Welcome to the first part of my new series: The Ultimate Guide to Gluten free Baking! When I first started baking with gluten free flours, it was tricky and quite frustrating because I had no idea where to start, what flours to use and the properties of each flour. My biggest issue was dense and gummy quick breads and muffins.
After about 2 years since embarking my gluten free baking journey, I've learned a lot about gluten free baking through research and experimentation. I've taken notes since my very first gluten free tahini chocolate chip muffins, tahini chocolate chip cookies and tahini swirl brownies... can you tell I was obsessed with tahini at the time? Now I want to share what I've learned to create the best textural gluten free baked goods.
Gluten free desserts and breads tend to have a rep for being dry, crumbly, dense and gummy but these issues can easily be fixed if you know the science behind each ingredient used. It's all about the perfect combination of flours (and other ingredients) and it's ratios.
Now that I bake gluten free 95% of the time, I find I prefer the flavour and texture of gluten free desserts and breads much better. This is most likely because we're using a variety of flours where each flour has their own unique flavour to them. Think almond flour (buttery), oat flour (nutty) and sweet rice flour (subtly sweet).
If you are new to gluten free baking, this Guide to Gluten Free Baking series is the perfect place to get your feet wet! No more gummy dense desserts and breads, welcome to the delicious side of gluten free bakes!
What is Gluten?
Before diving into the world of gluten free baking and all of its flours, it’s important to know what flour and gluten does in baking so we can use other alternatives to mimic its functions.
The Function of Wheat Flour in Baking
Flour is a powder made from grounded grains, roots, nuts, beans, seeds and more. The most common flour used in baking is all purpose flour or plain flour, which comes from grounded wheat. Its neutral taste and structural integrity makes it ideal for baked goods and savory recipes.
Wheat flour contains two major proteins called glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin is a large, loosely coiled protein that is responsible for the strength and elasticity of dough. This creates the bouncy and springy texture after being stretch. Giladin is smaller and more tightly coiled protein, providing the ability to stretch and rise during baking.
At it’s dry state, the proteins are not active. Only once liquid is introduced to the flour does the process of hydration occur. This is when the proteins begin to change in shape by unwinding its protein strands and start linking with one another to form a network of strong elastic chains called gluten. The strength and elasticity of these bonds is what gives baked goods their structure and bouncy chew. Additionally, the gluten reacts with leavening agents in recipes (baking powder, baking soda, yeast or foams like whipped aquafaba), causing gas bubbles to form which inflates the elastic bonds helping baked goods rise.
In summary, the roll of gluten in baking:
- Structure + Binding: the gluten in baked goods keeps things from falling apart thanks to strong interlocking bonds
- Leavening: the gluten bonds trap the gas bubbles from leavening agents or during fermentation, helping the dough rise.
- Texture: the elasticity of glutens proteins is what gives baked foods its soft and bouncy texture.
What happens when you remove gluten from baking?
When removing gluten from baking, you lose all of its structure and binding capabilities. Depending on the recipe, that may cause cakes to crumble, cookies to be stodgy and breads to be dense. Most of the time, you will need another flour alternative to replace the functions of gluten. I say most of the time because there are recipes that work without flour, usually called “flourless” recipes such as these flourless brownies, flourless chocolate rum cake, breakfast banana oatmeal cookies, black bean brownies, and blender banana muffins. Instead of flour, these recipes will use grounded up oats or almonds.
So now the big question comes: What flours can be used to replace wheat flour and still achieve delicious baked goods?
We have to choose flours and starches that mimics the same function that wheat based flours and gluten does in baked goods.
It is important to note that most gluten free flours contain less protein than wheat flour so they do not bind as well and are also less elastic than gluten. This means to replace wheat flour with gluten free flours, we have to rely much more on leaveners and binders.
Now that we know the 3 main rolls of gluten in baking, let’s look at how we can use gluten free alternatives to replace each function.
#1: Structure + Binding
The gluten in wheat flours use strong interlinked bonds to hold baked goods together.
The best effective ingredients to help bind baked together:
- Tapioca Starch (AKA Tapioca Flour)
- Corn Starch (AKA Cornflour NOT Cornmeal)
- Arrowroot Starch
- Potato Starch (NOT Potato Flour)
- Sweet Rice Flour (NOT White rice flour)
- Xanthan gum
- Eggs & it’s alternatives: aquafaba, flax egg, chia egg, vegan egg replacements
The interlinked gluten bonds trap the gas bubbles created from leavening agents, causing the dough or batter to expand when heat it introduced.
Gluten free goods, especially quick breads and cakes are sometimes very dense and flat. There several factors that may cause this which I will cover in a later post.
Gluten Free baked foods rely heavily on leavening agents such as:
- Baking powder
- Baking soda
- Foam: from aquafaba or eggwhites
The elasticity of the gluten protein give baked goods (specifically cakes and breads) that soft, springy and bouncy texture.
Achieving the perfect texture with gluten free baking is the trickiest component to master because every gluten free flour has its own texture (and flavor) profile. The key to successfully obtaining that soft bouncy chew is to mix and match different gluten free flours, which requires a lot of experimentation. There is not a single gluten free flour that can replace wheat flour 1:1.
For example (these are some of the most common gluten free flours used):
- Oat flour: crumbly, absorbs a lot of moisture, can get gummy because of that
- Almond Flour: very dense, high in moisture
- White Rice Flour: very light and grainy
- Sweet Rice Flour: very sticky and can get gummy
- Buckwheat Flour: very dense and earthy in flavour
Here are some of my favourite gluten free flours to combine:
- Rice flour, oat flour + a starch: for lighter muffins, cakes & quick breads
- Almond flour, oat flour + a starch: for hearty muffins and quick breads
- Almond flour, potato starch + a light gluten free flour: for cupcakes and cakes to let the other flavors shine
Over the next few weeks for this guide to gluten free baking series, I’ll be diving deeper into a variety of gluten free flours and their properties so that you can confidently mix and match and find your favorite blend of flours.
Can I use store bought gluten-free flour instead?
Gluten free flour blends have its time and place but I personally do not like relying on them because the results can vary depending on which brands you use and in which recipe. These blends are great for recipes that doesn’t require a lot of flour such as brownies or some cookies.
If you’re new to the world of baking gluten free, prepare to make a LOT of mistakes. Lots of dense, gummy, flat, under baked muffins, cakes and cupcakes… and there really isn’t a way around this. It’s a huge learning curve but don’t give up. I promise, the more you practice and experiment, the better you’ll get and less fails will come out of your oven. Be open minded, try new things and definitely take notes every time you’re experimenting.
Here are some of my types that have helped me learn and improve my gluten free baking:
- START SMALL: I ALWAYS begin a recipe test with a small batch (usually half a batch so half a doezen cookies or half a dozen muffins). This helps save ingredients and money. Gluten free baking isn’t always cheap, especially when using nut flours. Once I get the perfect texture and flavor, I’ll test a final full batch to make sure baking times are correct.
- TAKE PICTURES: Take pictures of the texture before going in the oven and after. Take pictures from the side (to see how much it rose), from the bottom, the top and most importantly a cross section for texture. This will help improve your visual ques. You’ll notice that some batter will be runnier or denser. This will depend on the type of flour you use as some are more absorbent than others.
- TAKE NOTES: Ingredients (preferably in grams), baking times, resting times etc. Typically, gluten free baked goods take a bit longer to cook and sometimes at a lower temperature depending on the flour used.
I hope this introductory guide to gluten free baking has inspired you to experiment and start your gluten free baking journey. If you’ve already been baking with gluten free flours, I hope this series helps with any troubles you may have encountered or question you may have had. If you do have any topics or question you’d want to see covered, please comment and let me know! Let’s get baking!!
This is very helpful! I hope you will follow up with more guides in this series 🙂
Thank you so much. With so many people who can't, or choose not to eat gluten, I don't know why it's so hard to find any information on how to craft enjoyable alternatives. Everything I want to make (from tempura batter, to muffins, to bread for soup) requires its own special blend to work right - and more importantly - taste good. Thank you for breaking down the core issues and presenting the effective options to address them. I sincerely hope things work out for you to continue this series.
I am absolutely thrilled that you are presenting this series. This upcoming holiday season will be devoted to achieving my dream of perfecting the GF bake. Thank you for your research and generosity!