A Baker's Dozen of Gluten Free Flour Tips

Gluten gets all the glory in baking, but many other components of dough are equally, if not more important in baking.  For this post, I want to remind you that all the words we use to describe pieces of flours, such as gluten, starch, and more technically, mucilage and oligosaccharides... these are all collections of different components in flour, not monolithic single chemicals that we can write down as a formula or draw a picture of.  We could probably make a model of a gliadin molecule found in one variety of wheat and even write out its formula, but it would be different than a secalin molecule found in a variety of rye... yet both are 'gluten.'  Such mysteries we will delve into today.

Because I'm not rich enough to go out and buy every type of flour and test it, nor do I have the stamina for such an undertaking, I'll have to limit my personal comments to flours I've used.  Bu there are others who have been baking gluten free for years and between their descriptions, and my tips, you should find something to get you started on the right path.  Baking has never been an easy thing to do . And many people don't have my memories of growing up in a family where two women baked and two women cooked daily.  From that experience I can tell you that there is an attitude to adopt about daily meal creation whether it's baking or otherwise.

Since this is new to many people who have been suddenly thrust into the role of eating gluten free, let me reassure you.  Nobody does baking right the first time, and everyone makes mistakes, even in the 100th repetition of a recipe.  And it's ok, perfectly ok, to modify recipes because the texture doesn't seem right to you, or you have allergies which must be avoided. My family's attitude toward cooking and baking can best be summarized as:

"A happy home has ready meals, and some treats for everyone." 

I grew up in a third culture kid world where restaurants were not part of our lives.  Yet I always had treats and favorite foods and I admired my family for producing them as if by magic.  They made it seem easy because they'd done it many times, and their recipes were the product of oral tradition, memorized by each woman exactly. This isn't a requirement for women, nor are men excluded from cooking or baking.  My husband is a better baker than I am, and has certainly had more practice.  My cousin has converted many recipes to grilling recipes which both amuses him, and keeps the cooking smells out of the house.  Division of labor doesn't have to be about enforced gender roles. And a Celiac or NCGS diagnosis will thrust a person into cooking/baking whether they like it or not.

The way you do anything is the way you do everything, isn't that the saying?  I approach gluten free flours with the same intellectual curiosity as everything else.  Luckily my curiosity is partially satisfied with what has been written already:

A Guide to Working with Gluten Free Flours (2007)  Appreciating the unique qualities of GF flours and experimenting is the focus of this list.

America's Test Kitchen Gluten Free Flour Guide  More focus on recreating classics than appreciating the unique properties of GF flours.  In particular, they often don't allow flours to absorb water before baking and mitigate the dryness by adding xanthan gum. More of a quick fix method in my opinion. But it could also be called a "no fuss" method, so their two, very comprehensive books are still a great resource.

In addition to the above, here is what I've learned so far about gluten free baking and cooking with flours.  This may get technical... repeat after me:  I can do it! 👍

  •     Always let dough stand at least 30 minutes, I usually use a two hour "rest" phase (in the fridge) before baking. This allows the starches to hydrate so when they bake, they gelatinize and produce a silky, not grainy texture.  This step is found in wheat baking also, but it has been largely eliminated in most instructions because it's a "hassle."  In GF baking it's not optional, especially if rice flour is used - rice flour is notoriously "gritty" without a rest.

  •      Don't believe the hype...  kneading dough is still a thing, even with gluten free flours.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling frozen GF pastries at your local megamart, or doesn't bake from anything but mixes.   It may not be required or even desirable for many baked goods (anything cakey, anything gooey, anything harmed by a rubbery texture), but that's true for wheat baking too.  And just like wheat baking, there are prolamins and other proteins that can and do tangle up to form structure in all doughs.  Every natural flour has that potential except processed ones that have removed the proteins (typically, potato starch, tapioca 'flour' starch, white rice flour, which are the basis for most GF baking mixes). 
    • Because baking mixes are often similar across brands, the advice to forego kneading is valid.  But if you wander into the much richer world of wholemeal flours, and bread doughs, you'll see a revival of kneading instructions. Explore more about what kneading does in a dough, yeah, chewy texture, but what else?
    • All yeast doughs undergo a certain amount of fermentation, and fermentation leads to partially hydrolyzed proteins.  As the proteins loosen up, kneading organizes them so that they capture and hold air in an orderly way.  As long as you can expect a dough to contain protein, you can develop chew by kneading if you wish.  (Wow, it was tough finding a link for a study done on non-gluten flours and the effect of fermentation on protein digestibility... please applaud or comment below. I hope more studies are done on this subject.)

    • Use oil, not butter, usually.  This is because, first, we want to avoid hydrogenated fats found in commercial lard and Crisco.  Second, because gluten free flours have escaped the intensive hybridization given to more commercial flours (I'm glad about that), and they absorb oil better than semi-solid fats.  A good portion of why cakes are tender comes not from the water, but the oil that the flour absorbs.  In general, the lower the melting point of the fat you're using, the better absorbed it will be. Butter and home rendered lard can and should be used in crust recipes, but for most purposes, they aren't interchangeable with oil when baking gluten free.

    •     Be flexible about the recipes.  if you decide to test a recipe by making a half portion, be sure to use your eyes and hands to see and feel the dough, and so, you begin to develop your own instinct for quality control. Consider the thickness of the dough when expecting how much rise there will be.  A heavy dough should generally be poured or spread thinner than a light dough, if rising and airy texture is expected.  Many GF doughs lack "strength" so they can't support a lot of rising.  Consider learning the chiffon method in order to get a more airy texture to some doughs, and apply it to more recipes, even if the directions don't say so.  You can do it!👍 I believe in you.

    •     If you're making a sauce, especially a roux based sauce (like bechamel that will be used for mac and cheese or Alfredo sauce), potato flour is tops as far as silky texture and delicious flavor are concerned.  An alternative is tapioca flour.  Note that flour is used - not starch in this case.  That little bit of protein and fiber is needed to help darken the roux with the Maillard reaction. Sweet rice flour works too and is possibly my second favorite after potato flour for this purpose. If you've done this a lot, you will find that these flours clump faster than all purpose flour, so keep a stick blender handy and don't worry about it. Tapioca bread can be used to thicken a too-runny sauce and will disintegrate completely in a hot liquid. Just one slice should work for most uses.  

    •     Flax seeds, when soaked in hot water, create mucilage that behaves like egg whites in baking.  Chia seeds also do that.  A traditional source of mucilage is slippery elm bark and has a history of being used as a remedy for gut problems in old herbals, as well as Marsh Mallow plants which are a real thing, and an ancestor of modern marshmallows. The most amazing rediscovery of mucilage in the modern day is that created by the common chickpea inside a can of chickpeas.  It's in modern use by vegans who avoid eggs and need a replacement, but it can also be used to make magic meringues. With the popularity of gluten free baking, we're going to rediscover the baking materials our ancestors probably considered ordinary. 

    •     Almond flour:   It's different if you grind it yourself or if you buy it.  Store bought almond flour has much less oil in it, so it absorbs more oil.  To avoid a too-oily result, consider reducing the oils/fats used with a recipe, if you're replacing store bought with homemade ground almonds.  Think about whether the recipe author expects you to use store bought flour or homemade. Personally I find almond butter to be an excellent base for most doughs and it eliminates the oil addition, making a recipe simpler.  Except for the part where you have to stir the almond butter if the oils have separated, which takes a bit of work.

    •     Tapioca/potato/rice flour mix - read the label on any gluten free food product and you'll probably find these three in the mix, often with various things with the word "cellulose" in it.  The purpose of these is to mimic the starch in wheat flour, but there's another reason.  These starchy flours, when properly hydrated, can also mimic eggs in recipes.  If you remember the health food stores of yesteryear before Whole Foods, or if you have had an egg allergy for decades, then you probably remember EnerG egg replacer.  So, to simplify recipes, add more eggs and less "mix."  Want a drier texture?  Then only add egg whites.  Want more emulsification? Add an extra egg yolk. 

    •     Mug muffins can teach you a lot about what works and what doesn't, without a lot of expensive experimentation.  Just keep in mind you may have to adjust proportions if you're going to make a smaller or larger amount of a baked item.  With a little practice, that will become less of a mysterious statement.  Believe me, the instinct for that develops quickly if you let it. You can do it!👍

    •     Buckwheat flour - this is a wholesome flour but it tends to darken the dough, so reserve it for things you wont' mind being an odd shade of blue-gray.  Dark breads and pancakes are a traditional use you can start with.  If you get the "cream of buckwheat" grain, or even larger, it can be used in place of bulghur in Tabbouleh recipes.  Note that if you soak it in water, the water can turn pink which is normal. 

    • Don't neglect the veggies!  Additions of pumpkin or cooked mashed zucchini (organic only, because zucchini is one of the high-risk GMOs), or get creative and taste the sweetness of roasted, mashed parsnips in baking recipes, or the flavor of rutabaga or turnips, cooked and mashed.  For that matter, try using boiled mashed red potatoes (again, organic, because of the GMO risk).  Red potatoes have higher protein content and if you "overbeat" them, they become "gummy" which should make light bulbs light up for anyone who's tried to bake gluten free.  

      • When you bake with vegetable mashes, you add starches that are already gelatinized, fibers that are already softened, and water that's already absorbed.  As a result, they are not suggested in most recipes, or their presence is a token.  We have abandoned this natural practice, because in our industrialized world, our minds have been industrialized too. We're trained to think that only an exact recipe is any good. But the fun and joy of home baking and cooking is freedom from factory processes. You can do it!👍

    •    Sweet rice flour - need some stretch?  I've mentioned this before, so I'll only touch on it.  Sweet rice flour is a different material than rice flour or brown rice flour.  When properly hydrated, it gives stretch to doughs and I like using it as an addition to GF baking mixes to improve texture and increase the ability to manipulate the dough without tearing it.

    •     Bean flours -  One reason I'm working to regain my proper gut flora and embrace beans once more is that, first, I have virus problems from ME/CFS and beans are a source of lysine, while being low in arginine.  (Check out navy beans.)While most meats have a higher lysine level, the balance between these two amino acids is often more important for preventing recurrences of viruses. The second reason is that bean pastes and flours can balance what's missing from gluten free flours.  They have more proteins and all proteins can relax and tangle up to form a matrix to some extent. The matrix will not the exactly the same, but some wonderful textures can result.  
    Be brave, consider recipes to be a general approximation/  Suss out which steps have been simplified and you might get a better texture by doing it another way.  Experiment and taste your way out of the cookie cutter lifestyle. Ask why recipes work, not how to do them.  How is the way to a process.  Why is the way to an insight.  You can do it! 👍


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