Gluten Free Baking For Hard Times
I am not an expert gluten free baker. If you are pretty good at gluten free baking, then you may not find much on this website or in this article, that will advance your knowledge. If, on the other hand, you are confused and intimidated by how bazaar gluten free baking is, when compared to traditional baking, you might find some information here that is worthwhile. If you are trying to keep down the costs of gluten free baking, then you will definitely find some of my ideas useful.
Gluten free baking is weird. It’s not like conventional baking because gluten-free flours do not perform the same as wheat flour. Before giving up gluten and casein I was a fairly decent baker. I knew what did and didn’t work and could bake many things without a recipe. I routinely made pancakes, muffins and yeast breads by simply combining ingredients and using up whatever leftovers were crowding my fridge. Baking this way had become second nature to me. When we gave up gluten I was in a for a rude awakening.
Gluten free baking is not the same. The flours don’t respond the same, the ratios of flour to liquid to fat are all different. Batters and doughs require a different texture and viscosity. It’s complicated. I quickly learned that until you get a feel for the flours and mixtures, it’s best to stick to recipes. Rice flour can make dry, grainy baked goods if you’re not careful. We ate a lot of sub-par muffins and pancakes before I realized that batter made from rice flour needs to be a lot thinner than batter made with wheat flour. Like rice swells in a pan as it cooks, rice flour soaks up a lot of liquid as it bakes. Muffin batter made with rice flour needs to be as thin as pancake batter made from wheat flour. GFCF pancake batter needs to be almost as thin as crepe batter made from wheat flour. GFCF bread dough is not actually a dough at all. It needs to be the consistency of thick cake batter. For a long time I felt like the world of baking had been turned on it’s head, and I was Alice, trying to make sense of Wonderland.
As I made my way through this strange new world, I noticed that most GFCF baking recipes use a variety of flours. Recipes don’t just call for 2-cups of flour. They call for 3/4-cup of rice flour, 1/4-cup garbanzo bean flour, 1/3-cup sorghum flour, 1/3-cup potato starch and 1/4-cup tapioca flour. I found combinations of this ilk extremely intimidating. Not only were the flours unfamiliar to me, but the prospect of memorizing all of them and carefully measuring them into my bowl just to make a simple batch of dinner muffins seemed overly tedious. This, I concluded, is why people think they need a specialty GFCF baking mix to prepare anything. Following a recipe that complicated required the intervention of a packaged mix, especially for someone like me who was brand new to GFCF baking.
Even in the face of such complicated recipes, I thought to myself that there had to be an easier way. I did some research, noted similarities and differences in the styles of several gluten free cookbooks and learned a lot. It turns out that the reason so many gluten free cooks used several different flours in combination is because in this way they were able to more closely mimic the familiar flavor and texture of wheat-based baked goods. Rice flour by itself makes a dense, crumbly loaf of bread. Rice flour combined with a starch, (such as cornstarch or potato starch) makes for more tender and less crumbly baked goods. Other flours, such as bean flour, sorghum flour, oat flour, buckwheat flour and tapioca flour, when used in specific combinations, can improve the texture and flavor of baked goods to an even greater degree. This was good information, but when I was starting out, and even now, I like to keep things as simple as possible. So I kept looking and when I found simple combinations of ingredients and familiar methods of mixing, I paid close attention. These were the types of recipes I needed to make this diet work for me and my family in the long run.
A lot of the recipes I perused called for xanthan gum and/or guar gum. At first these seemed more like parts of my son’s chemistry set than actual foods. Eventually I learned that these gums have been commercially available since the 1980’s and have become very common in gluten free baking, especially for making yeast breads. Gluten free and allergy-friendly cookbooks published earlier than this do not use xanthan or guar gum. Xanthan gum is a byproduct produced from bacteria fermenting on a sugar source such as corn or soy. I don’t know how scientists harvest it and dry it into the pretty white powder I buy at the market. What I do know is that xanthan and guar gum mimic many of the properties of gluten in baking. Gluten free baked goods, especially yeast breads, made with xanthan or guar, have the stretchy, soft, lofty structure of their wheat flour counterparts.
From modern GFCF cookbooks I learned that adding xanthan gum or guar gum (available at many supermarkets and natural food stores) improves the texture of gluten free baked goods because it mimics the effect of gluten. It makes GF flours stick and stretch and rise in a way that is similar to gluten. However, when you’re first starting out xanthan gum seems pretty pricey and in my experience it is possible to make quality baked goods without it. If you decide that the GFCF diet is right for you and your family, then you can buy a package of xanthan or guar gum and branch out into some fancy artisan baking. If you’re not ready for that though, you can make some really good GFCF baked goods without xanthan or guar.
At my local library I was able to find several GFCF cookbooks published before xanthan and guar came to be in regular use. I even found some really old cookbooks from WW 1, or the Great War, as it used to be called. Wheat was rationed during the Great War, along with meat, butter and sugar. At that time, many cookbooks were produced that provided recipes which used alternatives to wheat such as rice flour, cornmeal, and rolled oats. These cookbooks were a gold mine of information and recipes. They used affordable, readily available ingredients. The recipes were easy, didn’t require any fancy equipment and they were well tested so they turned out every time. I did a lot of baking, made a lot of mistakes, and finally came up with a nice group of budget-friendly, reliable recipes that produced good tasting muffins, cakes and breads. These were the recipes that got us through that especially trying first year. Most of them are so good, and so inexpensive, that they continue to play an important role in our daily diet.
All of the recipes in the Hard Times section of this website can be prepared without xanthan gum or guar gum. This makes them especially affordable and accessible, even to those of us on the most meager of budgets. If you’re not sure you’re willing to invest in all of the exotica that gluten free baking has to offer, then this is the place for you. You’ll find simple muffins, pancakes and quick breads in this chapter. All of these recipes can be made with regular foods that you can find at most well-stocked supermarkets. Rice flour may be the only exception, but even it has become more commonplace. I can buy it at almost all of my local supermarkets. In some stores it’s stocked in the health food section. In other stores it’s stocked with the Mexican foods. For these recipes brown rice flour and white rice flour can be used interchangeably. If you are lucky enough to be able to grind your own grains then home ground rice flour works well too, and costs a fraction of the prepackaged stuff.
Rolled oats are used for some of these recipes. You must determine which type is best for your circumstances. If you have celiac then you will need to use certified gluten free rolled oats. If you are gluten intolerant or eating for autism, then you may be able to use regular rolled oats. Oats themselves are a gluten free grain, but most oats are grown and processed near wheat, rye or barley, all of which contain gluten. It’s relatively easy for conventionally processed oats to become contaminated with traces of gluten. If you must avoid every single trace of gluten then choose certified gluten free rolled oats. They are available in 2-pound bags and come in both old-fashioned and quick cooking versions. Old-fashioned gluten free rolled oats are usually less expensive than the quick-cooking variety. They are the version I recommend.
In my family we discovered early on that regular rolled oats, the kind in the round cardboard container, work just find for our needs. I prefer the old-fashioned variety. They are quite affordable so I’ve made them a staple in our diet. If we were unable to use regular rolled oats I would seek out a bulk source of gluten free rolled oats and buy them in larger quantities to keep the price as low as possible. I would probably use them less frequently than I currently do because of their higher price.
For some of my Hard Times breads I have used oat flour. This is made by grinding rolled oats into flour in a blender or food processor. A coffee mill would also work. Simple measure the rolled oats into your blender or food processor and process until they are powdery, with a flour-like consistency. My kitchen machines aren’t top of the line, so I only process 2/3 to 1-cup of oats at a time. When the first batch is done I dump it into my mixing bowl and then process the next batch. It takes a little extra time to do this, but saving money often does, so I don’t begrudge it. If you were of a mind to, you could process an entire box of rolled oats, one small batch at a time, and save the extra work of grinding it for each recipe. Some children really enjoy doing things like this and it keeps them busy for a while with a productive task.
Cornmeal is one of my favorite gluten free grains. It’s important that you use plain cornmeal in these recipe, not a cornmeal mix. Mixes contain added ingredients such as baking powder, salt and sometimes wheat flour or powdered milk. Cornmeal mix will not work in these recipes. You need plain cornmeal with no added ingredients. Yellow and white cornmeal can be used interchangeably. Use the one you like the best. I prefer whole grain yellow cornmeal, which I can find at my local supermarket in 5-pound bags. I also like stone ground cornmeal, which I can find in 2-pound bags, in my choice of white or yellow, at the discount superstore.
A quick note about greasing the pans you use for baking. No-stick vegetable oil spray works great but not everyone uses it. I have learned, after many hard years in the kitchen, that solid shortening, such as Crisco or Spectrum Organic Shortening, works better for greasing your pans than liquid oil does. I don’t know why it does, but I know that solid shortening is the best fat to use for greasing your pans if you want your muffins and breads to pop out of the pan without sticking. I put a little shortening on a small piece of plastic wrap or a piece of leftover waxed paper, such as from an empty cold cereal bag, and then wipe the shortening all over the insides of my muffin tin or baking pan. Flip-top sandwich bags are handy for greasing pans too, you slip your hand inside the bag like a glove, add a little shortening and grease your pans as desired. If there’s a lot of shortening left on your waxed paper or sandwich bag, you can store it in the fridge and use it for your next greasing job too.
Eventually I’ll write more about baking with xanthan gum and yeast, but I wanted to share the recipes that are most useful for saving money first.