If you or someone you live with has made the decision to switch to a gluten-free diet, the subject of baked goods will often come up, and it can sometimes feel like you are entering an alternate dimension. Navigating the vast array of wheat flour alternatives (flours are made from white and brown rice, sorghum, almond, soybean, coconut, and chickpeas, among others) and all of their various properties can be a daunting prospect, even during the best of times. Add the pressure of baking for holiday celebrations, when your goodies will be on show for friends and family, and it’s enough to make your head spin. But regardless of why you are gluten-free, you shouldn’t have to miss out on the joys of the holiday baking season. Armed with a little knowledge, and a sense of humor, you may achieve some fantastic gluten-free results.
Let go of expectations. My advice is to take everything you ever knew about baking with wheat flour and throw it out the window! It’s useless to you now. If you expect gluten-free flour to behave like regular flour, you may only become frustrated. Gluten has certain properties that may be mimicked with various ingredients, but a direct substitution may not yield the results you expect.
Listen to those who came before. If you are new to gluten-free baking, there’s no need to strike out entirely on your own. No matter how inventive you are at traditional baking, gluten-free usually takes some getting used to, and it’s best to rely on tried and true recipes at first. Avail yourself of all the information the Internet has to offer. Once you have a feel for how the ingredients behave and interact together, you can start to experiment.
Moisturize. Many gluten-free flours tend to be on the dry side, especially those made from grains and legumes. Adding fruit purees, yogurt, or cream cheese helps cakes and muffins keep their moisture and may also improve their texture. Don’t forget to include the carb count of anything you add into the batter to the total carbs for the dish.
Get your proteins. Gluten is a protein, and as such, it lends structure to conventional baked goods, helping them rise and hold their shape. Adding other sources of protein to a gluten-free recipe will help the result resemble its gluten-filled counterpart. Greek yogurt, cream cheese, extra eggs, or protein powders are common additions in gluten-free recipes. (Again, remember that any additions may add to the total carb count of your recipe.)
Keep it together. Another enviable property of gluten is its ability to bind the baked good and keep it from crumbling when removed from the pan. Fortunately there are a number of ways to replicate this quality. Starches made from corn, potato, or arrowroot may help bind the ingredients. And a little xanthan or guar gum goes a long way in getting the final product to hold together.
Rise to the challenge. Wheat-based recipes rely on gluten molecules to trap gas from leavening agents such as baking powder and yeast, allowing the baked good to rise. Gluten-free recipes have to make up for the absence of this molecular bonding. They often call for larger amounts of the leavening agents, sometimes up to twice as much.
Keep your eye on the prize. Gluten-free flours brown at different rates, so it’s best to keep a close eye on what’s in the oven. If you notice that the edges and top are getting too brown but it’s not cooked through the center, turn down the oven by 25 degrees and cover the top with aluminum foil.
Expect the unexpected. Gluten-free batters and doughs are often much thicker than their conventional counterparts. Resist the urge to thin them out with extra liquid, or you might end up with a goopy mess that won’t cook through.
Gluten is sneaky. If you need to be absolutely gluten-free for health reasons, check your ingredients carefully. Many unexpected ingredients may contain gluten, including baking powder and cocoa. Additionally, gluten often cross-contaminates grains, such as oats, during processing. If the brand doesn’t specifically say that it is gluten-free, don’t purchase it.
If at first you don’t succeed… You probably know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Some failures may almost be inevitable when you start baking gluten-free, but I believe you will get the hang of it. You might want to test out new recipes before serving them to any judgmental family members this holiday season. Just a thought.
Carolyn Ketchum is a writer, runner, and lives with pre-diabetes. She is also the mastermind behind All Day I Dream About Food, a mostly low-carb, gluten-free food blog. She has a Masters degree in physical anthropology and an extensive background in higher education administration. Ketchum is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience