Gluten Free Baking: Getting Started
Gluten free baking is perhaps the thorniest new aspect of gluten-free living to which we, the wheat-free, must adapt. The quality of gluten-free baked good varies from dry and crumbly to super-dense and rubbery… with moments of perfection in between. Flavors can sometimes taste “off” as well, depending on the underlying flour blend.
To complicate matters, there are a growing number of gluten-free flour blends being marketed, leading many aspiring home bakers to attempt substituting these products for the all-purpose flour in standard recipes… often to very mixed results.
If you’ve had a disappointing initial foray into the GF baking fold, despair not… and read on:
The Gold Standard of GF Baking: Explicitly Gluten Free Recipes
From my experience, the best results with gluten-free baking derive from recipes designed to be gluten-free, rather than from swapping GF flour substitutes into standard recipes. (Though in some cases, this can be done successfully too… keep reading….) This is especially true for baked goods where texture and crumb are key: think cakes, quickbreads/muffins and breads, but less so for cookies and brownies, where texture is much more forgiving.
These recipes tend to use a pre-tested blend of gluten-free flours, xanthan gum to mimic the viscous texture that gluten would normally provide to a dough, and a chemical leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda.
From my experience, the best source for excellent gluten-free baked goods recipes that have the same taste and texture as conventional baked goods are:
Karina Allrich, blogging as the Gluten Free Goddess. In particular, her muffins and quickbreads/cake loaves are consistently moist, tender and generally excellent. You would not know they’re gluten-free.
- The Babycakes NYC cookbooks, available at the Babycakes NYC website. This is a great, go-to source for bakery-type items like cupcakes, donuts and quickbreads, but note they are vegan recipes and will therefore rely heavily on soy and coconut oil in place of milk and butter.
- The Blackbird Bakery cookbook contains fancier, more advanced recipes, and is great for the more experienced baker looking to impress highly discriminating loved ones for whom a pedestrian gluten-free cupcake simply won’t do.
- Carol Fenster is one of the most widely-known gluten-free cooking and baking experts, recipe developers (including for Bob’s Red Mill) and cookbook authors. She’s a generally good source for recipes, many of which can be found on the Bob’s Red Mill website.
- Gluten Free Baking cookbook, by Rebecca Reilly. Sort of like the Joy of Baking for the GF set, with a pretty comprehensive collection of the standards: cakes, pies, muffins, cookies and quickbreads.
Substituting GF flour blends into Conventional Recipes
This is probably where most GF disappointments occur, and much of this has to do with confusion about the different types of GF flour mixes out there and how best to use them. Hopefully the primer below can help clear things up:
Gluten-free All Purpose flours: These products are just a blend of various GF flours, starches and possibly xanthan gum, designed to serve as a 1:1 stand-in for all-purpose flour in conventional recipes. In theory, you should be able to use these as a stand-in for a conventional recipe’s all-purpose flour. In practice, you may find flavors, textures and baking times to be “off” if you do so, particularly for cakes. You are most likely to have the best results for cookies. Of course, this will vary widely by both the recipe and the product you use, so unfortunately there may be some trial and error involved.
Note if you are attempting to do a straight GF flour swap-in to a conventional recipe, you will probably want to add some xanthan gum to help improve the viscosity of your batter. A good rule of thumb is to add 1/2 teaspoon of xanthan gum per cup of flour that the recipe calls for. Too much may make the end product too heavy and dense.
Also, don’t bother trying to jerry-rig an actual bread recipe to a GF version by swapping in GF flours. It won’t work. To make homemade GF bread, use an explicitly GF bread recipe, or a specific GF bread baking mix.
Some products worth mentioning include:
- Bob’s Red Mill All-Purpose Flour Blend: Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it. Everything I’ve baked with this product has a weird, “beany” flavor that tastes off.
- Cup4Cup Gluten-free Flour: this is a promising new product developed by the pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s venerable French Laundry restaurant. It’s quite expensive ($19.95 for a 3lb bag, which translates into about $1.67/cup, assuming about 4 cups per pound). But it got good reviews from Flo Fab at the NY Times, who claims to have tested in in a chocolate cake, a pound cake and a pie crust. And would I pay $1.67 more for a few slices of killer chocolate cake? You betcha I would! Note this product already contains xanthan gum, so no need to add your own when swapping in.
- Gluten-free Pantry Gluten Free All-Purpose Flour: Allegedly, this product is intended to allow you to swap into any conventional baking recipe on a 1:1 basis. Based on its ingredients, I’m skeptical, though of course I haven’t tried it in a statistically significant number of recipes to be able to say for sure. I certainly would recommend using the xanthan gum if you attempt to do so, particularly in a cake recipe.
- King Arthur’s Multi-purpose flour: Note that this product is designed to substitute for the numerous different GF flours called for in gluten-free recipes… and NOT as a 1:1 stand in for all-purpose flour in a conventional recipe! This can be a huge cost saver for the occasional GF baker who doesn’t want to spend time and money tracking down a combo of 4-6 different specialty flours and starches to make a birthday cake twice a year. According to the package instructions, you should add up the total amount of flours and starches called for in a GF recipe and then measure out an equivalent amount of the Multi-purpose flour to replace it. You will need to add your own xanthan gum if the recipe calls for it.
Gluten-free Baking mixes: These products are flour blends often with additional leavening agents, such as baking soda or baking powder, and may not always seamlessly swap into a conventional recipe that also calls for a leavening agent. Doubling up the baking soda in a recipe without increasing the acid in to counterbalance it may produce a bitter or soap-like taste. And too much of either baking soda or powder can make the product taste bitter, too salty (don’t forget… these leaveners contain sodium bicarbonate… ) or cause it to totally collapse after rising. Examples of these products include:
- Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix
- Arrowhead Mills All-Purpose Baking Mix
- Gluten-free Bisquick Pancake and Baking Mix
To use these baking mixes successfully, read the product label for substitution instructions, or use the recipes provided on the product packaging or company website for best results.
Note that both GF All purpose flours and GF Baking mixes often contain milk powder as an ingredient, so if you avoid dairy for any reason, you’ll want to read these labels carefully!
Crumble Toppings: For conventional fruit dessert recipes that call for a crumble topping, try substituting the crumble ingredients with this recipe for a gluten-free Quinoa-Oat Crumble topping from the New York Times Recipes for Health series.
Just add wet ingredient Gluten-free baked goods mixes:
Brands from Betty Crocker and King Arthur Flour to Arrowhead Mills and Bob’s Red Mill all market a variety of mixes for just-add water/oil/egg GF cookies, brownies and cakes. Some produce great-tasting and great textured results. Some don’t. While I haven’t tried too many of these, below are some notes from my limited experience, much of which took place during the glory days of pregnancy and nursing, when my calorie budget was extra padded. If you have an experience with additional products, please submit a review in the comments section!
- Arrowhead Mills Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix: very yummy. I forced my husband to stop buying this product after I realized I consumed 12 cookies in a 24 hour period.
- Purely Elizabeth Cookie Mix: Makes a shockingly addictive chocolate chip cookie despite its healthy-looking appearance and ingredient list. Note: It’s a
soft, chewy cookie, not a crunchy one.
- Betty Crocker’s GF baking mixes: the cake and brownie mixes appear to get generally very good reviews from the GF reviewers at amazon.com, though I’ll admit I have not yet tried any of them.
- Thumbs down: I didn’t care for the cakes produced by Simply Organic baking mixes (weirdly rubberlike texture), and I found the GF cornbread mix from Bob’s Red Mill to be too salty.
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