It's no secret that gluten free baking can be quite a challenge - especially when you really want to convert an old family recipe. Contrary to what some marketing agencies want you to believe, you can't substitute gluten free flour for regular flour and call it a day. The answer to your baking woes is a little more complex, but once you get the hang of it, there'll be no stopping your recipe converting skills.
1:1 Is Marketing
No, you're not going crazy! A lot of gluten-free flour mixes these days claim to be interchangeable with regular flour, and that's just marketing. It's definitely better than some of the old blends of flours we used to use, but we still have a long way to go before 1:1 is real.
So, let's look at how gluten works and why it's so hard to replace.
How Gluten Works
"Normal" doughs and batters have gluten proteins that combine to form protein chains and a whole network of webbing. This network is elastic, capable of forming a structure, and traps air bubbles. This gives the finished product a stable, chewy, and light/airy texture. Gluten proteins are the reason why pizza dough can be tossed up to the ceiling and cinnamon buns can be rolled.
Now, let’s compare the chemistry of gluten-filled treats with that of gluten-free treats. Commercially available gluten-free flours are made up of a blend of ultra-fine rice particles, vegetable/plant starches, and gums (thickeners/stabilizers). There are no protein chains. Instead, these flours rely on a relatively loose bond between starch particles to keep everything together. Unfortunately, it's generally not strong enough to trap many air bubbles.
For a particle bond strength comparison, I'll use the analogy of building a house. The gluten family hired Holmes on Homes to come in and make the house with a poured concrete basement, steel, and brick. The starches called in Canada's Worst Handyman to do the best they could with some drywall and camping ties.
Isn't Someone Working On This?
Yes. The food industry is spending quite a bit of time, money, and expertise on mimicking the gluten network. So far, the best attempts were made by creating a starch "foam" that was then stabilized using two different methods:
- Food additives
Although the method worked fairly well, the world is still divided about wether or not these particular additives are safe to consume. For example, Japan classifies them as a medication, not a food ingredient. I don't know about you, but if we can't even agree that it's FOOD, I'm not eating it!
2. Rapid heating
In the initial stages of the baking process, you can set the starch foam using a very rapid heating process. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with this method. The first is that this type of heating involves commercially unavailable equipment. The second is that, although the finished products had trapped air bubbles, they were found to dry out much faster than those made using other baking methods. In other words, they weren't sellable.
So, if we can't create a perfect substitute yet, but what can we do?
The Present Factors of Gluten-Free Success
Not all gluten-free flours are made equal. You should definitely choose a flour blend with rice flour, a starch blend, and a gum or gum blend.
Another thing most people don't think about is the quality of the starch in your flour, which can have a massive effect on what you're able to do with it. The milling process during production causes damage to that little bit of binding that you're depending on! The best brands on the market know that although "normal" flours depend on starch damage for adequate water absorption and mixing properties, gluten-free flours can't afford to lose them, and so they aren't as refined. Now, you'll be hard-pressed to find this kind of information on packaging, because manufacturing processes are top-secret. In general, I look for brands on the polar opposite ends of the company size spectrum. Very established brands with teams of in-house food scientists, like Robin Hood or Betty Crocker, do some amazing work. That said, small family-owned businesses have had to be ground-breaking to even compete with the industry giants, and they are far less likely to over-mill their product.
Ok, so now that you have a good base to work with, let's get into other ways you can fix a recipe.
Eggs and Egg Replacers
Egg proteins are another structure building tool. I know that sounds odd, but think scrambled eggs. On top of making up for missing structure, they also have the ability to thicken sauces, emulsify (suspend water and oil), and moisten the final product.
There are other ways to do all of these things, but no two raw ingredients will react the same in the baking process. Needless to say, vegan baking adds a whole other dimension of difficult.
If you have to or choose not to eat eggs, here are my favourite egg replacers:
- Bob's Red Mill Vegan Egg Replacer, which is just thickening starches and some extra baking soda.
- My personal formula for an egg replacer... which I'll never give away! Muahahaha!
- The flax egg (flax and water in a 1:3 ratio)
These options are reasonably priced and will definitely help, but I will warn you that using an egg replacer alone will most likely result in a "gummy" texture because there wasn't enough of a structure to stop the baked good from collapsing in on itself once it was taken out of the oven.
Yes, this sounds super hippy dippy. Hear me out - we've actually been doing this for hundreds of years. Think of banana bread! That's just banana purée! When I came up with the first recipes for J. Crawford, I took it upon myself to experiment with every form of purée I could find/make. Let me save you the trouble of boiling vegetables all night and share which ones actually work well:
- Sweet potato
If you just wondered where zucchini and avocado went, I'm sorry... I just don't like working with them.
Purées are magical because they moisten without the use of oil (which won't be suspended well in vegan recipes), and their fibres help to build some of that structure back.
More Oil and Water
Yup, sometimes it can be that simple. This works for recipes with eggs that can keep these elements suspended.
When I say more oil and water, what I really mean is more fats and liquids. This covers everything from shortening, olive oil, and butter substitutes, to orange juice, coconut milk (which kind of kills two birds with one stone), and oat milk.
Another positive side-effect of added fats is that you will get some pliability back into your doughs. It's a fine line between pliability and greasy mess though, so tread carefully.
As a general rule, you'll have to use slightly more baking powder/soda than in a regular recipe, even if you're using eggs. Gluten traps a much higher percentage of air bubbles than starches, so the only real factor you can control here is the amount of bubbles... which is where the baking powder/soda comes in.
Let's talk briefly about yeast. Yeast does not work well with gluten-free products, and that's because the yeast leavening process needs to happen outside of the oven. Inside the oven, things literally get baked into place as it lifts. If the dough has no help from heat, it'll just let all of that air escape the second it's disturbed. Unfortunately, yeast is a live culture that will die in the high temperature environment of an oven. I also find that the yeast adds even more dryness to gluten free doughs.
You now have several tools in your arsenal the next time you want to try making one of your favourite recipes gluten-free. After you grab your bag of gluten-free flour blend that has a mixture of rice flour, quality starches, and gums, you can adjust any or all of the following:
- The amount of egg (or egg replacer)
- Add in an appropriate purée
- Add more oil/water
- Add more baking powder/soda
I hope that this article was helpful to you in your baking journey. Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this content, and feel free to ask me any and all gluten-free and dairy-free baking questions you may have!
Until next time,