New to this whole gluten-free thing? Not sure how to substitute the wheat flour in a favorite recipe? Need to cook without additional problematic ingredients– such as milk, eggs or soy? This article is for you, Babycakes. And check out my post The Morning After [diagnosis, that is] for some smart and supportive start-up tips, from shopping strategies to easy dinner ideas (not to mention, how to recognize and solve those pesky contamination issues).
Cooking and Baking Without Wheat and Gluten
After thirteen years of living wheat-free gluten-free, cooking safely is second nature. It is (honestly, I swear!) NBD. No big deal. Here’s a quick overview, followed by more detailed tips on combining gluten-free flours and substituting safe ingredients in your favorite recipes.
Safe flours for wheat-free, gluten-free baking include sorghum flour, brown rice flour, white and sweet rice flour, millet flour, buckwheat flour, quinoa flour, certified gluten-free oat flour, and teff flour. Note* Make sure sources of corn, millet, sorghum, etc flours are 100% gluten-free.
Starches used for gluten-free baking include potato starch, cornstarch, arrowroot starch and tapioca starch/flour. (Starches add lightness, tenderness, or browning to GF flours.)
Almond flour, hazelnut flour, chestnut and peanut flours are high protein non-grain options.
Legume flours include chick pea flour and soy flour.
Coconut flour is a high fiber addition to GF blends that attracts moisture and adds a lot of texture and flavor.
Note: Oats have been a sticky issue for those with celiac disease because widely available commercial oats are often milled/cross contaminated with wheat crops. The good news is that a few small, independent farmers are now growing and milling certified gluten-free oats. Because whole grain oats are high in fiber, protein and iron, this is great news for those living gluten-free. Just be 100% sure the oats or oatmeal you are purchasing are “Certified Gluten-Free”. Bob’s Red Mill has recently added certified gluten-free oats to its line of gluten-free products milled in a dedicated facility.
On a side note- the high fiber in oats may take some getting used to for those with touchy tummies. Start slow. Try 1/3 to 1/2 cup of oatmeal- or better yet- my Homemade Gluten-Free Granola recipe– once or twice and see how you handle them. Gradually, you can add more into your weekly menu as your body acclimates to increased fiber. (Drink plenty of water!)
One easy option for beginners? If simplicity is your top priority, use Pamela’s Ultimate Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Baking and Pancake Mix in your recipes. Keep it on hand and you have a pre-mixed flour blend for basics that usually works quite well in muffins, tea breads and simple cakes (see my easy pumpkin cake recipe here). It’s also fab in flourless quiches, omelets, and yes, pancakes. Note: it does contain buttermilk, so dairy-free folks will need to find an alternative pancake mix.
Karina’s Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Baking Tips
Numero Uno: Keep your sense of humor handy. It helps in gluten-free baking, Darling. Hockey pucks and doorstops are inevitable. We’ve all been there. We’ve all tossed failures into the compost.
Remember the crumb trick- you can always zap your so-called failures in the food processor and use the crumbs in other recipes. (I freeze the crumbs.)
All Purpose Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Flour Blend – Does One Size Fit All?
I am not a believer in using a single all-purpose gluten-free flour mix for gluten-free baking. Most GF flour mixes are based on white rice flour and starch (it’s cheap to make). The end result tends to be rather bland, and works best if your expectations for texture and flavor run on the low side.
Julia Child once remarked that cornstarch worked as a gluten-free sub in recipes. But. I would ask- why use high glycemic cornstarch when there are so many other superior choices these days?
Because here’s the truth.
In almost every single case where I subbed a “cup for cup” white starch based gluten-free all purpose flour mix in a recipe, the texture was gummy or gritty– or oddly, both. I could tell it was “gluten-free”. And if the blend had bean flour in it- no one would eat it (heavy legume flours have a metallic aftertaste, and can produce a rather gassy experience for the FODMAP sensitive among us).
Some newer blends boast a better result- probably because they add milk powder or buttermilk to the flour blend. This leaves out the roughly 50% of us who are also reactive to dairy.
My position? Try my recipes as written. I’ve experimented over the years and found certain GF flours work beautifully together- no grit or gumminess. They also happen to include whole grains, and are higher in protein than typical starchy blends.
For those of you interested in mixing your own gluten-free flour mix from scratch, here is a basic guideline- tweak it to your preference.
This is a basic template useful for muffins and easy cakes.
Karina’s Basic Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Flour Mix Template
1 cup sorghum flour, certified gluten-free oat flour, or millet flour
1 cup potato starch (not potato flour) or other starch blend
1/3 to 1/2 cup almond meal or hazelnut meal
1 teaspoon xanthan gum
You’ll notice I don’t white rice flour- the old school stand-by. I just think it’s rather blah- not to mention, gritty, and gummy.
Sorghum flour is soft, slightly sweet – and lovely in baking. As is certified gluten-free oat flour.
Starches are used to lighten the blend- I prefer potato starch for its soft, light rise. Tapioca starch can often bake up tough- especially around the edges (if you use tapioca starch blend it with another softer starch, like cornstarch).
Brown rice flour has become a bit controversial. I’m now using less brown rice and brown rice flour. Here’s why- there is elevated arsenic in rice.
Almond flour and hazelnut flour are a dream in gluten-free recipes. Nut flours add protein, fiber, and essential minerals- not to mention a delicious nutty taste- to recipes. If you cannot use nut flours, use another high protein choice that is not too strong in flavor.
Buckwheat flour- a favorite whole grain addition along with millet flour- is high in protein and fiber and has a lovely nut-like taste. (And no, buckwheat is not related to wheat- it’s actually a fruit in the rhubarb family).
Quinoa flour is packed with vegan protein but it needs to be used sparingly, as it has an assertive taste, and will make a baked goodie crumbly if used as a main flour. Blend it with other flours for best results.
Coconut flour is sweet and fabulous. It’s high in fiber. It soaks up moisture like crazy, though, so be careful using too much of it in a recipe. Start with a half cup in a gluten-free flour blend for best results. Eggs help coconut flour work best.
Subbing denser flours such as almond, buckwheat, coconut, or quinoa flour will result in a heavier, denser product if you add too much. Start with a third to a half cup in your flour blend. Experiment and find the formula and texture you like best.
Sweet rice flour is very starchy and moist and you should add it sparingly as a moisture boost to your baking- start with 2 tablespoons. Too much can make for a gummy product. It’s also a fab gravy thickener.
To Create a Self-Rising Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Flour Mix
1 cup unleavened gluten-free flour mix (see above)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Adding Moistness and Flavor to Gluten-Free Baked Goods
Adding shredded or desiccated coconut, chopped nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate chips also goes a long way to improving texture and flavor. Start with adding one half cup to your favorite recipe. Experiment and have fun.
Use light brown sugar instead of refined white sugar. It boosts moistness and flavor.
Honey is a humectant and adds moistness (use less liquid in the recipe if you use honey). You may need to cut back a bit on the amount of liquid called for, when using honey.
Agave adds moisture, too. But if it’s humid on the day you are baking, use less agave (or honey).
Use extra vanilla. Many gluten-Free flours can taste strong and unfamiliar, and a little boost of vanilla extract helps soften their flavor. Don’t be afraid to use a whole tablespoon in a recipe- I do. And buy the good stuff. Bourbon vanilla is killer. Cheaper brands with fillers (like corn syrup) are a pale imitation of true vanilla flavor.
Add warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to deepen flavor complexity (cinnamon and chocolate is a favorite secret combo of mine).
Baking Times and More Tips
I find baking with room temperature ingredients works best when baking gluten-free. When making gluten-free bread, warm eggs at warmish water briefly until they reach room temperature.
Yeast needs a warm environment to rise properly – a temperature of 100º to 110º F is ideal.
Until you get the hang of baking gluten-free, I suggest keeping a sharp eye on what’s in the oven. When it looks done, make sure the batter is firm and set in the center [jiggle the pan a tiny bit or lightly touch the top]. A wooden pick inserted in the center can tell you if the batter is still wet [but chocolate chips can melt and make this method sometimes unreliable; if the tester comes out chocolatty, try another spot].
I find‐ with brownies and cookie bars, especially‐ that it is easy to over-bake gluten-free treats. The center may appear too soft while the outside edges are browned just right; turn down the oven heat by 25 degrees; and if necessary, take it out if you prefer a softer center; the dessert will continue to “bake” for a minute or two before it begins to cool.
Freezing gluten-free baked goods often improves texture. Think your cookies or brownies are a dud? Try cutting, wrapping and freezing them. Eat slightly chilled or at room temperature, as you prefer.
Gluten-free baked goods and breads get soggy if they stay too long in their cozy pans. Remove loaves and cakes and muffins from the pan as SOON AS possible. The longer a gluten-free baked good remains in a hot pan, the soggier it gets.
If your end product is gummy in the center- or it falls in the middle- the problem is most likely too much liquid. Use 2-4 tablespoons less when you mix the batter or dough next time. Add only a little liquid at a time to achieve the consistency you need. If it happens often, your flours may be damp or your oven too cool. Or you may be taking the baked good out of the oven too soon; if so, bake it longer.
Remember – it’s an intuitive thing, this gluten-free baking deal. There is really no substitute for experience. The trial and error method is your best teacher in Gluten-Freeland. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Living gluten-free is tough. It really is. And in this Gluten-Free Goddess’ humble opinion, a truly tasty gluten-free treat is worth a thousand words- or a thousand smiles. Eliminating wheat from recipes is huge and problematic; you know, you lose that whole stretchy elasticity and tender crumb mouth feel thing. To create a gluten-free treat that really is a treat is a challenge. Taking sugar out of the equation diminishes the texture and mouth feel of traditional recipes even more.
Sugar adds not only sweetness to baked goods, but structure. I’ve tried baking without it. I’ve used date sugar, processed raisins, agave syrup, stevia. The end results too often screamed Health Food. They were a tad, shall we say, cardboard-esque. And they usually ended up getting tossed in the garbage after a six month stint in the depths of the freezer.
My compromise? I usually bake with organic brown sugar and cane sugar. I have one treat a day. It satisfies my sweet tooth, and I don’t feel deprived.
But if you really must avoid sugar, Darling, here’s one possible sub if you’re not a vegan: 3/4 cup honey (reduce liquid in recipe by 1/4 cup) can be substituted for 1 cup granulated or brown sugar. Not recommended for cookies. Flavor and density will be affected.
If you are a vegan, try using maple syrup or gluten-free brown rice syrup, or agave syrup. I’m experimenting with maple syrup lately, and find it delicious.
If it is humid out, you may have to adjust your recipe, as both agave and honey are humectant, and attract moisture to baked goods.
Fruit, Flavor and Dairy Subs
I am often asked, Can I sub pumpkin for the sweet potato in a recipe? Or, dried cranberries for raisins? Yes. And yes. I find that most fruit purees are interchangeable, according to taste. If you don’t care for banana, try subbing pureed pumpkin. Hate walnuts? Use pecans. Love dried cherries and dislike raisins? Go with cherries. Experiment and have fun. Be creative with recipes. Some of my favorite combos were accidental pairings. Think: fruity with spice, sweet with sour, creamy with crunchy, chocolate with anything!
The Dairy Question
Yes, Babycakes, I know. I feel your pain. Many gluten-intolerant folks develop a lactose intolerance or casein allergy as a result of celiac damage. I sympathize. I’m one of the fifty per cent of celiacs who are saddled with gluten and casein intolerance. You’re not alone.
Cooking Dairy-Free Tips
My favorite dairy free substitute in gluten-free cooking is organic light coconut milk. I use it in sauces, soups, curries and stir-fries. It’s fabulous in whipped sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squashes. Check and compare labels as too much guar gum, a common additive in coconut milk, can act as a laxative for sensitive individuals. I also love unsweetened soy or nut milk (non-GMO and no carageenan), if soy or nuts are not an issue for your family.
There are some great tasting vegan butter substitutes out there now. Some feature olive oil or flax oil. One is even soy-free (with pea protein). Check labels. ‘Stick’ style works better in baking than the softer tub style (too much water). Spectrum Organic Shortening, made from palm oil, basically acts like Crisco, without the trans fats.
My new fave in gluten-free dairy-free baking is raw organic coconut oil. Lovely aroma, taste and texture.
I also love using olive oil in muffins, quick breads, and bread. When one half to one cup butter is called for in a recipe, oil will work (but in general, use a tad less oil than the butter called for).
In the case of a flourless chocolate cake recipe calling for two sticks of butter, though, nothing truly substitutes. When butter is the star, oil will only be oily (though I might be tempted to try Earth Balance sticks).
Another vegan alternative to baking with butter is silken tofu- it works in many recipes.
Some experts suspect that half of all celiacs (yup, 50% of us) are allergic to casein- the protein in dairy- did you know that? This is not a lactose (milk sugar) issue. It’s a protein allergy issue. So if you still have symptoms, cut out milk and dairy products- it’s often the final piece of the puzzle.
For milk substitutes in baking, gluten-free soy, rice and nut milks work very well. Use plain for a neutral flavor, or vanilla/chocolate for a flavor boost. Coconut milk also works.
For milk substitutes in creamy sauces, try using plain gluten-free soy milk, hemp milk, or unsweetened rice or almond milk. Rice milks usually need a little help in thickening, but they work.
Cheeses can be harder to sub. Gluten-free cheese subs are often soy based, nut based, pea and cashew derived, or rice based. Some are just plain awful. Others, only mostly awful. Most don’t melt well (what’s up with that?).
If you’re going to use a non-dairy cheese try one with diced jalapeños; the peppers help cover up the bland flavor. Add extra spices and seasonings to the dish and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil as well. For those sensitive to milk proteins- read labels carefully. Casein or whey (two dairy proteins) is often added to “Dairy-Free” products. Go figure.
Looking for a tasty creamy sauce for comfort foods like mac and cheese? Try my vegan Cheesy Uncheese Sauce– it’s scary good. Seriously. It’s all I use now.
More Dairy Free Meal Ideas
Use dairy-free pesto and tapenades for flavorful sauces and spreads. Make homemade basil or cilantro pesto without cheese [add a dash of sea salt instead] and use it as a sauce on pizza and sandwiches, quesadillas and foccacia.
Make black olive, sun-dried tomato or roasted pepper spreads in your food processor for a quick and flavorful schmear on rice or nut crackers, pizza and grilled sandwiches. You won’t miss the cheese.
Try fresh guacamole and salsa as a healthy condiment. Both are dairy-free and huge on flavor.
Enjoy hummus tahini as a protein packed dip or condiment; any flavor of hummus is a tasty sub for cheese. Serve a dollop with your favorite brown rice dish, baked casserole, salad, grilled and roasted vegetables.
Serve a good fruity extra virgin olive oil instead of butter or cheese. Drizzle it on toasted or grilled gluten-free bread, baked potatoes, and gluten-free pizza shells; try drizzling a hot gluten-free pizza shell with extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt, then top it with a crisp baby greens salad with your favorite fixin’s.
The classic combo of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar makes a fabulous naturally dairy-free condiment for brown rice, veggies, sandwiches and wraps, and even cooked polenta.
Baking gluten-free and egg-free is certainly a challenge. I’ll share some tips based on my growing experience (I baked strictly egg-free for four years).
I find I do best baking egg-free when I choose recipes that are traditionally egg-free such as fruit crisps and Asian crepes. Waffles work fine without eggs (try a mashed banana).
If a recipe calls for one egg, I might simply leave it out and add two tablespoons rice milk and an extra teaspoon of baking powder.
For two average eggs, combine:
1 tablespoon Ener-G Egg Replacer
4 tablespoons warm water
Whisk together until frothy and foamy. Fold into the recipe and mix well. This mixture won’t bind, but it seems to work in baking.
Note that recipes using tapioca starch often turn out gummy with an egg replacer; and mixes containing tapioca and lots of starches are less likely to turn out using egg replacers. (One popular allergen free brand of mixes called Namaste has not worked without eggs- I’ve tried the brownie and chocolate cake mix using Ener-G Egg Replacer and both were a disaster at high altitude. I suspect the starch ratio in the mixes is too high. But I’m no chemist.)
Many celiacs find they also have a sensitivity to soy; and many have autoimmune thyroid disease. Whether by necessity or choice, a great many celiacs are also soy-free.
For a soy sauce sub I use a dab of molasses whisked into a quarter cup of soy-free vegan broth. I add a splash of balsamic or rice vinegar, to taste, and a dash of sea salt, sesame oil, ginger, cumin, curry or red pepper spice, to taste.
Another choice is to make an Asian sauce based around peanut butter, sesame tahini or cashew butter stirred into a cup of vegan broth. Add chopped garlic, spices and a squeeze of lime juice as an accent.
New on the market is a soy-style sauce called Coconut Aminos- look for it in the condiment and sauces section.
For a making roux, or paste, for basic white sauce or cheese sauce, my favorite is sweet rice flour; but any basic rice flour or gluten-free flour mix will work -but don’t use bean or soy flour – they have too strong a taste.
For Wheat-Free Gluten-Free Bread Crumbs
My favorite crumbs- for all kinds of recipes- is a tad unconventional, but really delicious! I haul out my food processor and process several toasted gluten-free waffles into crumbs. Plain gluten-free waffles usually have no sugar. Add some dried Italian herbs or your favorite seasoning, if you wish. Drizzle with olive oil or melted butter and pulse. Very yummy, crunchy and golden when baked. And no, they’re not too sweet.
Processing pieces of your favorite toasted gluten-free bread also works. Especially gluten-free cornbread. Cornbread makes lovely crumb topping.
For crunchy toppings try crumbled corn tortilla chips, rice chips, or potato chips. Failed gluten-free breads can be processed into crumbs and frozen for later use.
Note that adding dried herbs and seasonings give gluten-free bread crumbs a big flavor boost. Some folks advocate processing cornflakes or gluten-free cereal into crumbs but I find it gives the recipe a mealy, breakfast cereal taste.
My last tidbit of advice- let go of old expectations, forget the tried and true of the past and have a little fun playing in the kitchen. Risk new flavor combos. Get inspired by world cuisine and browse cookbooks for ideas. Living gluten-free is a challenge, yes.
But you know what? It can also be delicious!