The Basics of Gluten-Free Baking

If you're new to gluten-free baking, you'll need a basic understanding of what gluten is, products that contain it, and the evolution of gluten-free baking.

Many traditional baked goods are wheat-based. Gluten is a protein molecule found in wheat and other grains such as rye, barley, spelt, and triticale. 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 gluten protein causes an autoimmune reaction in gluten-responsive people. This reaction causes all sorts of unpleasant side effects that range from digestive problems to skin rashes to malnutrition to more serious diseases and ailments such as cancer, chronic fatigue, diabetes, migraines, thyroid problems, ulcers, seizures, depression, and osteoporosis.

There is only one way to treat celiac disease and gluten intolerance: avoid gluten. Period. Avoid gluten and your life will change: Your energy will return, you won't have digestive problems, and you won't feel sick or bloated or have skin rashes and dental problems.

You don't have to give up foods like pizza, brownies, cookies, cakes, pies, and soufflés — there are delicious gluten-free recipes for all those formerly wheat-based goodies. And they're easy to make.

Where does gluten lurk?

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:

  • Barley

  • Bulgur

  • Durum

  • Einkorn (a wild wheat species)

  • Hand lotion

  • Kamut (an ancient relative of wheat)

  • Paste glue

  • Play-Doh

  • Prescription medicines

  • Rye

  • Semolina

  • Spelt (an ancient species of wheat)

  • Triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye)

  • Wheat

  • Wheat pasta

Notice that gluten is used in many consumer goods as well as foods. This is why those on the gluten intolerance spectrum have to be so careful about reading labels, what they buy, what they eat, and how they live their lives. Gluten sneaks into lots of products.

And then there's the issue of cross-contamination. Oats don't contain gluten, but if they're grown in a field next to a wheat field or processed in the same plant that processes wheat into flour, gluten can sneak into oatmeal and oat flour. If a bakery makes wheat bread and then makes gluten-free breads, the mixer, pans, spoons, cutting boards, rolling pins, measuring cups, and knives can carry gluten molecules into the (supposedly) gluten-free bread.

The world is gradually becoming more accepting of the need for gluten-free products. But there's still a long way to go. The best way to keep gluten out of your life and your body is to bake and cook at home.

How you can bake without gluten

Through lots of trial and error, a few successes, and many more failures, gluten-free bakers have learned that combining flours and adding special ingredients to some recipes can make gluten-free baked goods that are very similar to wheat baked goods.

Here are the breakthroughs in gluten-free baking over the last decade:

  • Additives. One of the first secrets to better gluten-free baked goods until the last few years. Xanthan gum and guar gum, in particular, were used in almost every gluten-free baking recipe. But then, some people started noticing that those gums led to physical reactions such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Turns out that some people are sensitive to those gums. And those products, especially xanthan gum, are very expensive and can be difficult to find.

  • Knead-less baking. At first, many bakers tried to make their doughs look and act like wheat-based doughs. They wanted dough they could knead and shape by hand. But gluten-free flours simply don't behave like wheat flours in any way. They're denser, so they need a smidge more liquid, and they absorb that liquid more slowly than wheat flour. Successful gluten-free doughs are more like thick cake batters. And you don't knead most of them.

  • Blends. The final breakthrough involved using a combination of flours and starches. This technique seems to work best because all the gluten-free flours have different protein and starch amounts — and different proteins and starches! These compounds work together to give doughs and batters, and the resulting baked goods, a structure similar to wheat-based baked goods.

This evolution took some time, but ever since the secrets were revealed (mainly on the Internet), the popularity of gluten-free baked goods has exploded. Bloggers share tricks and recipes, and as more and more people jump on the bandwagon, gluten-free baking will only get better over time.

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