Have you ever tried to bake your own gluten-free cake or bread only to have it turn out to be either a crumbly mess or rock hard paper weight? Don’t give up just yet, because there’s a simple explanation for these kitchen disasters, and better yet – there’s a simple solution.
Baking, gluten-free or not, is essentially like conducting a science experiment. Properly measured ingredients mixed in specific proportions interact together to make a desired product. The problem with the typical gluten-free experiment is that people try to make straight substitutions of wheat flour for gluten-free flours. Why does this not work?
When you’re trying to substitute wheat flour out of a recipe, you need to substitute for its three key qualities: bulk, binding and leaving. (Leavening means the ability to make baked goods rise.) Most gluten-free flours can only replace for the “bulk” quality of wheat flour. I call these “base” flours because they act as the base for the recipe, and can include options such as brown rice flour, white rice flour, millet flour and lentil flour.
When mixed with water, gluten becomes sticky and elastic, which is where it gets its binding and leavening qualities. This is why many gluten-free foods are crumbly and don’t rise well. In order to substitute for binding qualities, you’ll need to add either a starch or a gum to your recipe. These ingredients can include: corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, arrowroot powder, arrowroot flour, sweet potato flour, sweet rice flour, guar gum, xanthan gum and carrageen. While the proportions for using each of these ingredients can vary widely, a couple simple substitutions you can use in ANY recipe are:
1 cup wheat flour = 3/4 cup brown rice flour + 1/4 cup arrowroot flour, OR
1 cup wheat flour = 1/2 cup brown rice flour + ½ cup sweet rice flour
The first substitution is best for crusts, cookies, and anything that is crunchy, while the second is best for delicate cakes and anything that is soft or spongy. In both the combinations above, I’ve used brown rice flour as my “base” and added either arrowroot flour or sweet rice flour as my “binder” to substitute for the sticky quality of gluten.
As a rule of thumb, I also like to add an additional 1/2 teaspoon of gluten-free baking powder per 1 cup of flour to help compensate for the extra rising or leavening qualities of gluten as well. I discuss in greater detail various other base flours, binders and leaveners along with their characteristics and substitution proportions in my book, Where Do I Start? Your Essential Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Sugar-Free Food Allergy Cookbook.
By using a few simple rules of thumb when it comes to substitutions, you’ll be able to make any recipe gluten-free, and finally stop having to replace all your favourite old recipe books. And remember, if your recipe doesn’t quite turn out the way you like, just try again with slightly adjusted proportions. Good luck and happy baking!
This article originally appeared in Village Living Magazine.