When a celiac disease diagnosis leads someone to consume gluten-free versions of baked goods, one of the first things that person may notice is that they taste “different.”
If that person then begins cooking with gluten-free flours, he or she may realize that these gluten-free confections taste this way because non-wheat flours behave in wildly variable and seemingly unpredictable ways. Proteins and starches must be combined in distinct ratios. Mixing times and resting frequencies are, themselves, mixed-up and arresting. Some flours will produce a cake with crumbly edges and a completely collapsed, gelatinous middle. Some will fashion flat, stone-like biscuits. Some create breads that appear edible until you attempt to slice them, at which point they crumble away into pebbly piles of wasted ingredients, ironically reminding you of sand through an hourglass, and the precious time you have wasted attempting this tremendous baking failure.
The science of flour mixing can be intimidating, and gluten-free baking is a skill that tends to alienate those attempting to learn it. Flours can be expensive, making failures costly (not only monetarily, but also in effort and hard-won self-esteem). Learning to cook (and especially bake) gluten-free by either mixing your own flours or using a purchased mix, however, can lead you to discover not only what kind of food you are able to make gluten-free, but what kind of food you want to make, gluten-free. Each gluten-free baker’s journey is a personal one, often fraught with failures, always laden with lessons, and occasionally rewarded with the successes that will lead to the path one wants one’s cooking, one’s food, and one’s health to follow.
My own personal walk through the flours began in 2003, when, after a lifetime of vague symptoms and a year of acute crippling stomach pain, intrusive brain fog, and general malaise, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. My diagnosis and immediate adherence to a strict gluten-free diet alleviated almost all of my symptoms within a few months, for which I was incredibly grateful. It also led to a tremendous weight loss, which was needed at the time (it included a great deal of water weight from swelling, and some slimming down from the unhealthy, fast-and-convenience-food-heavy American diet in which, as a college-aged young woman, I had been over-indulging), but I quickly realized I had little idea what I could or should be eating. In the early 2000’s, prepackaged gluten-free foods were just beginning to emerge in health food stores. Many were, frankly, inedible; noodles turned to mucus when boiled, bread was tasteless and cardboard-like…
Well, pretty much everything was tasteless and cardboard-like. Even the higher-end mixes available for making bars or cookies produced gummy, or hard, or crumbly baked goods that were simply not worth eating.
When I began, at this time, to bake for myself, I started by following those I would refer to as the “first generation” of gluten-free cookbook writers. Bette Hagman, the Gluten-Free Gourmet, was a pioneering woman at that time, having spent many years experimenting on behalf of celiac disease patients who, like myself, now found themselves stuck between a prepackaged loaf of rice “bread” and a hard place. Hagman’s books contain many meals that would make someone newly-diagnosed feel more at home; familiar foods that became once again recognizable through her recipes. For baking, her flour mix was a simple but effective one, and one that would dominate the gluten-free baking world for years to come (and in fact, still persists today):
2 parts white rice flour
2/3 part potato starch
1/3 part tapioca starch
This miraculous mix created edible baked goods ranging the entire expanse of bakery fare. In researching today’s pre-packaged flour mixes, as well as flour mix recipes recommended by various websites, I discovered that this simple recipe base still remains as the root of many, including:
Recipes: Living Without’s All-Purpose Flour Blend, Silvana’s Kitchen’s Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour, Robyn Russell’s Gluten-Free Flour Blend (author of Gluten Free and Easy), the Basic Gluten-Free Flour on the Gluten-Free on a Shoestring website, the Land O Lakes Gluten-Free Flour Blend (with xanthan gum), and
Mixes: Betty Crocker’s All-Purpose Gluten-Free Rice Flour Blend (with guar gum and salt), and 1-2-3 Gluten Free’s Olivia’s Outstanding Multi-Purpose Fortified Flour Mix (with xanthan gum and fortified). King Arthur Gluten-Free Multi-Purpose Flour incorporates brown rice flour and fortifies this recipe base, while Pillsbury Best Multi-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour Blend incorporates pea fiber and xanthan gum, and Glutino All-Purpose Flour Mix also incorporates pea fiber, but uses acacia gum and rice protein. Tom Sawyer Gluten-Free Flour adds sweet rice flour, xanthan gum, and gelatin to this mix, and the list only continues.
Some companies varied this recipe to such an extent they just started throwing in kitchen sinks. GF Jules Gluten Free Flour uses this base plus corn starch, corn flour, and xanthan gum, while Authentic Foods Gluten-Free Multi-Blend Flour also runs with the cornstarch and xanthan gum. Better Batter Gluten-Free Flour utilizes brown rice flour, potato flour, and xanthan gum combined with the old standby mix.
As effective a base as this is, however, there are subtle textural and flavor variations that rice flour and starches simply cannot achieve. Additionally, as you may have noticed, this mix can be nutritionally devoid.
Sometimes (I found this to be particularly true in the months and year directly following my diagnosis), one wants nothing more than to be able to recreate a favorite meal or dessert, or to serve this to a loved one who has not been able to enjoy it since being diagnosed with celiac disease. This is a noble undertaking, a communication of comfort, effort and love through food, and is a normal reaction! Experiment away, if this is your motivation, and you will find success with these flours.
If, however, you are seeking more nutritional sustenance and creating dietary staples, these mixes may leave you hungry. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I began my baking experiments, bean flours were just emerging, and seemed to offer hope for a more nutritious, protein- and fiber-packed flour for often nutrient-deficient celiac disease patients. Hagman’s bean-flour recipe from that era (The Gluten-Free Gourmet Cooks Fast and Healthy), is this:
1 part bean flour
1 part cornstarch
1 part tapioca flour
½ part rice flour
Other bean flour blends like this include the Living Without High-Protein Flour Blend (in which arrowroot or potato starch can be substituted for cornstarch), and Bob’s Red Mill’s notoriously beany Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Flour, which takes this approach: garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, whole grain white sorghum flour, tapioca flour, and fava bean flour are combined to produce a 34g-serving containing 3.5g whole grains, 3g fiber, and 3g protein.
Despite these impressive nutritional statistics, you may have noticed the brevity of this modern list.
This is because many individuals tend to complain about bean flour’s very distinctive taste, which can range the spectrum of “This cookie tastes like fava. That’s unnatural,” to “Who dropped their house keys and old socks into this crepe mix?” Though the taste can be masked in the right recipe by stronger or complimentary flavors, many people simply cannot take the earthy, sometimes metallic punch of bean. Sometimes, even those who can (that would be me) are still taken out of the experience of enjoying a baked good by the cloying smack of something askew. If you’ve ever taken a bite of a baked good that is moist, rich, and somehow a little off, and you are wondering if something in the mix has turned… it might just be the soy flour. Or the garfava flour. Or the (there are several other bean flours in circulation now. As excited as I am to try them, I will do so first for my own pleasure, and may attempt to bury their flavor in a batch of black bean brownies, to start.)… You get the picture.
In other variations on flour mixes, Bette Hagman was also the first baker I followed who regularly incorporated dried milk powder into mixes (particularly for breads). Several modern cup-for-cup mixes have incorporated this suggestion into their bowls, and though many sing the praises of the amazing goods such combinations can produce, to those who are lactose intolerant or choose to omit dairy from their diets, this trend is disheartening, to say the least.
Modern flour mixes utilizing this strategy include Cup4Cup, with its polarizing Original Multi-Purpose Flour (many tout it for confections, praising its award-winning developers for their extensive testing. Personally, I find its use of powdered milk intrusive and recipe-disrupting, though I understand I may be in a minority). America’s Test Kitchen also felt the need to utilize milk powder in their cup-for-cup experiment. “Milk powder was the key to our blend’s success,” they stated, “contributing proteins that help improve structure in our gluten-free baked goods and, along with its sugars, undergo the Maillard browning reaction, which leads to more complex flavor.”
(As true as this statement may be, I challenge anyone to use the phrase “the Maillard browning reaction” without sounding a little pretentious. Go ahead, try. I’ll wait.)
The above gluten-free flour mixes were the culmination of exhaustive kitchen experimentation at the turn of the century. In the mid- to late-2000’s, with the increased accessibility of the internet, a proliferation of online blogs emerged, food blogs becoming a genre among these. During this era, several gluten-free bloggers took to the net, a few showcasing the hard work they had put in to creating artfully-crafted and skillfully-fashioned recipes for more realistic and pleasing baked goods. These are the individuals I would consider the “second generation” of gluten-free cooks, the gluten-free bloggers who broke ground in online media by sharing their journeys and their recipes.
Among this wave of mavericks was Gluten-Free Girl Shauna Ahern, who perfected a ratio of starches to heavier flours and created a formula for mixing one’s own flours, for those interested in doing so. Her success in this venture was such that the Food Network promotes her flour mix as their go-to gluten free flour, also. Ahern measures her flours by weight (different flours weigh and compact in varying manners, and thus measure by cup in varying ways; weight, as opposed to quantity, is the definitive way to measure according to many gluten-free cooks). She offers this as her All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour Mix, which can be substituted into any recipe:
400g millet flour
300g sweet rice flour
300g potato starch
Ahern adheres to a formula of 40% whole grain flours (by weight) countered by 60% white flours or starches. The flours she considers whole grain (or that should be treated as such) are: brown rice flour, buckwheat flour, corn flour, mesquite flour, millet flour, oat flour, quinoa flour, sorghum flour, sweet potato flour, and teff flour, along with the nut flours (almond flour, chestnut flour, coconut flour, and hazelnut flour) and bean flours (fava bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, and kinako flour). White flours and starches are: arrowroot flour, cornstarch, potato flour, potato starch, sweet rice flour, tapioca flour, and good old white rice flour.
Encouraging people to “play” in their kitchens, Ahern incited the urge in me to experiment with these different flours, to create combinations that highlighted what I wanted in my food, and what I desired from my own personal flour mix. This formula was motivating, for me. It offered me freedom; it offered me nutrition. Perhaps, most invitingly, it offered me creativity. My baking has been evolving ever since, and I have never been happier with it than I now am, mixing away in my kitchen.
(Shauna Ahern also offers an excellent packaged flour mix, for those who are unable or do not wish to experiment, and it can be found here.)
So many of my own favorite flours seem only to have become available over the past several years: the nutrient- and protein-packed whole and ancient grain flours like millet, teff, quinoa, and amaranth. Other favorites, the nut flours, particularly coconut and almond, came to prominence with the popular emergence, at the turn of the last decade, of the paleo diet. With so many options to try, a great deal of gratitude is due to companies like Bob’s Red Mill. In the past, many of these alternative flours were milled on equipment shared with grains dangerous to celiac disease patients. Bob’s Red Mill’s dedicated facilities, however, have eradicated this danger, and their high standards and superior quality now offer those with celiac disease the opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of safe, nutritious, uniquely delicious flours, enriching our baking palates all the further.
Most recently in my walk through the flours, I had the pleasure of reading Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole and Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours, by Alice Medrich. Medrich, author of a handful of James Beard- (and other) award-winning cookbooks, dessert genius (she brought truffles to the United States. You’re welcome.), and expert baker, explores gluten-free flours in her newest book. The manner in which she accomplishes this is novel, and inspiring: she seeks not to throw flours together into a Frankenstein-like concoction that strives to mimic wheat flour, but rather explores the innate flavors of each flour on its own, decoding the subtle notes and textures within each, and deciding to which baked good each would best be suited. She studies which flavors pair well with each flour, both within the recipe itself and as complements to the finished product.
This was ingenious to me, as someone exploring the flours on my own. There were so many valuable takeaways from this experiment: for instance, did you know buckwheat flour tastes vastly differently depending on how long it is stirred? Did you know the fineness of the grain of your rice flour affects its weight? From how long to allow each flour to rest after mixing to how to store each flour, the information contained within this book is both vast and valuable.
Medrich began her flour experimentation with “riffs on a genoise” (for the uninitiated non-French-trained baker – that would also be me – a genoise is a light, spongy cake that can serve as a base for many other cake recipes). She found this to be the ideal way to expose the true flavors of the flours. Utilizing one type of flour at a time in the recipe, she would bake the simple cake, not allowing any other flavors to intrude, and enjoy the results, gleaning a wealth of information from the way the flour baked, mixed, and tasted. I personally used this as inspiration to begin performing “riffs on a vegan mugcake” utilizing a recipe I make every day, formerly with a mishmash of flours… but now enjoying one at a time. If you have the patience or time, the process of experimenting with a simple favorite recipe to discover your own favorite flours is incredibly rewarding, and I highly recommend it. In my experiments, I found buckwheat’s floral aspects to be so prominent, I’ve developed a new love for the flour. I was startled to discover that amaranth’s overly-grassy notes are tempered by mashed fruit into something (I, at least find) strangely magnetic. I now crave it in banana breads with flax (…though I am a bit of a strong-palated weirdo). And teff’s mild cocoa undertones and softness are pure magic almost anywhere, but especially beneath chocolate.
Being creative in the kitchen is the key to finding your ideal flour, if you seek to create one for yourself. Experimenting with the formulas and recipes given to us by the inaugural generation of gluten-free bakers and those who have followed in their ambitious whisk-trails, you can create something lovely of your very own.
These bakers also left these recipes for our benefit, and if you don’t have the time or desire to experiment, they are tested and true as written. And now, in 2015, we have several GF flour mixes on the market that perform well in many recipes. Every year, the art of gluten-free baking becomes more refined and perfected. Though an entirely different artform than baking with gluten, baking with gluten-free flours is now more accessible than ever, and our successes far more delicious than those that have come before.
Referenced material linked in text.
Photographs copyright Alexis, aka GF Lex, 2015.