New to Gluten-Free Baking?
Gluten-Free Whole Grains are Not the Best Choice for Newbies
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Discovering you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance completely changes your life. Although you might be grateful to discover why you've been sick, eventually you wake up to the reality that you can't eat foods with gluten anymore. Wheat, barley, and rye all contain gluten, so a gluten-free diet often requires you to give up your favorite foods and learn how to shop, cook, and bake all over again.
If you are new to baking without gluten, you might be feeling intimidated, overwhelmed, and confused. There are so many gluten-free flours to pick from.
Not all flour alternatives are useful for those new to a gluten-free lifestyle. Learning to cook with whole grains you've never used before comes with a huge learning curve. In the beginning, you need flour and recipes that will yield superior results. However, being able to make tasty baked goods without using wheat flour is a challenge. It requires you to make custom gluten-free flour blends or purchase them already made from trusted manufacturers.
Gluten-free products are expensive and finding just the right flour mix to fit your needs can be rough. It's a trial-and-error process that will play havoc with your pocketbook. If you're looking for an easy solution to pricey ready-made flour blends, this easy beginner's guide will help you understand the basics about traditional gluten-free flour and starches.
You'll also get a good beginner's gluten-free flour recipe to help make the transition easier.
Keep Your Gluten-Free Flour Options Simple
In the beginning, when gluten-free foods are new, it's easier to keep your flour alternatives simple. It takes a while to learn how to read food labels, which ingredients are safe, and how to combine different flours and starches to create delicious meals, snacks, and desserts, such as these scrumptious-looking pizza scrolls. Gluten-free baking isn't hard, but it does take time to learn how to adapt recipes to be gluten free.
Why Combine Gluten-Free Flours?
There is no single gluten-free flour that can substitute for wheat flour. Gluten gives baked goods their structure, texture, and ability to rise. It makes them soft and fluffy. Without the gluten, baked goods are dense, flat, and crumble. You literally cannot pick them up.
To get around these problems, gluten-free bakers combine various flours, starches, and vegetable gums, raise the protein content of the recipe, and add additional moisture. These steps help to approximate the same role that gluten plays in baked goods. In that way, you end up with delicious hamburger buns, chocolate cake and even Christmas cookies that come pretty close to the real thing.
When new to gluten-free cooking, the best gluten-free flour for baking is simply rice flour. Rice flours are used extensively in gluten-free products and are the go-to cooking flour when you’re new to celiac disease or gluten intolerance. They do have a sandy consistency that can be disappointing if you don’t combine them with additional flours or starches to make the graininess less obvious.
For the very first gluten-free cookie I made, I used only sweet rice flour. At that time, I didn’t know I was supposed to combine it with other flours or starches. I simply followed a chocolate-chip cookie recipe I found online at one of the major recipe sites. It didn’t taste bad, but it was grainy and sandy, so I started looking at published gluten-free recipes with more hesitation. Today, I do not trust the ratings of a recipe. Just because others like something, that doesn’t mean I will.
Rice flours come in three different types: white-rice flour, brown-rice flour and sweet-rice flour. Within each of these categories, there are also different grinds and types of rice. Sweet-rice flour is made from short-grain rice, but there are also long-grain and medium-grain varieties. The finer the grind, the less sandy the flour will be. Overall, white-rice flour is very bland, so it picks up the other spices and flavorings you mix with it.
Most baking advice tells you that brown-rice flour can be substituted for white, but I haven’t found that to be true. I had to play around with the amount of xanthan gum I used as well as the wet ingredients to make my gluten-free recipes come out right. I also don’t like the taste that brown rice gives battered foods such as chicken strips or the meat in Gluten-Free Orange Chicken, but I do like it in bread.
Many gluten-free cooks do not use white-rice flour anymore, except for a little sweet-rice flour to thicken sauces and gravies. They have moved on to using whole-grain varieties of flour such as millet, sorghum, and teff, but in the beginning, the whole-grain choices can be overwhelming because they take a lot more experimentation to make them taste good.
When you first go gluten free, what most people miss are the white-flour breads, pancakes, cakes, and cookies. If that’s true for you, then white-rice flour will work the best. Although it isn’t as nutritious as brown-rice flour, it will help you adapt to the lifestyle change and give you time to heal before introducing something heavier. Those with serious intestinal issues and symptoms do much better with white rice rather than brown. Although I've been gluten free for years now, I still cannot use whole grains.
Tapioca Starch or Flour
Both tapioca starch and tapioca flour are exactly the same thing, so it doesn’t matter which name a gluten-free brand uses. Tapioca is actually dried and ground yucca or cassava roots. It’s native to South America, so sometimes it’s also called manioc. Tapioca starch adds chewiness and moisture to baked goods, but if you use too much, the finished product might come out underdone and gooey.
Since it’s starchy, you can use tapioca as a substitute for cornstarch when thickening sauces, but the result is a bit stringy and more gooey than cornstarch, potato starch, or rice flour. Most gluten-free cooks use regular cornstarch to thicken foods, but if you’re allergic to corn and want to avoid rice flour’s grittiness in sauces, you’ll simply have to put up with some of tapioca’s negative qualities.
Potato Starch and Potato Flour
Potato starch and potato flour are not the same thing. Very few recipes call for potato flour because it’s heavy and made from dried, cooked potatoes. Potato starch is extracted from crushed, raw potatoes and dried into a white powder. Potato flour tastes like potatoes (think ground up instant potatoes), so a tiny bit added to a bread recipe would perform the same function as mashed potato flakes when added to regular wheat bread. Potato flour also works well to thicken stews. Potato starch, on the other hand, has no flavor. Since both perform differently in recipes, you cannot substitute one for the other.
Cornstarch is made from corn that has been soaked for up to 48 hours, slightly fermented, separated and ground. Manufacturers extract the starch and dry it. The drying process creates a soft, white powder. You can find cornstarch at any grocery store in the baking section, but make sure that you read the label before you buy.
Many brands of cornstarch are packaged on equipment that also package wheat products, so they won't guarantee their cornstarch to be gluten free. If in doubt, call the manufacturer and ask. Don't just assume it's gluten free. Here in the U.S., alerting consumers to potential cross contamination problems is completely voluntary.
Gluten-Free Flour Blend Recipe
All starches help to lighten and smooth out the grittiness of rice flour when used in a recipe. Since a single flour is almost never used in gluten-free baking except when coating and frying, tapioca, potato starch and cornstarch are often mixed together with rice flour beforehand and sold as a gluten-free all-purpose flour.
While you can purchase gluten-free brands of rice flour and starches separately and create your own gluten-free flour mix, many beginners find the pre-made mixtures more convenient.
A simple, basic gluten-free flour mix that works in almost every recipe I've tried is:
- 2-1/2 cups white rice flour
- 1/4 cup brown rice flour
- 1 cup tapioca starch or flour
- 1 cup potato starch (not potato flour)
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
Some pre-made mixes have xanthan gum already added and some do not. If you choose to go with a pre-made gluten-free flour blend rather than making your own, you’ll need to pay close attention to whether there are vegetable gums already in the flour. For example, gluten-free Bisquick comes with xanthan gum already added while King Arthur’s gluten-free all-purpose flour does not. You don’t want to add additional xanthan gum if it’s already in your flour. If you do, you’ll end up with baked goods that are dense and tough.
Xanthan Gum and Guar Gum
Along with basic flours and starches, gluten-free baking requires vegetable gums to help imitate the properties of gluten. Although some bakers have found ways around the gums, such as using oatmeal flour, I haven't personally had much success with leaving them out. Without the xanthan, my gluten-free baked goods have always fallen apart.
Both guar gum and xanthan gum have the ability to thicken sauces when used in tiny amounts. For that reason, they are heavily used within the low-carb community. Gluten-free bakers use them in their recipes to do similar things. They expand the batter, trap the gases created by yeast or baking powder and help to hold your baked goods together.
Vegetable gums are popular in many traditional processed foods for their ability to thicken and bind ingredients. Without vegetable gums, gluten-free baked goods would crumble. While that might be what you want if you’re making an imitation graham-cracker crust, that isn’t what you want a cookie or piece of cake to do.
I haven’t had much luck with guar gum, so I use xanthan gum instead. Most gluten-free bakers use xanthan gum. Those who are allergic to corn use guar gum because it’s ground from the seeds of the guar plant while xanthan is grown on potatoes, corn, soy, or wheat starch in a laboratory.
While wheat starch is now being held up as safe for celiacs, provided it has undergone processing to remove enough gluten to bring the finished product within the FDA's new definition of gluten free. As a super-sensitive celiac, I haven't found that to be true. I react very badly to wheat starch, so I can't use the Bob's Red Mill brand of xanthan gum. I personally use NOW Foods xanthan gum instead.
Guar gum needs to be mixed into your liquid ingredients while xanthan gum is mixed into your dry ingredients. Both vegetable gums are said to work equally well in recipes, but I haven’t found that to be true for me either.
Beginner Gluten-Free Baking Tips
When new to gluten-free baking, it takes a while to learn all of the principles involved in making great gluten-free recipes, such as chicken pot pie. Don’t be hard on yourself if you make a few mistakes. Just expect to see a few failures along the way. Fallen loaves of bread make wonderful gluten-free breadcrumbs, French toast, and bread puddings.
Working with gluten-free flour is tricky. The humidity, season, and air temperature all play a role in the outcome of the final product. The amount of liquid-to-dry ingredients, protein content, vegetable gums, and even the brands of gluten-free flours and starches you use can all cause a recipe to fail. That is especially true if you live at higher altitudes or if you're attempting to use something different than the recipe calls for.
Becoming a gluten-free cook requires patience and a lot of experimentation. If you start with basic rice flours and simple starches, it can make your first attempts at baking easier and more likely to succeed. Later on, once you have mastered the basics, you can begin to experiment with other gluten-free flours, such as amaranth, millet, or sorghum.