Important Tips for Baking with Gluten-Free Flour

It's just not the same as working with wheat ... but you can get great results

gluten-free flour and baking
Gluten-free flours don't behave like wheat flour. Getty Images/Photographer and Designer

To understand how to substitute gluten-free flour for wheat flour, it helps to know a bit of basic food chemistry. Even if you're terrible at chemistry, don't be afraid to keep reading — it's really not that complicated.

First, as you may know, flour is made by grinding grains, legumes, nuts, or seeds into a fine powder. (When these substances are ground into coarse powders, the result is referred to as "meal" rather than "flour.")

When most people think of "flour," they're thinking of wheat flour, which obviously is off-limits on the gluten-free diet. Flours made from barley and rye contain gluten and will make those of us with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity sick.

Fortunately, it's getting easier and easier to find a huge variety of so-called "alternative" flours, both in stores (check out the natural foods section of any large supermarket) or online.

Some Basic Facts about Flour and Gluten

With gluten-free cooking and baking, it helps to know what gluten does before you try to work without it.

1) Gluten makes dough "doughy."
As soon as glutenin and gliadin are surrounded by water, the gluten molecules develop and begin to form strong, sticky, elastic bonds. These elastic bonds give dough its stretchy, "doughy" qualities. Have you ever seen pizza being made? The bakers toss the pizza dough up in the air with a circular motion to stretch it.

THAT stretchy dough has a lot of gluten in it!

2) Gluten helps dough rise.
Two other factors that affect the development of gluten are the amount of water that's added to the flour (the more water, the more gluten, and the chewier the dough), and the amount of mixing or kneading. Kneading helps the bonded gluten molecules form into long elastic strands or sheets.

That's why dough can rise when yeast has been added. The yeast gives off gasses, the gasses are trapped by the sheets of gluten molecules, and the dough rises.

3) Different purposes call for different flours.
Different types of wheat flours have different amounts of gluten development. Bread flour develops a lot of gluten, while cake flour is relatively low in gluten because cakes should be less chewy than pizzas and breads. (Cake flour still has enough gluten to keep baked goods from crumbling.) In contrast, pie crusts — which should be tender and flaky — have much less gluten than either breads or cakes. Instead, pie crust doughs have a lot of shortening and only a small amount of liquid, and they are mixed only enough to combine the ingredients.

Substituting Gluten-Free Flour for Wheat Flour in Baked Goods

Gluten gives important properties to regular dough, so if you simply eliminate it without compensating for it in some way, you'll have disappointing results. Here are tips for successful baking with gluten-free flours. Chef Richard Coppedge, professor in Baking and Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., was gracious enough to review these with me.

1. Buy or make a gluten-free flour mix.
If you just need to coat something in flour before you saute it, you can get away with a single-grain gluten-free flour.

But for baking, gluten-free flours work better when used in combination. (For thickening sauces and gravies, use cornstarch or potato starch rather than gluten-free flour.) Start with a gluten-free flour mix that can be substituted one-for-one for wheat flour in recipes. Many commercial ones are available, or you can buy the individual flours (you might need to order them by mail) and make your own mix.

2. Bake breads and rolls in containers with walls.
Without gluten, bread loafs and rolls don't hold their shape. Bake bread in loaf pans or Bundt pans, and use muffin tins for rolls.

3. Add gums to your gluten-free flour.
The sticky effect created by gluten can be simulated to a certain extent by adding gums, such as guar gum or xantham gum.

These gums are only added to recipes in small amounts (such as 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour) and are already included in many commercial gluten-free flour mixes.

4. Add some protein when you use gluten-free flour.
Chef Coppedge explains that because gluten is a protein, it can help to add some protein to baking recipes when you're substituting gluten-free flours for wheat flour. For instance, he suggests, try replacing half a cup of water in your recipe with egg or liquid egg whites. 

5. Read gluten-free cookbooks and blogs for new ideas.
Many great gluten-free cookbooks are available. 

6. Experiment with some old favorites.
Don't be afraid to work with your favorite old recipes, adapting them to gluten-free. I've had decent luck with wonderful old cookie recipes (although it did take several tries to figure out exactly what to do). Set aside a weekend day to experiment, and see if you can recreate something you love in a form you can eat.

7. Remember to protect against cross-contamination with gluten.
For example, never prepare gluten-free foods on the same surface used to prepare foods with gluten unless it's been thoroughly cleaned (and it's capable of being cleaned — for example, you can never clean a wooden cutting board well enough to make it gluten-free). You're much safer to have separate sets of utensils for gluten-free food preparation. Always use different sifters for gluten-free and regular flours. 

8. Store gluten-free flour in the refrigerator or freezer.
This advice is particularly important if you buy your flours in bulk. If you store your flours in the freezer, let them come to room temperature before you use them.

Flours to Avoid
Beware of the following flours.
They have ambiguous names but
contain gluten and must be avoided.
All-purpose flourPlain flour
Bulgar flourSauce flour
Bread flourSelf-rising flour
Brown flourSemolina flour
Cake flourSpelt flour
Durham flourTriticale flour
Granary flourWheaten cornflour
Graham flourWholemeal flour
Kamut flour


(Edited by Jane Anderson)

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