How To Make Successful Gluten-Free Substitutions

My friends at recently asked me to weigh in on this month’s installment of their “Ask An Expert” series, where I was able to share some advice on how to mae successful gluten-free baking substitutions. Here’s the article below – enjoy!

A reader asks our Expert, Victoria Yeh of how to make successful gluten-free substitutions when baking. This is an excellent question, particularly for those who are new to gluten-free baking.

Question: I want to recreate some of my recipes into gluten-free versions. Can you shed some light on how to use gluten-free substitutions successfully when baking? 

1. Before you kick it out the door, get to know it first. The key to being able to make successful substitutions to your recipes is to understand what gluten does before you substitute for it. Gluten does three things to a recipe: it adds bulk, it sticks, and it helps it rise. Most people make the mistake of only substituting for gluten’s bulk properties, for example, by making a straight cup-for-cup substitution of brown rice flour for wheat flour. But since this doesn’t take into account the binding (sticky) or leavening (rising) characteristics of gluten, the recipe turns out either as a crumbly mess or a rock hard paperweight. Sound familiar?!

2. Make it stick and make it rise. We know that a straight substitution of rice flour doesn’t work – now what? Back to the first point, we have to find a way to substitute for gluten’s binding and leavening qualities. Binders include starches and gums such as: tapioca starch, arrowroot flour, arrowroot powder, corn starch, potato starch, guar gum, xanthan gum, carrageean and sweet rice flour. Eggs also make a fantastic binder – and bonus, it’s a leavener and also adds fat content, which helps make your recipes moist. Other leaveners include: baking soda, baking powder and yeast. Read the label of any packaged gluten-free goodie, or any gluten-free recipe, and you’ll be able to pick out what they’ve used as bulk, binding and leavening ingredients.
3. Keep in simple. Pick two or three combinations of baking substitutions that you like and apply them to everything. Once you find a couple favourite combinations, you’ll be able to transform any recipe into a gluten-free version. And better yet, you’ll be able to take any gluten-free recipe and still make it work with only the ingredients you have (so no more running out to various stores looking for mysterious ingredients that you’ll only use once!). In my kitchen, I keep brown rice flour, tapioca starch and sweet rice flour on hand at all times, and I can make ANY recipe gluten-free! For example,1 cup of wheat flour = 3/4 cup brown rice flour + 1/4 cup tapioca starch + 1/2 tsp baking powder. For a full chart of substitution combinations, see page 24 of my book

4. Food is a science – if you fail, try again. I started writing the title of this point to read “food is not a science,” but the more I think of it, the more I’m convinced otherwise. Science doesn’t end with one experiment, it is a series of experiments. And every time an experiment fails, a scientist analyzes what went wrong, and tries again a little differently. I approach cooking in very much the same way. If a recipe fails, I examine what went wrong (too crumbly, too gummy, burnt on the outside but raw on the inside, etc) which tells me what I have to do differently next time (add more binder, add fat, add dry ingredients etc). I’ve been experimenting for years and have made everything from potato cookies (yuk!) to bread that could easily be used as concrete foundation blocks. My many years of experiments and lessons are condensed into a complete recipe troubleshooting guide on page 44 of my book to help save you some grief! Remember, this isn’t “failure,” it’s just part of a process.

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