Thursday, 22 August 2013

Gluten-free flour

My darling friend came over last night with a dilemma: her colleague has just figured out she needs to avoid gluten and needs some guidance. "Lia," she asked me, "is there a flour she can substitute, where she doesn't have to do every single recipe with a thousand types of flour in it?"

A noble question, to be sure, and one I have found myself asking as well. But sadly, wheat is pretty complex and multi-purpose, in a way that no other single flour is. It browns beautifully. It absorbs just enough moisture to make a gorgeous crumb. It creates structure. It tastes amazing. But for one thing: it's full of gluten.

The stuff we eat isn't going to be the same without wheat, but that's OK. There are lots of things that are better than wheat. (If you aren't allergic to nuts, please make these cookies. You'll forget they're vegan and gluten-free.) And if you love wheat, there are lots of things that can be combined to make stuff taste more or less like wheat. And that's why I'm sharing this simple recipe with you guys today: when you're baking, it'll help you forget that you can't eat wheat.

The main reason I suggest a gluten-free flour mix is that it's easy. Seriously, if you're going to do a significant amount of baking, it's going to suck up all your time to measure out two tablespoons of this, and a quarter cup of that, and a half-cup of this and two thirds of a cup of that...and then move on to the rest of the non-flour ingredients. If you spend 10 minutes one day to make a big batch of all-purpose gluten-free flour, you're basically reaching into your cupboard and measuring out your flour as though it's conventional wheat flour. You almost forget you can't eat wheat anymore.

I've used this very recipe to substitute in practically any muffin, cookie or quickbread you can imagine. I haven't tried it with yeast bread, and I haven't ever tried to thicken a gravy or anything with it. But it'll make pancakes. It'll make scones. It'll make gingerbread.

I used this flour mix to make my roommate some awesome soft gingerbread. Although, granted, I haven't figured out how to make it gluten-free and vegan. Recipe to follow when I do figure it out.

Full disclosure: I'm not a genius who came up with this on her own. This is the result of an original recipe that I found on-line, with a few tweaks over time that I've found really helpful. One batch makes you enough to do 2-3 dozen muffins, or several breakfasts' worth of pancakes. And if you double or triple it, you don't have to worry about flour for a month or two. How convenient is that?

Now, let's get this show on the road.

Gluten-free all-purpose flour
Makes about 4 cups

1 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup white rice flour
1/4 cup potato starch
2/3 cup tapioca starch
3/4 cup sweet rice flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons xanthan gum

Put all ingredients into an airtight bin and shake like hell! Will stay fresh for weeks in an airtight container. Use scoop-for-scoop as a replacement for all-purpose wheat flour in your favourite cookies, muffins, cakes, etc.

Important note: this flour blend is great if you still eat eggs. Baking gluten-free and vegan is really challenging and not something I've mastered as of yet. When I get there, you'll be the first to know. Trust me.

Wondering what all these ingredients do? Well, here you have it.

Brown rice flour will give baked goods a full-bodied texture, although it tends to be a bit dry and needs help from other flours unless you want a kind of "sandy" texture. The best thing about brown rice flour is that it's got lots of fiber and protein in it, so this is where most of your nutrition comes from in this mix. The taste of brown rice flour is, of course, more grainy than white rice flour (much as whole wheat flour tastes more like a whole grain).

White rice flour, like brown rice flour, will add structure and density to the dough, although the same issue with "sandiness" will arise if not combined with other starches and flours. The white rice flour has a less distinct taste, and helps the flour taste more wheat-like than the brown rice flour.

Potato starch (not potato flour), like other starches, has a finer texture and will make your baked goods more moist and less dense. The downside of starches is that pretty much all of the nutrition is taken out of them, so be sure to use them in conjunction with things like brown rice flour, where you can also get some fiber and protein. Flours also give body, which starches don't.

Tapioca starch (also called tapioca flour)  more or less tastes like nothing, but we forgive it, because it helps not only with texture (it makes it lighter), but also with colouring (it'll help your baked goods get that nice, golden colour). Colour is especially challenging for gluten-free baking, so you may still want to brush a little milk (non-dairy if vegan) or egg (if not vegan) on the tops of things that you want a nice brown crust on, like bread.

Sweet rice flour adds a nice, chewy texture to your baked goods and helps add body to them, because it's so starchy. Sweet rice flour is made from what they sometimes call "glutinous rice" (doesn't actually contain gluten), which is higher in starch than regular brown or white rice flours. If a recipe asks for this, you really do need to use sweet rice flour, rather than substituting another rice flour.

Cornstarch is somewhat "sticky" and will help hold your baked goods together. Like other starches, it doesn't have a whole lot of nutritional value, and it also doesn't contribute all that much to texture. As such, when making gluten-free flour mixes, definitely make sure to use other starches with cornstarch (as we did here).

Xanthan gum essentially acts as the gluten, but is corn-based. Gluten (in wheat and other grains) is pretty much what holds everything together, which means that a beautiful structure can form when everything is baking. Without gluten, you need something else to stick it all together and let it bond all the elements, and that's where xanthan gum comes in.


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