Ingredients that Add Structure to Gluten-Free Baked Goods

1 of 12 in Series: The Essentials of Gluten-Free Baking Tips and Tricks

There are ingredients and methods for preparing gluten-free baked goods that can add structure and keep baked goods tender. You can build structure without gluten. Gluten-free baking has evolved over the past few years, ever since dedicated bakers discovered new tricks. Because gluten plays such a critical role in the structure of baked goods, replacing it can be difficult.

Gluten is the stretchy protein that forms when wheat flour is exposed to water and is manipulated, either through beating or kneading. This protein forms a literal web that traps air, creating the crumb, or texture, of breads, cookies, cakes, and pastries.

Bakers have discovered many ingredients for gluten-free recipes that help replicate gluten’s function in baked goods:

  • Agar-agar: Commonly used in processed foods, this vegan alternative to gelatin is made from seaweed. Agar-agar is very high in fiber. Using too much of this ingredient can make baked goods soggy, so measure carefully. Use about a teaspoon of agar-agar powder for each cup of liquid in a recipe.

  • Chia seeds: Like flaxseeds, chia seeds form a gel when mixed with boiling water. They’re a good substitute for xanthan and guar gums.

  • Eggs: The protein in eggs forms a web that traps air and water when beaten. Eggs are an easy way to add structure to any gluten-free baked product. However, if you’re allergic to eggs, you can substitute a gel made from flaxseeds or chia seeds in many recipes.

  • Expandex: This product, which is uncommon in retail markets, is modified tapioca starch. It forms a web with water, so it really mimics gluten’s structure with no added taste because it’s flavorless. Add from 1/4 to 3/4 cup of Expandex to bread recipes in place of some of the flour.

  • Gelatin: This ingredient is used to make doughs more pliable. When mixed with water, gelatin forms, well, a gel that helps trap water and makes doughs stretchier. Use the unflavored variety only; your breads don’t need to be strawberry-flavored!

  • Ground flaxseed: Flaxseed, when ground, absorbs water and becomes a gel. You grind the seeds first and then combine them with boiling water to form a thick mixture. Flaxseed is very high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s good for you. Use only golden flaxseeds. The brown ones contain a bit of chlorophyll, and you may end up with green-tinged bread.

  • Guar gum: This gum is made from a legume plant. It’s less expensive than xanthan gum but has incredible thickening power. It makes breads that are less “gummy” than breads made with xanthan gum. Both xanthan gum and guar gum have laxative properties, which can cause digestive distress in some people.

  • Pectin: Pectin is a complex carbohydrate used to thicken jams and jellies. Dried pectin, which can be difficult to find, helps provide structure for breads and cakes. It absorbs moisture, which helps keep baked goods from drying out and keeps them soft.

  • Xanthan gum: Older gluten-free recipes relied heavily on gums. Xanthan gum is made from corn. You use only a tiny bit in recipes — usually a teaspoon. If you use too much the product can become heavy or slimy.

    Gums form a stretchy web when mixed with water, which replicates gluten’s structure. But xanthan gum is expensive, and some people who are sensitive to gluten are also sensitive to xanthan gum. Some people can taste the gum in baked goods.

The latest incarnations of gluten-free breads, cakes, and cookies use no gums, gelatin, or artificial structure-makers at all. Gluten-free bakers have found that using a combination of high-protein, high-starch, gluten-free flours helps mimic the structure provided by wheat flours. This knowledge, combined with new weighing and mixing methods, has revolutionized the gluten-free baking world.

If you want to avoid gums or other artificial add-ins, you need to combine gluten-free flours and starches. No single gluten-free flour has the characteristics, protein content, and starch content to singlehandedly replicate wheat flour.

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