A lot of people have asked me lately for information regarding gluten-free baking.
As a relatively new convert (six years now, the last four of them “clean”), I know firsthand how emotionally taxing it can be when you’re just diving into the gluten-free lifestyle. Everything seems strange and sometimes tastes horrible. It’s all expensive. It’s confusing. There are lots of choices, and you don’t know what anything is supposed to taste like. And with prices for flour blends at around $5/lb or a single box of crackers soaring over the $6 mark, who can afford to experiment?
These days, with even mass production giants such as Duncan Hines displaying their wares on the gluten-free shelves, it’s a little less daunting. Every year I see more and more gluten-free options as gluten sensitivity becomes more widespread, either because of a higher level of awareness or because our bodies are finally falling to the strain of living in a culture in which we’ve grown up eating lots and lots of refined foods. Either way, here’s a short basics guide to help you transition into a gluten-free lifestyle.
My Short Introductory Guide to Gluten Free Life
What is gluten? Gluten is a protein that is found primarily in wheat, kamut, spelt, barley, and rye. Gluten alone is not bad for your health. However, a large number of people do have difficulty digesting gluten and those who do should avoid it altogether for the greatest health benefit. Cheating just “here and there” can cause long-lasting irritation to your gut. Gluten sensitivity can range from minor discomfort to extreme illness. Gluten-sensitivity is on a sliding scale; some people might not even know they’re gluten-intolerant and some are full-blown celiac disease sufferers. The least sensitive can ingest gluten and experience bloating or tiredness, while the latter can become deathly ill when just a single crumb of food containing gluten enters their system.
What is the function of gluten in cooking? Gluten is a “stretchy” protein that lends elasticity to breads and other baked goods. It’s also what acts as a binding or thickening agent in flour. Though baking traditional goods without gluten takes a little more work, it can be very rewarding learning to make your own flours and avoid the costly pre-made blends and mixes.
What you need for basic gluten-free flour:
- Xanthan Gum or Guar Gum (This is a must! Without gluten, you need to have a binder. Though this ingredient is somewhat expensive, a half pound bag will probably last about a year. Most recipes don’t call for more than a teaspoon.)
- Brown rice flour (Make sure it’s “super fine”. Coarse brown rice flour will make your mix heavy. I suggest Bob’s Red Mill brand.)
- White rice flour
- Sweet rice flour (also called glutinous rice or mochi rice, this is a flour made of rice such as the calrose –a.k.a. “sushi rice” – variety. Glutinous refers only to the fact that it is sticky. There are no rice varietals that contain gluten.)
- Tapioca starch (You can also use potato starch/flour, though many people with intestinal sensitivities, such as those with Crohn’s Disease, are also intolerant of nightshades, which include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and chilies, etc.)
- Protein flour — I use coconut. Protein is required to give baked good structure, so you need to have a flour that’s high in the stuff. Coconut is pretty much all protein and makes for delightfully fluffy baked stuff. Use whatever you want, though.
Easy GF Basic Flour Blend
- 2 c white rice flour
- 2 c fine brown rice flour
- 1.5 c sweet rice flour
- 1.5 c tapioca starch
- 1/4 c T coconut flour
I prefer to add guar/xanthan gum separately to my recipes, because I don’t always want the same level of binding power. Too much in a pie crust, for instance, will make the crust tough. Too little will leave your cookies to crumble. The general rule of thumb is to add about ½ tsp gum to every 1.5 cups of flour blend.
This can easily be converted into large batches of flour by using pounds of flour instead of cups. Just keep it to the 2:2:1:1 ratio and you’ll be fine.
If you have access to a store at which you can purchase millet, oat, coconut, amaranth, and other specialty flours, go ahead and play around. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Making your own flour is so much more cost-effective than buying the pre-made blends that I recommend anyone on a gluten-free diet take the time to do it. Once you have a big batch mixed up, it will last a long time.
My favorite gluten-free flour blends to use are the ones that start with my basic mix above. I then take out 2T of the blend and add in a specialty flour, such as almond meal or coconut flour. I grind almonds into meal in a food processor; if I want it to be a finer texture I finish it off in a well-cleaned coffee bean grinder). Adding almond to your gluten free flour mix will give it the flavor that is most reminiscent of whole wheat and make your baked goods explode with flavor. Adding coconut flour will give your baked goods a sweet, lightly tangy flavor and fluffiness that is to-die-for in brownies, cookies, and waffles.
Notes on flours:
- Almond, or other nuts can be made into meal with a food processor and are delicious. Use about 2T to substitute 2T out of your 1.5 c flour.
- Amaranth: also lightly sour, but not bad. Jam-packed with nutrients.
- Coconut: Sweet, tangy, very slight coconut flavor. Great for use when baking sweets like cupcakes, cakes, cookies, and brownies. This flour is light and airy. Don’t use more than a tablespoon or two per 1.5c flour. It will suck up all the liquid in your dough and may require you add lots more liquid.
- Millet: give your baked goods a “whole wheat flavor”. This flour is dense.
- *Oat: slick, almost slimy texture. Great in baked goods that are “dry”, like cookies. Not so great in large quantities for baking breads and cakes.
- Teff: Is a bitter, sour flour that is used in injera, an Ethiopian finger bread. A light flour. Brown is less bitter than white.
*Oats from large companies (like Quaker) are processed on the same equipment as wheat.
Times and Temperatures: Gluten free goods don’t need to bake as long – typically about 6-8 minutes less per every half hour of bake time. If something has to remain uncovered and bake for an extended period of time, like banana bread or sandwich bread, I make sure the rack is right in the center of the oven and lower the heat by twenty five degrees to give it a full bake time. In this way, you can convert any of your favorite wheat flour recipes to gluten-free recipes.
Quick tips: GF breads don’t need to be kneaded, just well-mixed. The purpose of kneading wheat bread is to activate the gluten. When you’re making a GF bread recipe, make sure your ingredients are well-mixed, then leave them to rise only once. Try a little cream of tartar if your baked goods are too dense. Usually used for high-altitude baking, this sometimes helps with the more dense GF flours. Expect your bread to be dense, especially after a day or so. It won’t last as long because there are no preservatives, and dries out quickly. If you can store it in an air-tight container in the fridge it will last longer.
Bread is the hardest GF food to make at home, and though it may taste awesome, you may find it lacking in the texture you love and miss in wheat bread. Udi’s brand breads are amazing, but expensive. It’s the closest (mass market) bread you’ll find to replace the wheat bread you miss.
Wheat in disguise?
- Some yeasts are often contaminated with wheat, depending on the manufacturing processes.
- Hydrolyzed, Hydrogenated, or Textured Vegetable/Plant Protein (HVP, HPP, TVP) sometimes contains wheat. Lots of other items listed only as “emulsifiers”, “fillers”, or “stabilizers” contain wheat. It can be overwhelming, but the less you purchase highly processed foods, the less likely you are to run into these issues. That alone is a great reason to eat more whole foods and cook at home from scratch, though I understand that this can be prohibitive in terms of time.
- Soy sauce often contains wheat. La Choy is an inexpensive, readily available brand that doesn’t contain wheat. I also hear the Target brand of soy sauce is wheat-free. There are lots of more expensive brands at stores such as Whole Foods, but I don’t see any reason to spend $10 on a bottle of soy sauce.
- Beer contains gluten. Most gluten free beers on the market now are awful. Sorry, kids. Cider, wine, and distilled alcohols are gluten free, even alcohols made with wheat, like whiskey/scotch/bourbon. Yay!
- The best GF flour blend I’ve found is Gluten Free Mama’s Almond Blend. It does not contain xanthan gum. She also has an excellent cookbook called In the Kitchen with Gluten Free Mama that makes GF baking easy, gratifying, and much less overwhelming if you’re just getting started.
- Indian and Asian markets are fantastic places to find specialty bulk flours at knock-out prices.
- If you want to shell out some bucks, try anything made by Glutino. Their products are heinously expensive, but across-the-board delicious.
- If you want pre-made blends, I recommend not using blends that are high in soy bean or garbanzo bean flour. If you have a good sense of taste, you will notice a bitter, “beany” taste. I have been unhappy with all mixes containing bean flour.
- And finally, if you have any questions, email me at parachuteballmedia at gmail dot com and I’ll send you a list of helpful links. Once you get past the initial learning curve, it can be a healthful and fun adventure in cooking. Good luck, and enjoy cooking gluten free!
Here’s a list of great links, as well:
The Art of Gluten Free Baking – this lady makes superb baked goods. She makes wonderfully beautiful breads, which I can’t seem to master. A friend sent me her site and I was intrigued when I saw that she uses an identical flour blend as I do, and I’ve been pleased with the info I’ve found on her site.
The Spunky Coconut – delicious, casein, gluten, and processed sugar-free baking
The Gluten-Free Canteen – all kinds of traditional recipes made gluten-free
Gluten Free Mama – her cookbook and flour blends are amazing. Everything is very simple and she offers a great section at the front of the book that talks about flours and methods of recipe conversion, tips to making breads better, and more. I also feel good supporting her businesses because she’s a wonderful lady.
Gluten Free Goddess – truly a food goddess. Everything I’ve made from her site is wicked awesome. And I don’t use that term lightly.
Hidden Gluten (from Celiac Solution) – a great list of gluten-containing products and how to read labels