Gluten-Free Baking For Dummies
Baked goods evolved around wheat, which contains gluten. Gluten is a protein molecule found in wheat and other grains. This particular molecule affects certain people with a condition called celiac disease as well as other conditions that range from gluten sensitivity to gluten intolerance. The world is gradually becoming more accepting of the need for gluten-free products, including baked goods. After years of trial and error, gluten-free bakers have developed recipes that are very similar to wheat-bases baked goods.
What Is Gluten, Why Does It Matter to Baking, and Where Does It Lurk?
Gluten is a molecule unique to certain plants, and it is a key component of traditional baking. Gluten consists of two smaller proteins called glutenin and gliadin. When mixed with water, these two proteins combine to form gluten. Gluten is a stretchy substance that holds carbon dioxide in baked goods and gives these goods their texture and structure. Gluten is found in these products:
Einkorn (a wild wheat species)
Kamut (an ancient relative of wheat)
Spelt (an ancient species of wheat)
Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye)
Measuring and Mixing in Gluten-Free Baking
Measuring and mixing are essential to delicious, gluten-free baked goods. Because gluten-free flours are heavier than wheat flours, weighing them (grams) instead of measuring by volume (cups and tablespoons) was a breakthrough. Here are some other points to keep in mind regarding measuring, proportion, and mixing:
For the best results with gluten-free ingredients, you should weigh the flours, not measure them by volume. Use a scale set to gram weights and measure each flour you use. Be sure to zero out the scale after each measurement. (By the way, measuring in ounces is called imperial weights while measuring in grams is called metric weights. Just another cocktail party tidbit for you!)
The proportion of flours to liquid is different in gluten-free baked goods. Doughs are rare; most of the recipes, even for yeast breads, are batters. Gluten-free flours are heavier and absorb more moisture than wheat flours, so they need a bit more liquid for the baked goods to be tender and moist.
If you do measure by volume, be especially careful with flour and mixes. To measure flour with cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons, always spoon the flour into the measuring cup or spoon and then level off with the back of a knife. Never pack the flour, shake the cup, or press on the flour. Don’t scoop the flour out of its container or bag with the measuring cup or you’ll end up with too much flour and your products will be heavy and dry.
You usually chill batters and doughs before baking. This gives the flour proteins and starches time to absorb the liquid in the recipe, which helps develop structure and flavor.
When substituting flours in gluten-free breads, always substitute by weight. Don’t substitute cup for cup or you’ll end up with a disaster. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of potato starch, which weighs 190 grams, and you want to use tapioca starch, you need to add 190 grams of tapioca starch, not 1 cup — because a cup of tapioca starch (also called tapioca flour) weighs 125 grams! Substituting cup for cup just doesn’t work. Use that scale and substitute gram for gram!
For example, if you want to substitute corn flour for 3/4 cup of brown rice flour, 3/4 cup of brown rice flour weighs 101 grams, so you need to substitute 101 grams of corn flour, which is 3/4 cup (87 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (14 grams). Of course, not all conversions are that precise. Try to get within 4 grams of the total amount.
Mixing, especially for yeast breads, is very different when you use gluten-free flours. First of all, you must mix together the different flours thoroughly before you add them to batters. Gluten-free flours are all different colors. The best way to make sure the flours are well-mixed is to stir them together with a wire whisk until the mixture is one color. Then, you use a stand or hand mixer to thoroughly mix the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients. You really can’t overmix gluten-free batters or doughs because they have no gluten to overdevelop, so beat to your heart’s content!
The Components of Gluten-Free Doughs
Many people are working in labs and universities around the world to help make gluten-free products as close to wheat-based products as possible. If you're going to make gluten-free baked good, you want your dough to replicate many of the structural elements that gluten provides to wheat-based products. Here are components of gluten-free doughs that can replicate the stretchy, weblike characteristics of gluten:
High-protein flours: Though the proteins in gluten-free flours never act exactly like gluten, they can come pretty close. Choose high-protein flours to make yeast breads and pizza doughs. Different proteins from different flours make a structure that’s pretty close to the unique structure of gluten.
Tapioca starch: This starch, also called tapioca flour, has a strong elastic quality that replicates the springiness of gluten.
Egg proteins: Egg proteins, when beaten, align and form a weblike structure very similar to gluten. This manifests in the form of a foam, which provides the small air cells that contribute to bread’s crumb structure.
Milk proteins: The proteins and fat in milk products can also form a foam that creates a fine crumb structure. Think about whipped cream; proteins and fat in that product create a web that holds air.
Gums, gelatin, and pectin: Xanthan and guar gums add plasticity and elasticity to gluten-free doughs that mimic gluten’s structure and function. You can use gelatin to create some of this weblike structure, too. Pectin, a compound found in fruit, also forms a gel that replicates gluten’s structure.
Flaxseed and chia seed: These slurries are a good substitute for gums and eggs in gluten-free doughs. They form gels that, again, trap air and create a smaller crumb for nice texture.