There are gluten free 1 to 1 flour blends, all purpose flour blends, bread flour blends, specialty flour blends like those for cakes or brownies. Then there is rice flour, almond flour, buckwheat flour and so on. How do you figure out which one to choose and why are there so many variations?
The problem with gluten free baking and cooking
Let’s start with what is gluten and what it does. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, spelt and rye. It allows dough, like bread, to expand (rise) and trap gas produced by leavening agents (e.g. yeast or baking powder). This dual function improves texture, helps the baked good to retain moisture and gives bread dough for example the characteristic domed shape.
Without gluten, other grain flours like rice cannot trap gas as efficiently because there is no structural support, no gluten “network”. That is one of the reasons why many gluten free loaves are flat and dense. The gluten “net” is also binding, sticky, able to hold the flour together. Gluten free grains lack this stickiness which means that many baked goods can also be crumbly.
There is more...Wheat flour has it all, protein, moisture, starch and fat. Same with many of the other types of flour that contain gluten. Individual gluten free grains do not have enough of these components to successfully replace wheat flour.
Without help, gluten free flour is also deficient in a purely aesthetic way. Regular flour dough browns as it cooks giving the finished product a lovely glow. GF goods are often lacking in that department. Baked goods with gluten also have a better texture and a superior taste. Finally GF goods tend to stale faster.
So, in addition to putting together a flour blend that has a similar nutritional profile to wheat flour, the gluten free baker must find a way to improve the texture, taste, longevity and the look of the of their baked goods.
The solution to this multi-complex problem is the answer to the why, why we need so many gluten free grains and different types of blends. In short we are putting together individual components (grains, starches, binders etc.) that together will mimic the properties of regular flour.
Look at the Nutrition Facts Comparison Table below (this is not about which one is healthier or has less carbs or anything like that, this is not a complete analysis for those issues). In the comparison you can see the differences with wheat and other grains. The numbers do not vary wildly from one grain to the next but if you decided to pick one grain to replace wheat you would quickly see or feel the effect of those differing values. Also it is important to note that none of the other grains contain the gluten protein which is not accounted for here as a separate value (gluten is estimated to be as much as 80% of the protein found in wheat). Therefore, a blend of several gf flours and starches is the accepted way to create a more diverse profile, one that is more similar to wheat flour.
Nutrition Facts Comparison Table
Another huge factor lending success to gluten free flour blends and recipes is the addition of non gluten proteins. Their addition can reduce amino acid deficits, making the bread healthier. But these proteins also help with structure, color and texture producing a far more acceptable end product with a longer ‘shelf life”.
One more thing. There are also different types of regular wheat flour blends, e.g. bread flour, cake flour or pastry flour. Bread flour is engineered to have more protein than cake flour because it needs a stronger support structure. Gluten free flour blends adopt the same principle, bread flour blends need more protein, cake flour blends do not.
Gluten Free Bread Flour Blend Examples
All things considered the basic formula for a good gluten free bread flour blend looks something like this:
Gluten Free Flour Blend = Primary flour + Secondary flour + Starch
The logical question now would be, how do I choose what to use, which flour, binder, starch or protein? Well, I will be sharing more on this in another post. In the meantime take a look at 2 of my flour blends I use to make bread (table below). In these examples the primary flour is whichever one I use the most:
Gluten Free Bread Flour Blends Comparison Table
Either of these blends make really good gluten free bread. The success of the blend though is greatly influenced by what flour is in the primary position. Primary flours that I have found relatively easy to use include, buckwheat, brown rice, oat and sorghum (sometimes called sweet white sorghum flour). Many of these also work well as the secondary flour as demonstrated in the example above.
My preference for secondary flours would be corn flour, white rice flour, almond flour, cassava flour, quinoa flour, millet flour, coconut flour, nut and bean flours.
Until you have a good grasp on how each type of flour behaves, I would not suggest using almond flour, quinoa flour, millet flour, coconut flour or any nut and bean flours.
Once we have the flour blend we now add the other components that make up the recipe. We will continue to use bread in this example.
Gluten Free Bread Recipe = Gluten Free Flour Blend + Binder + Fat + Protein + Liquid
Xanthan gum, Guar Gum and Psyllium husk powder are all examples of binders. These help to improve the elasticity of gluten free dough, allowing it to form a basic “fiber” network. Typically you need very little in a recipe. Butter, oil, milk (dairy and non dairy), powdered protein isolates, eggs are often used interchangeably for the fat, protein and liquid components of the recipe.
Take a look at my full gluten free bread recipe printed below. In that recipe psylllium husk powder (my preference) or xanthan gum does the binding, the oil is the main source of the fat, the non gluten protein is contributed mainly by the flour or milk if used and liquid is the water or milk. It’s a simple enough recipe, you could replace the cassava flour with oat flour and the recipe will still work. Resting the dough without leavening agents is a simple way to improve the quality of the finished product. Once you incorporate the yeast there is no need to let the dough rise twice as is the case with wheat flour (in fact try not to do that, the non gluten protein structure can weaken).
Of course, this explanation is not exhaustive. At the very least, I hope you understand why gluten free recipes require so many components. In my next post of this series, I will share more on how to build a good gluten free flour blend for bread, cakes or other uses.
Feel free to try out the recipe below, make substitutions and observe the results, that is the best way to learn. I have made numerous "mistakes" to get where I am now and I still make them...
(this post was shared on Nov 12th, 2020)
Gluten Free and Vegan Bread Recipe
1½ cups buckwheat flour
¾ cup cassava flour
¼ cup tapioca starch
1 tbsp psyllium husk powder
1¼ tsp xanthan gum
2 tsp brown sugar
½ tbsp baking powder
2½ tsp instant yeast
½ tsp salt
¼ cup vegetable oil (I use coconut)
1¼ - 1½ cup warm water (105-115°F)* ½ tbsp vinegar
*You can use milk e.g. coconut milk instead of water
Making the Bread
In a bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients, use only 1/2 tsp of the yeast and none of the baking powder. Set aside Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients (except the vinegar), kneading or mixing until thoroughly combined. The dough should be slightly sticky or shaggy but holding together and fairly easy to work with
Cover the bowl with cling wrap or other and set aside in a cool place to rest for about an hour. Resting the dough improves the texture of the finished loaf At the end of the rest period add the rest of the yeast (2 tsp), the baking powder and mix or knead well. Add the vinegar and mix or knead again. The dough should be slightly sticky or shaggy but holding together (like a thick brownie batter, scoopable not pourable). Add more water a little at a time if needed
Scoop the dough into a baking tin (approx 7 1/2"l x 4"w x 4.5"h internal measurements). You can smooth the top of the dough with the back of a spoon. Wet the spoon, it will be easier to work with Allow the dough to rise just over the rim of the tin and no more (the bread can collapse if it rises too much) Once the dough is in the tin, preheat oven to 350°F. When it is ready place the dough in the oven and bake for 50 minutes After 50 minutes, lower the heat to 275 and bake for another 15 mins. After the 15 mins, turn your oven off and leave the bread there for another 15 mins, you can take the loaf out of the pan for this (if the bread feels really firm on all sides, especially the bottom of the loaf you can skip this step) Cut the bread when it's completely cool. Store in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for an extended period of time