Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Gluten Free Baking!
By: Danica Loucks, Udi’s New Face of Gluten Free
Avoided baking after you started eating gluten free but miss all your home-made comfort dishes?
We definitely know we’re a sucker for those freshly baked savory pastries and decadent sweet treats that will fill the entire house with the most wonderful aromas. Well why not still bake your own gluten-free deliciousness?
Initially, you may contemplate how in the world you will be able to create baked goods with flavors, textures, and appearances just as good as their gluten-full counterparts with such different ingredients. But it’s possible! Don’t let the stereotypical image of the gluten-free “brick” scare you away.
We’re here to help your shift to gluten-free baking feel less daunting!
Fortunately, baking is really just a chemistry experiment in a mixing bowl. The most basic way to think about the science happening in your mixing bowl is to remember that protein builds structure and fat and sugar break down structure. Consequently, a good recipe contains enough protein to develop structure that can hold air bubbles but enough sugar and fat to achieve a moist and tender texture.
Gluten’s ability to develop long strands of stretchy dough plays a big part in developing the structure that helps the baked goods rise. Gluten also encourages chewy textures over the more chalky and crumbly textures that are often associated with gluten-free baked goods. Yet an aspiring gluten-free baker can create the same delightful qualities by knowing which ingredients contribute to great texture and by paying attention to the balance of structure-building and structure-breaking ingredients. The more you know about what each type of gluten-free ingredient contributes to the characteristics of your final product, the less likely you’ll be pulling a gluten-free baking disaster out of your oven.
So how does one go about creating similar effects without gluten? There are many types of gluten-free flours (and the number of options seems to be ever-increasing) that are derived from various beans, grains, pseudo-grains (sources that are actually biologically a “fruit” but have a similar appearance to a grain, for example, quinoa), and nuts. There is even a gluten-free flour made from Timothy grass seed! And, who knows? Maybe we’ll be using “whole algal flour” soon, as well.
In the case of gluten-free flours, higher protein content does not necessarily lead to the king of CO2-trapping structure that gluten protein does. For instance, nut flours have a high protein content but often lead to a dense final product. This would work quite well for baking projects that are meant to be fairly dense, such as brownies, but for more ambitious leavening—cakes and bread—you should expect to use a variety of flours and to add other ingredients to help it along.
Here are a few additional tips & tricks for gluten free flours and other baking ingredients:
- Blending flours: Because gluten-free flours from different sources can have quite different characteristics, using a blend of different types of flours can improve structure, texture, and flavor. For example, using only soybean or garbanzo bean flour tends to lead to an overwhelmingly beany flavor and a chalky texture, and using only rice flour tends to create a sandy texture. Quinoa flour or Timtana flour create pretty good textures on their own, but their nutty flavors may be stronger than desired. Using a mixture of different types of flours prevents a particular flavor or texture dominating the recipe. However, each type of flour may absorb liquid to a different extent so you may have to adjust the amount of liquid you add accordingly. You can make your own flour blends—Google search for a recipe or create your own blend that balances starchier flours and protein-rich flours with the mellow middle-of-the-road flours like sorghum—or you can buy pre-made blends that are generally called “all-purpose gluten-free baking mix.”
- Xanthan Gum or Guar Gum: These ingredients, gums derived from corn and a type of legume, should be mixed with gluten-free flours to help mimic gluten’s stretchy behavior. Xanthan gum tends to be less expensive than guar gum, but people who are sensitive to corn may need to avoid xanthan gum. These gums, which come in powder form, are often included in recipes written to be gluten-free. However, if you’re using a recipe that isn’t specifically gluten-free, a good rule of thumb is:
- 1 tsp. xanthan/guar gum per cup of gluten-free flour for bread and pizza dough,
- ½ tsp. per cup for cakes, muffins, and quick breads,
- and ¼-½ tsp. per cup for cookies and bars .
*Too much xanthan or guar gum will make your baked goods gummy or slimy—if that occurs with these suggested amounts, make a note for the future that less is needed.
- Eggs: The protein in eggs provides a great binder to encourage your gluten-free dough or batter to stretch rather than crumble. While the egg whites are the source of protein (and can, if you’re looking for some major lift, be beaten separately to create more volume), the egg yolk can contribute to good texture since it works as an emulsifier (somewhat like the gums above), and its fat encourages tenderness .
- Flaxseed: Ground flax-seed is a great alternative to eggs if you need to bake egg-free and can also be a helpful addition to any other recipe as it becomes a gelatinous binder when exposed to liquid. While flaxseed is not as strong of a binder compared to xanthan or guar gum achieves, it effectively reduces the probability of crumbly outcomes.
- Creaming your butter properly: Many baking recipes tell you to “Cream the butter and sugar.” This process is an opportunity to incorporate more air bubbles into your batter. Make sure to (a) you use room-temperature butter (cold butter doesn’t cream well and melted or very soft butter will not hold air) and (b) not to over-mix the butter and sugar. Mix the butter and sugar (by hand or on low- to medium-speed with a mixer) until it has just about doubled in volume. A good butter substitute that allows you to incorporate air bubbles in the same manner is coconut oil, as it is also a soft solid at room temperature.
As you expand your skills through practice, remember to take note of combinations of ingredients that work well, and gradually you may learn to spot unreasonable ratios of structure-building to structure-breaking ingredients. You will also start identifying how you must modify recipes to work in your location (where humidity and elevation may affect a recipe’s behavior). If you frequently use recipes from websites, it can be helpful to look in the comments for any problems people had or changes they made to the original that might help you.
Best of luck in your baking adventures!
Add any of your own baking tips & tricks in the comments below.