to get a feel for it before you start trying to paleofy other recipes. Coconut flour is tricky. -Kiersten

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