Gluten-Free Cooking and Baking Tips
New to this whole gluten-free thing? Not sure how to substitute the wheat flour in a favorite recipe? Need to cook without additional problematic ingredients — such as milk or soy? These tips are for you, Babycakes. Pictured above, gluten-free Fantastic French Toast; photo by Rachael Braun.
Cooking & Baking Gluten-Free
After six years of living gluten-free, cooking safely is second nature. It’s (honestly) no big deal. The key — for me — is to keep things simple. Here’s how I do it: I don’t keep sacks of ten different alternative flours in my fridge. Oh, I did in the beginning. Based on advice, I mixed my own blends. I stockpiled. I paid $11.99 for a bag of xanthan gum. I ground my own almonds. And guess what? I ended up tossing out bags of rancid flour (who knew brown rice and bean flours spoil alarmingly fast?) not to mention, the pounds of alleged bread I baked from scratch. I chewed endless rawhide cookies and scraped the filling off sawdust piecrusts. I discovered that soy and bean flours not only taste terrible, they make me swell like a beach ball! How attractive!
My solution? I found some tasty gluten-free baking mixes that agreed with me, and I keep one of each on hand, in the pantry. My personal favorites?
Flours for baking (and most) one-to-one substitutions in recipes:
- I use Pamela’s Ultimate Baking Mix. It’s never let me down. I even use it to thicken sauces and soups. It’s especially fab in flourless quiches, muffins, and pancakes. For those of you looking for a dairy-free nut-free sugar-free all-purpose baking mix (Pamela’s baking mix contains almond meal and buttermilk) I recommend Namaste mixes (the muffin mix works as well as Pamela’s in baking recipes).
For bread, foccacia and pizza crust:
- My favorite mix for bread is Pamela’s Amazing Wheat Free Bread Mix with sorghum flour. I heart the taste and texture. It’s the best bread I’ve baked in five years gluten-free. It’s also dairy/corn/soy/potato free.
For General All Purpose Baking:
- Pamela’s Amazing Wheat Free Bread Mix works as a one-to-one flour mix when you need to bake nut-free (Pamela’s Ultimate Baking and Pancake Mix contains almond flour). I also like the hypoallergenic and sugar-free Namaste Muffin Mix for baking.
- In the spirit of fairness I should mention, Gentle Reader, that there are many other basic gluten-free flour and baking mixes on the market: Namaste — as mentioned — Arrowhead Mills, Authentic Foods, Bob’s Red Mill, Gluten Free Pantry, to name a few. Check your local supermarket’s natural foods aisle. Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and well stocked health food stores usually carry several. Just remember to read the label carefully for any additional problematic ingredients (for those with lactose intolerance, casein, soy, legume or nut allergies, note that some gluten-free mixes may contain dairy, soy, bean flour, sugar or nuts. Don’t be like me and assume that just because a product declares itself “Gluten-Free”, you can eat it!)
- For cornmeal recipes I use Arrowhead Mills Organic Cornmeal.
- Rolled oats? Oats are a sticky issue for those with celiac disease because widely available oats are problematic due to cross contamination with wheat crops. The good news is that a few small, independent farmers are now growing and milling certified gluten-free oats. Because whole grain oats are high in fiber, protein and iron, this is great news for those living gluten-free. Just be 100% sure the oats or oatmeal you are purchasing are “Certified Gluten-Free”. Lara’s Oats from Cream Hill Estates is one gluten-free company; others are available on-line. On a side note — the high fiber in oats may take some getting used to for those with touchy tummies. Start slow. Try 1/2 cup of oatmeal twice in one week and see how you handle them. Gradually, you can more into your weekly menu as your body grows used to the fiber. (Drink plenty of water!)
For Sauces, Gravies, and Dredging (Coating in Flour):
- For thickening stir-fry sauces I use cornstarch.
- Arrowroot starch works well for gravies served right away.
- For a making roux, or paste for basic white sauce or cheese sauce, any basic rice flour or gluten-free flour mix will work (but don’t use bean or soy flour — they have too strong a taste). If you have sweet rice flour on hand, that works very well.
- For dredging veggies, potato cakes or veggie burgers before frying try a blend of gluten-free flour mix and a little cornmeal.
For Bread Crumbs:
- My favorite crumbs — for all kinds of recipes — is a tad unconventional. But really delicious! I haul out my food processor and process several toasted gluten-free waffles into crumbs. Plain gluten-free waffles usually have no sugar. Add some dried Italian herbs or your favorite seasoning, if you wish. Drizzle with olive oil and pulse. Very yummy, crunchy and golden when baked. (And no, they’re not sweet.)
- Processing pieces of your favorite toasted gluten-free bread works. Or try crumbled corn tortilla chips, rice chips, or potato chips. Failed gluten-free breads can be processed into crumbs and frozen for later use. Note that adding dried herbs and seasonings give gluten-free bread crumbs a big flavor boost.
Karina’s Gluten-Free Baking Tips:
- Keep your sense of humor handy. It helps in gluten-free baking, Darling. Hockey pucks and doorstops are inevitable. We’ve all been there. Remember the bread crumb trick. You can always use crumbs!
- When subbing wheat flour in old favorite recipes, try your favorite self rising baking mix. Gluten-free flours can always use a little boost in leavening. And the beauty of using gluten-free baking mixes in recipes is this: the right amount of xanthan gum (needed for binding and texture) is already in the mix.
- For those of you interested in mixing your own gluten-free flour mix from scratch, here is a basic guideline, with options:
Basic Gluten-Free Flour Mix
- 2 cups rice flour (or 1 cup rice and 1 cup sorghum flour)
- 2/3 cup cornstarch (or potato starch)
- 1/3 cup tapioca starch (*or almond meal or buckwheat or quinoa flour for more protein)
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum (or guar gum)
Note: Subbing denser flours such as almond, buckwheat or quinoa will result in a heavier, denser product. Experiment and find the formula and texture you like best.
Self-Rising Flour Mix
- 1 cup gluten-free flour mix
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Adding Moistness and Flavor to Gluten-Free
- Choose a recipe wisely. Recipes containing pureed fruit, shredded veggies, yogurt, or sour cream translate beautifully to gluten-free. Think: banana muffins, carrot or pumpkin cake, sour cream apple cake.
- Adding applesauce, pureed fruit or yogurt to recipes helps gluten-free cakes, muffins and quick breads stay moist.
- Adding shredded or desiccated coconut, chopped nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate chips also goes a long way to improving texture and flavor. Start with adding one half cup to your favorite recipe. Experiment and have fun.
- Use organic brown sugar instead of refined white sugar. It boosts moistness and flavor.
- Use more vanilla. I always double the vanilla in my recipes. Gluten-Free flours can taste strong and unfamiliar, and a little extra vanilla helps soften their flavor.
- Add extra baking spices — like cinnamon and nutmeg — to deepen flavor complexity (cinnamon and chocolate is a yummy secret combo of mine).
Baking Times and More
Baking and rising times vary depending upon many factors:
- Where do you live — high altitude or sea level? High altitude gluten-free baking usually requires a little less liquid (start with 2 tablespoons less) and a higher oven temperature (increase oven temp by 25 degrees F) or a longer baking time. If I use a self-rising mix such as Pamela’s in my baking recipes, the only change I make for high altitude baking is to add 25 degrees F to my oven temperature.
- Humid or dry? Flours grab moisture and become damp — this can affect the outcome. Start with 1 to 2 tablespoons less liquid if you suspect your flours are dampish from humidity.
- Ice cold ingredients or room temperature? I find baking with room temperature ingredients works best when baking gluten-free. When making gluten-free bread, eggs at room temperature are a must. Yeast needs a warm environment to rise properly — a temperature of 100 to 110 degrees F is ideal.
- Thick glass pan or thin dark metal? Baking pans may require more or less baking times — see your pan manufacturer’s advice.
- Oven temperatures vary slightly from oven to oven. Tune in to yours and notice if recipes tend to take longer — or shorter — to bake. Adjust baking times accordingly.
- Place pans in the center of a pre-heated oven — not too close to the top or bottom — for even baking.
- Gluten-free batters are a little weird. Cake batter is thicker. Bread batter is looser than dough. Cookie dough is almost the same, but tends to spread faster during baking (try chilling cookie dough and baking on parchment).
- Until you get the hang of baking gluten-free, I suggest keeping a sharp eye on what’s in the oven. When it looks done, make sure the batter is firm and set in the center (jiggle the pan a tiny bit or lightly touch the top). A wooden pick inserted in the center can tell you if the batter is still wet (but chocolate chips can melt and make this method sometimes unreliable).
- I find — with brownies and cookie bars, especially — that it is easy to over-bake gluten-free treats. The center may appear too soft while the outside edges are browned just right. I take it out at that point, usually, as I prefer a softer center, and the dessert will continue to “bake” for a minute or two before it begins to cool.
Remember — it’s an intuitive thing, this gluten-free baking deal. There is really no substitute for experience. The trial and error method is your best teacher in Gluten-Freeland.
SugarOkay. I know sugar has gotten a bad rap. It’s blamed for all kinds of symptoms. And some individuals may, indeed, be sensitive to too much of it. After a lot of experimenting and personal research, here is what I — personally — think about cane sugar. (If you are allergic to cane because it is in the grass family, note you may be able to handle beet or palm sugar; ask your doctor.) Living gluten-free is tough. It really is. And in this Gluten-Free Goddess’ humble opinion, a truly tasty gluten-free treat is worth a thousand words — or a thousand smiles.
Eliminating wheat from recipes is huge and problematic (you know, you lose that whole stretchy elasticity and tender crumb mouth feel thing). To create a gluten-free treat that really is a treat is a challenge. Taking sugar out of the equation diminishes the texture and mouth feel of traditional recipes even more. Sugar adds not only sweetness to baked goods, but structure. I’ve tried baking without it. I’ve used date sugar, processed raisins, agave syrup, stevia. The end results too often screamed Health Food. They were a tad, shall we say, cardboard-esque. And they usually ended up getting tossed in the garbage after a six month stint in the depths of the freezer.
My compromise? I bake with organic brown sugar or sucanat (a vegan unrefined sugar). I have one treat a day. It satisfies my sweet tooth, and I don’t feel deprived.
If you are a vegan, try using maple syrup (though it will add maple flavor) or gluten-free brown rice syrup, or agave syrup.
Fruit, Flavor and Dairy Substitutions
I am often asked, Can I sub pumpkin for the sweet potato in a recipe? Or, dried cranberries for raisins? Yes. And yes. I find that most fruit purees are interchangeable, according to taste. If you don’t care for banana, try subbing pureed pumpkin. Hate walnuts? Use pecans. Love dried cherries and dislike raisins? Go with cherries. Experiment and have fun. Be creative with recipes. Some of my favorite combos were accidental pairings. Think: fruity with spice, sweet with sour, creamy with crunchy, chocolate with anything!
The Dairy Question
Yes, Babycakes, I know. I feel your pain. Many gluten-intolerant folks develop a lactose intolerance or casein allergy as a result of celiac damage. I sympathize. I’m one of the fifty per cent of celiacs who are saddled with gluten and casein intolerance. You’re not alone.
Cooking Dairy-Free Tips
My favorite dairy free substitute in gluten-free cooking is light coconut milk. I use it in sauces, soups, curries and stir-fries. It’s fabulous in whipped sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squashes. (Check and compare labels as too much guar gum, a common additive in coconut milk, can act as a laxative for sensitive individuals).
If soy is not an issue for you, a great tasting vegan butter substitute is Smart Balance Light. It has flax oil in it (good for those nifty Omegas). Spectrum and other companies also make gluten-free margarine — but keep an eye out for casein, often added in so-called “Dairy Free” products.
For a vegan butter sub in baking I use Spectrum Organic Shortening or extra light olive oil in muffins, quick breads, bread, cookie bars and most cakes. When one half to one cup butter is called for in a recipe, oil will work. Otherwise, I’d choose the Spectrum Organic Shortening. In the case of a flourless chocolate cake recipe calling for two sticks of butter, though, nothing truly substitutes. When butter is the star, oil will only be oily.
Another vegan alternative to baking with butter is coconut oil. And for those who tolerate soy, silken tofu can work in many recipes.
For milk substitutes in baking, gluten-free rice or nut milks work very well. Use plain for a neutral flavor, or vanilla/chocolate for a flavor boost. Coconut milk also works.
For milk substitutes in creamy sauces, try using plain gluten-free rice and nut milks. They are rather thin, and usually need a little help in thickening, but they work. I whisk a tablespoon or two of starch (such as arrowroot or tapioca starch) to the rice milk to help thicken it.
Cheeses can be harder to sub. Gluten-free cheese subs may be soy based, or nut based, or rice based. Some are just plain awful. Others, not so bad. Many don’t melt well. Shredding helps. Seasoning helps. If I’m going to use a non-dairy cheese I’ll often use one with diced jalapenos. The peppers help cover up the bland flavor. So, when using non-dairy cheese, I always add extra spices and seasonings to the dish. Often I add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil as well. For those sensitive to milk proteins — read labels carefully. Casein or whey is often added to “Dairy-Free” products. Go figure.
More Dairy Free Meal Ideas
Use dairy-free pesto and tapenades for flavorful sauces and spreads. Make homemade basil or cilantro pesto without cheese (add a dash of sea salt instead) and use it as a sauce on pizza and sandwiches, quesadillas and foccacia. Make black olive, sun-dried tomato or roasted pepper spreads in your food processor for a quick and flavorful schmear on rice or nut crackers, pizza and grilled sandwiches. You won’t miss the cheese.
Try fresh guacamole and salsa as a healthy condiment. Both are dairy-free and huge on flavor.
Enjoy hummus tahini as a protein packed dip or condiment; any flavor of hummus is a tasty sub for cheese. Serve a dollop with your favorite brown rice dish, baked casserole, salad, grilled and roasted vegetables.
Serve a good fruity extra virgin olive oil instead of butter or cheese. Drizzle it on toasted or grilled gluten-free bread, baked potatoes, and gluten-free pizza shells; try drizzling a hot gluten-free pizza shell with extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt, then top it with a crisp baby greens salad with your favorite fixin’s. The classic combo of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar makes a fabulous naturally dairy-free condiment for brown rice and cooked polenta.
Baking gluten-free and egg-free is certainly a challenge and I’d be lying if I told you I have it all worked out. I don’t. But I’ll share some tips based on my experience.
For the average recipe, Ener-G Egg Replacer is the popular choice. You can also make your own egg replacer using milled flax seeds, silken tofu, mashed banana or figs. Or simply add a liquid such as rice milk (two tablespoons equal one egg) and boost the leavening with more baking powder. I find I do best with choosing recipes that are traditionally egg-free, such as fruit crisps and Asian crepes. If a recipe calls for one egg, I might simply leave it out and add two tablespoons rice milk and a teaspoon of baking powder. But I’m still experimenting with egg-free baking. I’m a long way from perfection.
Many celiacs find they also have a sensitivity to soy (and many have trouble with autoimmune thyroid disease). Whether by necessity or choice, a great many celiacs are also soy-free.
For a soy sauce sub I use a dab of molasses whisked into a quarter cup of soy-free vegan broth. I add a splash of balsamic or rice vinegar, to taste, and a dash of sea salt, sesame oil, or red pepper spice. Another choice is to make an Asian sauce based around peanut butter or cashew butter stirred into a cup of vegan broth. Add chopped garlic, spices and a squeeze of lime juice as an accent.
Finally, let go of old expectations and have a little fun playing in the kitchen. Try new flavor combinations and browse cookbooks for ideas. Living gluten-free is a challenge, but it can also be delicious!
Karina Allrich copyrights this original article (c) 2005-2007. All Rights Reserved.
Karina Allrich publishes Karina’s Kitchen: Recipes from a (Gluten-Free) Goddess.* She is the author of the vegetarian cookbook Cooking by the Seasons.*
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