If you want to become a great gluten-free baker, it's not simply a matter of throwing out your all-purpose flour and getting busy. But that doesn't mean that gluten-free baking has to be a fearsome baking prospect. There are many tips for making gluten-free dessert that can help guarantee success, from knowing your gluten-free flours to being aware of some of the different effects that they will have on the baking process.
All flours are not created equal. Sorry, you can't just swap almond flour for all-purpose and guarantee perfect results. Gluten-free flours are a little more tricky, and usually a mix is used to ensure a perfect flavor and texture.
So how to decide? Consider the flavor of your recipe. Using part coconut flour might be nice in cookies, but it might be distracting in a homemade pie crust. Consider the flavors in your recipe, and the flavors that might be imparted by different types of gluten-free flour. Experiment to see what works for your palate. Check out our handy guide to the different types of gluten-free flours, which includes some suggestions for flour mixes to try.
Gluten-free flours will typically add more moisture to a batter or dough than all-purpose flour. When it comes to the baking process, this can result in a mushy texture if too much steam is emitted. To avoid sogginess in your finished baked goods, be sure to test for doneness, especially if it is a recipe you have adapted to be gluten-free, as the baking time may be slightly different. Be sure to let made with gluten-free homemade pie crusts and gluten-free breads cool completely before cutting, as steam released if cut too soon may make the remainder of the dish gummy and sticky. Also, be sure to adhere to the recipe guidelines for chilling cookie doughs -- this gives the flour time to absorb excess moisture.
Gum, but not to chew
Photo via CakeSpy
Xanthan gum is a powder milled from xanthomonas campestris (try saying that five times fast). It replaces the gluten in breads and baking with gluten-free flours. A small amount (half a teaspoon or less) can be employed as a binder, ensuring that your gluten-free baked goods hold together and don't avalanche into a pile of crumbs once sliced or bitten into. However, a little goes a long way -- add too much, and you'll end up with a texture that is gummy and weird.
Don't get too caught up with using xanthan gum, either -- it might not always be necessary. Consider the recipe you're using; some recipes, such as dense bar cookies or brownies, may not require any extra binding. Flourless chocolate cake, which is naturally gluten-free, doesn't need any help. Decorating cakes and more delicate baked goods with a tender crumb may benefit from the use of xanthan gum when using gluten-free flours.
For those who are sensitive to xanthan gum, which contains traces of corn, guar gum can also be used.
Photo licensed via Creative Commons by Flickr member aMichiganMom
Here's an aspect of gluten-free baking that most people don't think about: storing the flour. While all-purpose flour may be just fine at cool room temperature, gluten-free flours, which are generally higher in fat, are more highly perishable. To ensure that your flour is shipshape, be sure to check the expiration date and store flours with fat in the freezer to keep them fresh longer.
Be aware of secret sources of gluten
Watch out for unexpected sources of gluten. Among the possible sources for unexpected gluten? Confectioners' sugar (it's safe if it's homemade confectioners' sugar!), oats, vinegar, store-bought pie fillings, nuts and even ice cream. While these items don't contain flour as a key ingredient, it can be used as an anti-caking agent or thickener, or they may simply be made in facilities where flour is processed. Be sure to consult all labels before using a product, and if you're in doubt, call the manufacturer.