11 May Gluten-Free Baking Tips
As I stand at the counter during cooking demos, hands coated in flour and bits of dough on my apron, someone inevitably asks about gluten-free baking. They have a family member, friend, or colleague who can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to eat gluten and they’ve no idea what to do. They aren’t purging their pantry, but need some tricks for when they have gluten-free guests for dinner, or are heading to a potluck.
The following is a compilation of the questions I’ve been asked at demos, cooking classes, and talks. If I don’t touch on your question, feel free to email me and I’ll do my best to answer.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein compound in wheat and other grains that gives baked goods their structure and elasticity. Gluten is both elastic, meaning it stretches to trap air for lovely bread, and plastic, which means it maintains its shape and doesn’t just collapse in a blob-like puddle.
Modern wheat hybrids have more gluten than before. Does this mean ancient grains are gluten-free?
Not necessarily. Barley, bulgar, einkorn, kamut, rye, spelt, triticale, and wheat all contain gluten.
What grains are gluten-free?
Flours and starches made from the following do NOT contain gluten: Amaranth, buckwheat, corn/cornstarch, coconut, legumes, lentils, millet, nuts/nut flours, oats, potatoes/potato starch, quinoa, rice, sorghum, tapioca, and teff. This list is not exhaustive and assumes the flour has been processed in a gluten-free facility to avoid cross-contamination.
Why are naturally gluten-free goods like oats and corn chips labelled “gluten-free”?
This gluten-free label means the product not only contains no wheat or wheat by-products, it was processed and packaged in a gluten-free facility so there is no chance of cross-contamination. While some people are fine with regular corn chips and regular oats, other need an iron-clad gluten-free guarantee.
I’m in charge of dessert, but it has to be gluten-free. What should I do?
The simplest thing is to make a dessert that has no wheat flour. Pavlova, macaroons, cornstarch-based puddings, chocolate mousse, and ice cream jump to mind.
The second simplest option is to bake your favourite stand-by recipe with a gluten-free flour blend. Of course, you can google gluten-free baking, but not everyone is willing to take an untested recipe to the party.
Can I convert ANY recipe?
Most batters and non-yeast doughs convert nicely. Think cookies, cakes, crackers, quick breads, waffles, muffins, pancakes, crepes, and fritters.
What recipes don’t convert?
To paraphrase Lisa Howard, author of Healthier Gluten-Free, “If you have to knead it, you don’t need it.” This means yeasted breads, pie crusts, and flaky pastries like croissants don’t convert with a simple flour swap. Gluten-free flours just don’t have the chops for these specialty baked goods. Sure, you can make great gluten-free pizza dough and croissants, but I leave those skills to gluten-free bakers who know the ins and outs of hydration, gums, and psyllium. Their recipes are specifically engineered for gluten-free flours and will work. Using gluten-free flour in your grandmother’s pie dough will only guarantee disappointment.
Howard also warns that the recipe should also contain eggs which provide some much-needed protein for structure. This means vegan recipes don’t convert as nicely. While there are gluten-free, vegan recipes for baked goods, they are not simple flour swaps. Seek out a specially developed recipe.
How do I convert a standard recipe to gluten-free?
Look at the recipe you want to make. If it’s a no-knead, no-yeast recipe calling for all-purpose flour simply use a gluten-free all-purpose flour in a 1:1 ratio. Before you bake, read the instructions on the flour package to see if you need to add xanthan gum to your recipe. Some mixes contain xanthan already and don’t need more. Others suggest varying amounts of xanthan depending on what you’re baking.
What is xanthan gum?
It’s a thickener/emulsifier/stabilizer that’s in desperate need of a PR person. The name is off-putting, but it’s a common ingredient in a wide range of commercial products including sauces and ice creams. It will give your gluten-free baked goods much needed elasticity and structure while helping maintain the moisture.
Do I have to use xanthan?
It depends. Without it, gluten-free baked goods tend to crumble. However, it’s expensive and if you are baking with gluten-free flour only occasionally, it might not be worth the expense. You can substitute the more moderately priced guar gum in a 1:1 ratio.
Where do I get gluten-free all-purpose flour?
Only a few years ago, you had to make your own mix or trek to the health food store. Today, you can also find it in the healthy food section of your grocery store, or even the baking section of your supermarket. Specialty baking shops and the Bulk Barn also carry gluten-free all-purpose flour. Popular brands here in Ontario include Bob’s Red Mill and President’s Choice. In the US, Cup4Cup and King Arthur get good reviews from my baking friends. There are other brands by small, local companies, so feel free to support them. Just follow the recipe and use the gluten-free all-purpose flour. Same baking time, same technique.
Can I use coconut flour?
Not for this kind of substitution. Gluten-free all-purpose flour is a blend of various gluten-free flours — with or without xanthan — that aims to mimic wheat flour. It’s not one specific flour. Coconut flour us an especially thirsty flour and won’t work in a converted recipe. That said, it’s wonderful in recipes specifically designed for its unique properties.
I followed your directions and my batter was slimy!
Sorry. I should have warned you. Gluten-free flour, especially when you add xanthan, produces a far more loose and gelatinous (or slimy if you aren’t expecting it) batter than wheat flour. Don’t panic. Once baked, the results will be fine.
Any other surprises I should know about?
Since you asked… Your baked goods won’t taste exactly the same. We don’t normally think about it, but wheat has a flavour. Gluten-free flour blends commonly contain any of the following: rice flour, tapioca starch, potato starch, millet, sorghum, garbanzo beans (chick peas), fava beans, or cornstarch. These will have a slightly different, but not unpleasant, flavour. It just won’t be what you’re used to. If you’re worried certain gluten-loving family members won’t be enamoured of such changes, don’t make something with a subtle flavour where the flour’s taste will come through. Instead, make a rich chocolate cake or spice cookies. And don’t tell them it’s gluten-free.