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Sensitivities to wheat, gluten and other grains present a challenge for many people. Fortunately, a number of whole grains and legumes can be ground into delicious gluten-free flours. These include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff and numerous legumes. However, transforming these flours into successful baked goods can be challenging. Gluten-free baking takes a little more effort than simply substituting one ingredient for another.
To make up for the loss of stretch and structure provided by gluten, a starch or thickening substance must be added when yeast is used as the leavening agent. In gluten-free quick breads, starches, though not always necessary, are often added to improve texture. This is especially important when eggs are also being avoided. Some gluten-free grains, even when freshly milled, tend to produce a slightly grainy texture; the addition of starches helps in this case.
Xanthan gum is a natural carbohydrate with incredible thickening power. It is produced by the microorganism Xanthomonas campestris. In gluten-free baking, xanthan gum is used to mimic the stretch and strengthening properties of the missing gluten. If you are making yeast breads with gluten-free flours, some type of gum is typically needed. You can substitute an equal amount of psyllium husk, ground chia seeds or ground flax seeds (flaxseed meal) for the xanthan gum. Xanthan, though generally recognized as safe, does cause digestive upsets in some people.
With xanthan gum, a little goes a long way, in both yeast and quick breads. To give good structure to gluten-free yeast bread and pizza dough, you need 1 to 2 tsp (5 to 10 mL) per 1 cup (250 mL) of flour. However, for gluten-free cakes and cookies, only about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp (1 to 2 mL) is needed for every 1 cup (250 mL) of flour. For best results, xanthan gum should be added as the last ingredient and mixed just until incorporated. Gluten-free quick breads with added xanthan gum are best eaten soon after baking, because it tends to break down and cause the texture to get dense and gummy.
Arrowroot powder, which is made from the roots of several species of tropical plants, is almost entirely starch. It doesn’t mix well with milk or other dairy products but it is not affected by acidic ingredients such as vinegar and lemon juice. In other words, you would not use arrowroot to thicken a milk pudding, but it would be fine in a lemon pie filling.
It is best to mix arrowroot with a cool liquid before adding it to a hot liquid, and it should be heated only until the mixture thickens. Overheating tends to break down its ability to thicken liquids. Arrowroot powder adds both texture and stretch to yeast breads made with gluten-free grains and works well as a thickening agent.
Tapioca flour (also known as tapioca starch) comes from the roots of cassava plants. The most readily available tapioca flour is highly refined and therefore devoid of nutrients. It is used in gluten-free baking as a binding agent. It improves the texture of gluten-free baked goods by adding crispness to crusts, a chewy texture to bread, and softness to cakes and quick breads. When it is used in piecrust and cookies, the results are less dry and crumbly.
Tapioca flour has a smooth, powdery texture, which makes it a great thickener for sauces and pie fillings. It has no discernable flavor and never discolors or separates when refrigerated or frozen. It can be used alone in baking, but it is best used in combination with other flours.
Potato starch—not to be confused with potato flour—is made of the dry starch component of peeled potatoes. It lends a light, fluffy texture to baked goods. Potato starch improves the texture of gluten-free quick breads such as muffins and cakes and helps them stay moist when stored. It also imparts a lighter texture to gluten-free biscuits and rolls. It can be substituted for cornstarch as a thickener, especially in soups, but unlike cornstarch it will lose its thickening property if boiled, so add it at the very end of cooking. Potato starch will not impart a potato flavor.
Arrowroot is a perfect thickening agent if you are trying to avoid cornstarch. In recipes calling for cornstarch, 2 tsp (10 mL) arrowroot powder can be substituted for 1 tbsp (15 mL) cornstarch. Arrowroot will thicken at a lower temperature than cornstarch. It is not affected by freezing and has a more neutral taste.
Potato Starch Is Not Potato Flour
Don’t confuse potato starch and potato flour in baking. They are very different and cannot be substituted for one another.
Potato flour is made from the entire potato. Unlike potato starch, it will impart a potato flavor to baked goods. It is best used in gluten-free flour blends for yeast breads, as it adds a nice chew and hearty texture. It readily absorbs liquids, so potato flour should be used only in small quantities—too much will make the bread dense and gummy.
Almond flour is a great gluten-free flour alternative for people who do not have tree-nut allergies. It should be used in moderation, as it is high in calories and fat, particularly omega-6 fatty acids. Almond flour provides vitamin E, manganese and magnesium. An occasional dessert made with almond flour can be a wonderfully nutritious treat.
Almond flour is a little easier to use in baking than coconut flour (see below). Coconut flour absorbs more liquid, but both require significant use of eggs. Almond flour can be used alone in baking and provides a moist, smooth finished texture similar to cheesecake. Many gluten-free flours create a slightly grainy, dry texture. Small amounts of almond flour can be combined with other flours to improve this texture and add softness to baked goods.
Almond flour is easy to make at home with either a blender or a special nut-flour attachment for a stand mixer. Because of their high oil content, almonds cannot be ground into flour with an electric mill.
Coconut flour is a nutritious high-fiber, protein-rich flour. It is an excellent choice for gluten-free baking, but using it successfully takes some experience. Coconut flour gives baked goods a mild sweetness and rich texture, and it adds fiber, which is often lacking in gluten-free products, many of which use mostly white rice and starches. It is best in small amounts with other gluten-free grains, but can be used alone as well.
Coconut flour absorbs more liquid than other flours, requiring 3 to 4 eggs for every 1 cup (250 mL) of flour used. It works best with liquid sweeteners such as honey, molasses or agave nectar.