A Quick Guide to Gluten-Free Baking
We're gonna make a major swing from bearing our soul to sharing some brass tacks cooking advice if that's okay. Being a better cook and baker makes eating all of our feelings so much more satisfying and delicious so I figure they're not entirely unrelated. With plenty more baked creations on the docket and holiday baking just around the corner, I thought it might be helpful to have a sort of baking home base. A post that I could quickly and easily point you to if you're new here (hooray! hi!) or new to gluten-free baking. This isn't solely a sweets blog but as a former pastry cook baking is kind of my jam. As such, 2 out of 3 posts here are likely to involve a disproportionate amount of sugar. So here it is. Probably not far off from the million other guides to gluten-free baking out there now but this one's winnowed down from all the info and recipes I've tried over the years, even cookbooks I've worked on, to what I've found works and works consistently. With baking, trial and error is part of the deal. And while a handful of recipes just won't ever really compare to their classic counterparts (i.e. a sourdough baguette), I've had great success modifying recipes with these basic blends and rules of thumb. Hopefully they're helpful for you too.
How did we get here? Nearly four years ago, as a show of solidarity for someone I was working with on an almost daily basis at the time, I decided to go gluten-free. She had legit medical reasons. I just said, "why not?" and jumped on the bandwagon. Well, almost. Right around the time this co-worker was about to make the switch, someone at the lunch table one day mentioned how much a gluten-free diet had helped their carpal tunnel. And that pretty much sealed it. My 9-month stint in pastry had left my hands and wrists pretty racked from all those perfect ice cream quenelles. After leaving the kitchen and 3 months of physical therapy they were, for the most part, better but any kind of constant use (say holding a knife for long periods) would cause the pain to flair up. If I was on the fence at all about going gluten-free before that, I was entirely on board after. I'd've tried anything to save my hands so I could keep on in the kitchen.
You might think that the transition would've been traumatic. Especially for a former pastry cook. What about bread? And pizza? And freakin' pie?? Well, yea. But to be honest I don't really eat a lot of what I bake. I'm more of a bake-and-give kinda girl or I'll bake for occasions. Still, most things don't get out the door without at least a slice or two for myself. It forced me to re-learn some of what I know about baking and the start of that transition came with a fair share of frustrating and costly "learning opportunities." Now, though, I feel like I've been able to replace all but a few things with gluten-free versions that I actually prefer. The only thing I truly miss is consuming an entire baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar in one sitting. But I probably needed to kick that habit anyway.
I feel like we can all agree that an aversion to gf baked goods is somewhat justified. I've come across some pretty awful excuses for some in the past four years and if you've been looking, I'm sure you have too. BUT we've come a long way in recipe development in that time and ingredients are more accessible than ever. Now that I understand a little bit more about what's going on I'm more comfortable with making my own and I actually prefer them to their glutinous counterparts. I'm serious. Here's why:
1) Gluten-free baking is more forgiving in the process. One of the biggest things in conventional baking is over-mixing. You see the fear of God warning all the time in recipes: DO NOT OVER-MIX!! The reason being that the more you agitate (or mix) gluten, the more glue-like it becomes turning turning baked goods from tender to tough in the matter of a few turns of your whisk. Well, that's vague, easy to do, and no one likes to be yelled at while they're in the kitchen. The beautiful thing about gluten-free baking? The gluten which when over-mixed turns baked goods tough, is no longer in the picture. Instead mixing is our friend. Because it activates common binders like ground psyllium husk, chia, and xanthan. So mix away.
2) You don't have to have those fancy (read: expensive) store-bought flour mixes. And all the better because they're full of cheap starches and gums. Almost any run-of-the-mill grocery store now has a bulk section carrying gluten-free flours. It's insanely cheap to purchase in bulk and mix your own and with that, integrate healthier alternatives like brown rice, quinoa, or oat flour. My two favorite bases used in nearly every gluten-free baking recipe on my site are below.
3) They're more tender. I know you probably don't believe me. Because you've probably had more gluten-free hockey pucks than you care to remember. But remember how we just talked about overmixing? Traditional baked goods run the risk of turning into pucks just the same. Done right, gluten-free baked goods can be more tender, just as flavorful (if not more), and tend to have a touch longer shelf life because the flours stale at different rates.
Favorite flour blend for cakes
(generally + xanthan)
2 cups sorghum flour
1 cup sweet (white) rice flour
1 cup potato starch (not flour...two different things)
Favorite flour blend for all else
( generally + psyllium)
2 1/4 cup brown rice flour
1 3/4 cup sorghum flour
1 3/4 cup potato starch (again, not flour)
1 cup oat flour
Holding it all together
Taking the place of gluten are ground psyllium husk (which can be found in the bulk section of most grocers or ordered online), chia seeds, and/or xanthan gum which generally comes in a plastic bag from Bob's Red Mill. It's somewhat pricey but when you consider that you use it at about an eighth of a teaspoon at a time, it's likely to last you years.
Put an egg on it
Or in it I suppose I should say. Adding an extra egg is something I'll do on occasion if I think the binders might need a little help holding it all together. Like in a loaf cake or something that needs to stand up tall and really be able to support itself. Honestly, it really can't hurt. So if you're on the fence, throw and extra egg in there for insurance.
Other little modifications
1) Subbing coconut palm sugar for all or part of the regular granulated sugar. I shudder to think about the quantity of sugar I was consuming on a daily basis in my pasty kitchen days. A sample of this, a swipe of that. Taste, taste, taste. I mean you had to. But yikes. I now do my best to either reduce the amount of sugar that the recipe calls for or use "healthier" alternatives to regular sugar in my recipes when I can. Honey, agave, date sugar. My favorite is coconut palm sugar. Coconut palm sugar is still sugar. It's just a less bad for you sugar. And don't worry. It doesn't actually taste like coconut but it is reminiscent of dark brown sugar with an almost caramel-y flavor. It dissolves a bit differently so I'll generally go half coconut sugar and half regular sugar for baked goods and stick solely with the regular stuff for things like meringues that are heavily dependent on how the sugar behaves.
2) Subbing coconut oil for canola or vegetable oil. Again. Just a healthier fat here. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature but melts easily. If needed, zap it in the microwave and let it cool to room temperature before using.
3) Subbing coconut milk for regular dairy. I stopped eating dairy a few years into going gluten-free and my body has never been happier for it. Coconut milk is easily swapped out 1:1 for regular dairy.
Why these flours over others?
Excellent question. There are countless gluten-free flour options out there and some really gorgeous cookbooks on baking with them. I would recommend following those recipes to a T when learning to use flours like amaranth, teff, bean flours, and others when they’re called for as the primary flour. Quinoa flour is great. Coconut flour is great. Almond flour is great. Each of these, like their whole sources, are higher in fat. It’s healthy fat, of course, but making them a primary part of your base flour blend could mean having to adjust the amount of fat called for in the recipe (butter, oil, etc) which can get tricky and unpredictable. Brown rice and sorghum are neutral flavor bases that play well with other ingredients and solid sources of whole grain. Sorghum flour in particular is high in protein and packed full of other good-for-you things. So that’s why I start with those. Some starch is necessary for binding and structure and that’s where the rice and potato starch come in. Again, neutral flavor bases. Once you’re familiar with how a flour blend behaves you’ll probably end up making little modifications here and there to create your own custom blend. Mine’s changed a half a dozen times over the years and I’m sure it’ll continue to do so as I continue to learn.
General strategy to modify your own
Read through your recipe in it's entirety first. And then:
1. Sub the all-purpose flour for equal part gluten-free flour blend
2. For each cup of flour add 1/2 teaspoon ground psyllium husk or 1/8 teaspoon xanthan gum (opt for this if it's a layer or bundt cake.)
3. Add an extra egg if you think your recipe could benefit from a little extra structure (see note above)
4. Optional: Sub coconut palm sugar for part of the regular sugar, olive or coconut oil for the canola or vegetable oil, and coconut milk for the dairy.
Stocking your pantry
Be prepared. That was the Girl Scout motto. I was a Brownie (how appropriate) and that same motto serves us well in the kitchen. Next time you go to the store, take this little list with you and stock your pantry. These flours are cheap, cheap, cheap from the bulk bin section so look for them first there. Then come home, mix up a big batch of each blend, label it, and keep it in your cupboard. The coconut milk lives in the cupboard too. So you'll have everything on hand when you need it.
Coconut palm sugar *
Ground psyllium husk*
Brown rice flour *
Oat flour *
Sweet rice flour*
Sorghum flour *
Potato starch *
Cornmeal - medium ground *
*look for this in the bulk bin section before checking shelves
The more you bake the more you know. These are guidelines. I wish they were guaranteed failsafes but there's really no such thing in baking, conventional or gluten-free. Each recipe you modify will likely need a little nuance of it's own but these parameters are my go-to starting poinst and I've had great success with them. If you need a good jumping-off recipe, these brownies are so perfectly decadent, gooey in the middle, with a hint of sea salt. Perfect for eating our feelings. Try them first as it's just an easy flour swap. When you're ready for more, give this or this a go. Opt for good quality chocolate and cocoa powder here since they're the primary ingredients.
Gluten-Free Brown Butter Cupcake Brownies
Adapted from Baking by Food52
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake papers.
In a saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter until the milk solids begin to brown, 5-6 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar, cocoa, water, vanilla, and salt. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.
Add the eggs to the cocoa mixture one at a time, whisking to combine after each addition. Add the flour and stir vigorously for about 1 minute. Stir in the nuts. Portion the batter into the muffin cups using an ice cream scoop or 1/3 cup measure filling them almost to the top. Press a few chocolate chips into the center of each and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for approximately 15 minutes. The edges will set but the middle should still be slightly soft. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Serve warm dusted with powdered sugar.
1 1/4 cups salted butter
2 cups organic cane sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, cold
2/3 cup sorghum flour
1 3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts (or any other)
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon fine sea salt