The Basics of Gluten-Free Baking

By Ellen Fox Emerson

A good blend of gluten-free flours, along with patience and practice, will ensure your success when preparing foods that taste every bit as good as those made with wheat, rye, or barley. It doesn’t need to be complicated. However, you’ll find that unlike wheat flour, gluten-free flours are not created equal. With every gluten-free cookbook comes a different blend. The number of ingredients varies from as few as two to as many as seven. How do you know which combination works the best?

That’s the dilemma I faced when I tried baking after I discovered that I was gluten-intolerant. My sister Susan gave me a copy of The Gluten-Free Gourmet Makes Dessert by Bette Hagman. A pioneer, Ms. Hagman is probably the Julia Child of gluten-free cooking.

I sat down with her book to learn. Honestly, there was more information than I could process. I found all of the substitute ingredients required to imitate wheat flour overwhelming. Ms. Hagman includes a list of 18 ours that can be used in various combinations, along with seven other ingredients used as enhancers. She shares four formulas for different our blends. While many people may want to know the scientific reasons for why and how these work, I just wanted a simple formula. I talked with other gluten-intolerant people who came away with the same feeling -- even a friend who had attended the Culinary Institute of America. She gave up before even starting.

Wanting something simpler, I tried several off-the-shelf formulas. Sadly, I wasn’t pleased with them, either: The prices were outrageous, the textures foreign to the touch, and my success rate zero. I was almost ready to throw in the towel. But I scoured the Internet and finally came across Jeanne Sauvage’s blog, Art of Gluten Free Baking. On a page called The Story Behind My Gluten-Free Flour Mix she writes, “one thing that was key for me was that I hated having to get out several flours every time I baked and measure out the different amounts of each. This took time and it wasn’t very fun.”

I think Ms. Sauvage’s blog is a must-read for all new gluten-free bakers, if only for her flour recipe and the explanation of how it came about. She also provides a sense of calm, and the confidence that you too can create the foods you’ve done without, just when you think you’ll never be able to bake again.

The recipe I use varies a little from Ms. Sauvage’s but only by accident. I was shopping for her ingredients and couldn’t find the brown rice or the tapioca flours that she uses. Her book includes a section for substitute flours. For the brown rice flour she suggests sorghum flour. For tapioca flour it is potato starch. I really liked the flavor of the blend I made with those two substitutes and never looked back.

Gluten-Free Flour Blend
Makes 4 cups

This is the recipe I use as an all-purpose our substitute for all of the baked goods in this book. Typically, I make three or four batches at a time, so I have plenty on hand. To create this blend I use Bob’s Red Mill products, generally available at health food stores, chain groceries, and independent shops.

1 cups sorghum flour
1 cups white rice flour
1 cup potato starch (not flour)
1 cup sweet rice flour

Place all the ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until completely blended. Store in an airtight container in a cool cupboard. (If you don’t bake frequently, store the our in the refrigerator, but bring it to room temperature before using.)

Xanthan Gum: The secret ingredient

Gluten-free flour blends alone don’t create successful baked goods; you need something to provide the strength and elasticity that normally comes from gluten. That essential ingredient is xanthan gum. Xanthan gum plays the crucial role of imitating gluten. It is what makes dough “doughy” or bread chewy. It provides elasticity. Xanthan gum holds a cookie together when baking; enables cakes and breads to hold on to the gas bubbles that form inside them; and allows them to rise, take shape, and not collapse.

Xanthan gum might seem expensive, but a little goes a long way. When buying prepared blends, be sure to check the ingredients to see if xanthan gum is included. Because different types of baked goods require different amounts, I prefer to add xanthan gum separately to a recipe, rather than including it in my blend.

The amounts vary, but I follow the recommendations of Bob’s Red Mill Xanthan Gum:

Cookies: ¼ teaspoon per cup of flour
Cakes: ½ teaspoon per cup of flour
Muffins and Quick Breads Yeast Breads: ¾ teaspoon per cup of flour
Pizza Crust: 2 teaspoons per cup of flour

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