Baking is a tricky process on its own. One mis-measure, or a bit too long in the oven, and out comes something virtually inedible. Now add gluten-free to the equation and you’ve got a real challenge on your hands. Thankfully, with a bit of knowledge, some experimentation and a few tricks, you can whip up gluten-free versions of everything from bread to muffins to pie—and actually have them taste great.
There was a time not long ago when avoiding gluten was only for those with full-blown celiac disease, an immune reaction to gluten that causes damage to the inner surface of the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients. These days, the term “gluten-free” is plastered everywhere, from store shelves to restaurant menus, and it’s clear why. According to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, gluten intolerance, a related but less severe condition marked by symptoms such as fatigue, “foggy mind,” diarrhea, depression and joint pain, affects approximately 18 million people, or 6 percent of the population. Add to that a host of people who are minimizing or eliminating gluten just because it makes them feel healthier, and you’ve got a whole lot of people wanting good-tasting, gluten-free baked goods.
The tips below will help you create such treats. They come courtesy of Ricki Heller, whole foods chef and author of Sweet Freedom: Desserts You’ll Love Without Wheat, Eggs, Dairy or Refined Sugar.
Try premixed flours
Premixed flours are a wonderful shortcut for the beginner. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming when you’ve got the choice of six or seven different flours and you’re trying to convert a recipe from wheat to gluten-free at the same time. With the all-purpose mixes, you can simply measure the flour one-for-one and know that the recipe will still work.
Mix and match
Once you’ve gotten a little experience under your belt, you can experiment with the different categories of flours. Some are made from grains (rice, millet, amaranth, sorghum, teff, etc.); some from starches (tapioca, corn, potato, arrowroot); some from beans and legumes (fava, chickpea, pea, lentil); and others from nuts and/or seeds (almond, coconut, hemp, flax).
For more robust gluten-free flavors and textures such as savory breads, biscuits or muffins, try a mix of grain, legume and starch. For a delicate cake, or a lighter flavor, such as lemon or vanilla, use a mix that leans more toward grain and starches, as they produce a more delicate flavor and finer crumb.
Make it moist
If you are not careful, gluten-free baked goods can turn out drier or harder than wheat-based baked goods. The reason is that gluten-free treats require more moisture at the outset to ensure a final result that remains moist beyond one day. When raw, your batter should be substantially wetter than it would with a gluten-based recipe. Bread dough, for instance, should be thin enough to spread in the loaf pan rather than thick enough to be shaped into a dough by hand; cake batter should usually be thin and liquid.
Adding certain ingredients will ensure that your final product retains moisture. Many gluten-free recipes call for eggs, but ground flax or chia seeds are a great egg substitute for a moister product. You can also add applesauce or other puréed fruits to batters.
Give it structure
Because gluten is the natural “binder” in wheat-based products, gluten-free bakers need to find a suitable replacement or baked goods will crumble like desert sand once they come out of the pan. For many years, the go-to binder has been xanthan gum, but there are other options as well.
Most xanthan gum is derived from corn, though corn-free brands are now available, which are made from the starches in wheat, dairy or soy. Of course, xanthan made from wheat would defeat the purpose here.
Guar gum is derived from a seed native to Asia and can usually be used in place of xanthan. Finally, psyllium husks can be used to provide the gluten-like structure to baked goods.
Use smart storage
Most gluten-free flours are made from whole grains, so along with starch and fiber, they contain oils. These oils are healthy, but they also are very susceptible to damage from heat, air or light and can become rancid fairly quickly. To prevent spoilage, store flours in airtight containers in the fridge for a week or two, or in sealable bags in the freezer for longer shelf life. Be sure to bring flours to room temperature before using.
And when it comes to gluten-free baked goods themselves, they can lose moisture and quality quickly. The best way to keep them fresh is to wrap them tightly and store in the refrigerator or freezer in an airtight container.