The gluten-free kitchen
Most traditional baking and processed food relies on a natural protein called gluten in some form. Found in most baking flours and foods made from them, gluten helps foods stay solid without crumbling, keeps it soft, holds moisture, and adds chewiness to the texture. It’s essential to most baking recipes but a right pain if you’re allergic or intolerant to it.
If you have coeliac disease or have a problem with gluten, you know what I mean. But if you don't, just think of it this way: imagine you’re diagnosed with physical condition way beyond ‘fussy’ that meant that you couldn't eat most prepared food on sale, had to plan for every meal and not just casually wing-it, had to say no to most treats like birthday cakes and puddings, couldn't have most beers, and of course, never eat a slice of everyday bread.
To be honest, most of us eat way too much wheat flour in our diet compared to the energy we exert, so adding more fresh vegetables, meat, fish, beans and pulses to your diet is no bad thing. But it would be a grim life without the occasional cake or sandwich, so I’ve been spending time in my kitchen experimenting with ideas that making gluten-free baking that bit easier.
Dan Lepard’s adaptable gluten-free bread made with olive oil, yoghurt and psyllium husk powder.
- I’ve written a foolproof gluten-free bread recipe for the BBC Food website that should please even the most critical bread addicts. It’s dead-easy to make and bake. But it takes more than one recipe to turn a gluten-free life into a free and easy one, so here are my steps to easier baking:
- Use the internet and seek out the experts as the recipes you need are just a few clicks away. My friends Shauna James Ahern's glutenfreegirl.com and Sarah Phillips' baking911.com will give you the practical help and inspiration to make it all the more trouble-free. (Many of the best recipes use US cups, so you might want to pour 240ml of water into a teacup, mark the outside, and use that to measure.)
Who needs gluten when you’ve got this much chocolate and eggs in a cake? Try Sophie Dahl’s divine flourless chocolate cake
- Gluten-free really does mean just that, so don't be swayed by some of the myths out there and know what you're buying. Sourdough bread isn't gluten-free by nature of the process, though can be if made with gluten-free ingredients. Baking powder needs to be labelled ‘gluten-free’ otherwise it isn't, whereas bicarbonate of soda (called baking soda in the US) always is. Cornflour and icing sugar are safe, while suet might not be (check if it contains wheat flour).
- Bookmark essential recipes. Some ideas to start with could be...
* That intense chocolate brownie: Karina Allrich at glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com has a Belgian chocolate, rice flour and almond recipe that’s delicious.
* A classy thin gluten-free pancake recipe: this one by blogger Seamaiden from her site bookofyum.com did it for me.
* Shortbread: this recipe from Good Food Magazine’s CJ Jackson is both crisp and rich with butter. A little orange zest helps to lift the flavour.
- When you're starting out, stick to recipes that use very little wheat flour, or don't require the flour to do very much except bind things like cookies, shortcrust pastry, pancakes and batters, brownies and any of the heavier tray-bake bars.
- Prepare your expectations. Pastry made from gluten-free flour will feel crumblier and more fragile as you roll it: it will tear and fall apart but will patch together and bake just fine.
- Work a little faster. Cornflour (cornstarch) typically makes up the bulk of the gluten-free flour mixes you buy, and it and most other gluten-free starches absorb moisture much faster than wheat flour. So mixtures need to be worked together a little more swiftly if you want them to be smooth and even-textured.
- As a general rule, keep the flavours quite strong as cornflour, tapioca and rice flour have no flavour at all.
- For most simple baking the prepared gluten-free flour mixes sold by some millers will do the trick but sometimes you will need to seek out specialist ingredients. Here are some that will help you tackle any baking challenge:
- Try using linseed in place of xanthan gum in recipes. When ground or roasted then soaked in water, linseed (sometimes called flax seed) releases a gum that is very good at holding the texture of cookies and cakes together - as long as you don't mind brown specks in your baking.
- For an extra moist crumb add tapioca starch. It’s typically found in most gluten-free flour mixes. It gives cookies and cakes a chewier texture, and stops them drying out too quickly. But use it sparingly, say 25g/1oz for every 200g/7oz cornflour or rice flour, as it swells up with moisture and can make cakes slightly gummy if overused.
- One of the trickiest things to make is a wholemeal flour type result, as it's hard to find replacements for wheatgerm and bran. Brown rice flour is very helpful here, especially if combined with ground linseed. It has a slightly nutty flavour, important as so many of the main flours are flavourless.
- Buckwheat flour, not actually a wheat but a type of seed, has a rich nutty flavour that's also useful for "wholemeal" style gluten-free baking, and using 25g/1oz for every 500g/1lb 2oz of rice flour or cornflour helps to make bread loaves bigger and softer.
What have your gluten-free successes been? Or any recipes you've found trickier? I'll try and help. Do let us know if you've found a website that's been helpful, or if you know of some tricks to improve all our gluten-free baking.
Dan Lepard is a food writer and baking expert.