Food Manual: Gluten-Free

I must confess that before I began researching this article, I knew relatively little about gluten-free diets. I knew how to minimize gluten formation in muffins and maximize gluten formation in breads, but omitting it altogether was definitely not my forte. That stated, when I began researching gluten-free cooking, I was appalled by the lack of information on the subject. Finding a clear answer to questions such as “how do gluten-free breads rise?” or “what does xanthan gum actually do?” is a bit tricky.

Gluten who?

For starters, I think I should begin with what gluten is. Gluten is a combination of the proteins gliadin and glutenin (that are found in rye, wheat, and barley flours) bound together when mixed with water. The result is a very large protein with the properties of both individual proteins. Gluten-free diets are a necessity for people who have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the small intestine in the presence of gluten. Evidence to support gluten sensitivity is sparse, but I’m of the opinion that if a person feels some type of way about something, then it is real enough.

Gluten is gluten is gluten. It is impossible to replicate its mode of action in baking because of its elasticity. Gluten acts similar to a bubble when blown. The gases carbon dioxide and steam are created during the baking process. As these gases are created, they apply pressure to the inside of the dough or batter which presses on the dough from the inside out. Under this pressure, the gluten expands just like a bubble, until the proteins in the dough set (coagulate for my fellow chemistry nerds).

The best way to avoid gluten is to avoid eating anything with wheat, barley or rye flours. There is a world of amazing desserts that don’t require flours. My personal favorites include custards, chocolates, and fruit based desserts. If you can’t stay away from the quick breads (I sure can’t), then allow me to offer some insight into the best way to maximize your gluten-free baking.

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Gluten-Free Lifestyle

Now you might be wondering, “How can I replicate that elasticity if I cannot use gluten?” Well unfortunately, it isn’t possible. We have to utilize the next best thing which is thickness or viscosity. The idea is relatively simple. If we can create a texture similar to that of gluten based products, then perhaps we can get a similar texture as the final product. Xanthan gum is a very popular ingredient to use for gluten-free cooking because it drastically increases thickness or viscosity by its ability of shear thinning (guar gum also increases viscosity). I won’t go into detail on what shear thinning entails, but the important thing to remember is that xanthan gum does it well. All you need is a little bit of xanthan gum and poof! Instant thickness. It is also nontoxic and safe to eat, so don’t let the name scare you. It’s not necessary and most gluten-free flour blends include it, so you don’t have to buy it if you don’t think it is necessary. I didn’t.

The premise of increasing viscosity works well, however, it is rare to see a gluten-free product with as good of a rise as a product with gluten because you are relying on the carbon dioxide to create enough pressure to push against something with no elasticity. If one were to bake a gluten-free cake or muffin on a relatively high temperature (about 375F) then it is possible to create a huge stream of carbon dioxide. This higher temperature allows carbon dioxide to form relatively all at once, which allows the bread proteins to set (coagulate) around the gases quickly. This idea is predicated on the fact that baking soda’s reaction in baking is not based on acid-base reactions, but instead on thermal decomposition. (Contrary to popular belief, in baking, baking soda actually creates a rise because the sodium bicarbonate begins to break down at around 120F into carbon dioxide. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but it’s just some food for thought.)

I tested this high heat method on muffins using heats that were 300F, 350F, and 400F. The muffins at 300F had flat tops. If you make muffins that commonly have flat tops, then you should consider raising the temperature. Muffins baked on 400F had a very nice rise. Unfortunately, it may have risen too much which contributed to cracking. In addition, it is possible to not finish cooking the muffin interior before the outside is well past done on this temperature. 350F created a very stable rise.

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GF Chocolate Chip Almond Muffins

A Little Fat Goes A Long Way

Now on to the issue of mouthfeel. Gluten has the ability to hold water. If you take out gluten, you are left with a bread that doesn’t want to hold on to moisture. I have noticed that when I search for gluten-free food, there is always a great reduction in the amount of sugar and fats in these muffins or brownies or cookies compared to gluten containing food. This is terrible if you want a delicious product. Sugar and fats are the mortal enemy of gluten, so I’m not sure what the idea behind excluding these key ingredients is, but they are important, especially in the absence of water retention. It turns out that when we eat any food, such as ribs or cookies, the actual feel of moisture on our tongues is related to fat not water. (Think back to those times that you cooked all of the fat off of your dinner and you were left with dry, tasteless food). Because you are already dealing with less water retention, it is essential that you pick up moisture from oils, if you want a tasty product. You can of course omit or reduce this, but honestly it won’t taste too good.

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GF Coconut Almond Waffles

Optimal Gluten Free Foods

Gluten is used to help create a rise in many foods. If we omit gluten, we have to accept that it isn’t possible to get the same effect. As I mentioned earlier, we can get pretty close though. However, there are quick-breads that can have better textures without gluten. These foods don’t rely as much on gluten, so they are the perfect foods for gluten-free food. Any bread that is naturally very dense or that doesn’t utilize leavening is perfect for this. This is the reason that one of the most common gluten-free foods is brownies. Brownies have no leavening, so it actually is negatively affected by gluten. A few other options include banana bread and matza, if you’re Jewish or enjoy Jewish food.

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GF Rocky Road Brownies

Flour Blends

The final topic I need to discuss is the actual flour we need. I will be the first to tell you that I know zero about individual flour blend recipes. There are plenty of gluten-free blends online that you can see. I am currently using a blend that I got at the grocery store for my needs. It gets the job done. Some people live or die by their blends, others don’t care. It really is up to personal preference.

Eating gluten-free is a little too expensive for me, but I’m happy to help anyone out there that needs advice or information based on science. Just comment or email me a question and I’ll do my best to figure out the answer.