Every day, my inbox and Twitter feeds are filled with delicious-looking gluten-free baked goods. While I remain in awe of those who have the time and energy to create these wonderful foods, I also remind myself of this: making these foods is not easy. It’s not foolproof. And, unless you bake a lot, it’s not all that cheap.
Wheat-based breads, cakes, cookies, and more rely upon gluten for elasticity in the dough. Baked goods rise. Gluten is protein that is sticky, elastic, and strong. Unfortunately, gluten-free alternatives require a lot of additional effort to mimic — but never quite achieve — those qualities.
Generally, when you’re engaged in gluten-free baking, you have to start with a mix of flours. Rice flours, tapioca starch, potato starch, millet, teff, bean flours, sometimes xanthan gum (sometimes not*). Other flours. The combining of gluten-free flours is essential. While you can make some gluten-free breads with only one flour (socca, corn tortillas, sopes), a combination of flours is essential to effective gluten-free baking.
If you haunt gluten-free baking blogs, you’ll notice a pattern…
Every baker has his or her own proprietary blend. Their recipes work with that particular blend. Deviate, or use another person’s blend, and your recipe results will vary. And by vary, I mean they might fail completely.
Here’s why: that combination of flours absorbs liquids differently. These amazing chefs test and test and test their recipes, calibrating the dry to liquid ratio very carefully. Most of these cooks weigh their flours instead of measuring because a cup of one flour can be much denser than a cup of, oh, potato starch (here’s a good article on why weighing flours in gluten-free baking is critical).
Then you get into the various other ingredients you need. Eggs, or only egg whites, milk or not, oils. All of these require careful thought and consideration.
Gluten-free baking, especially if you’re starting from ground zero is a lot of work. I applaud each and every person who spends time testing and retesting recipes so all I have to do is cook. I have very limited time on my weekends, and so many things to cook — frankly, making gluten-free baked goods takes time away from all the other awesome things I want to cook!
Here’s my bottom line: the final result might resemble the baked goods you remember from the past, but they won’t be the same. Frankly, I don’t remember what most of those foods taste like, and I’ve become accustomed to gluten-free alternatives to the point where I can assess “good” gluten-free foods versus bad. But they’re not the same.
This is why I tend toward criticizing the constant emphasis on gluten-free baking. So much time and energy is spent trying to recreate a past that cannot be recreated. It’s hard enough to change our entires lives to eliminate gluten — then we work hard to keep reminding ourselves of what we can’t eat? That seems very, very wrong to me.
I don’t want to discourage you from entering the wild world of gluten-free baking, but I do want you to go into this process with a clear understanding of what is involved (and, hopefully, offer guidance as to why some of your recipes don’t work when you make them at home). Bread, cake, and cookies — these foods, in moderation, are very good.
But it turns out, there’s a whole lot more to living a full and happy gluten-free life than eating bread!
* — Many people seem to react adversely to xanthan gum, and, sometimes to guar gum. Gluten-free bakers are turning to psyllium husks, which I’ve used to good effect, or chia seeds or flaxseeds, depending on the recipe.
Tip of the Week
Before investing in various gluten-free flours, spend time researching how to store them. For example, nut-based flours can go rancid quickly due to the oils in the nuts. They are often better off stored in the freezer. Knowing how to store your flours will save you money in the long run!
Gluten-Free Meal of the Week
While I’ll be making socca later this week because I just love the crispy, flavorful bread, this week’s meal is all about lunch. Since I got my pressure cooker, I’ve been making lots of beans lately, and chickpeas are starring in the collard green wraps I’m putting in my lunch bag.
Our local Real Food Daily has a faux-tuna fish collard green wrap that makes me happy whenever I eat it. My mix won’t equal that, but it’s pretty good, healthy, and really filling. Plus, the collard greens are sturdy enough for me to make the wraps ahead of time so there’s no rushing in the morning!
And, this is so easy to make: toss cooked or canned (drained and rinsed) chickpeas into a food processor. Pulse once or twice. Add capers, a tablespoon or so of mustard, salt and pepper to taste, a dash or two of lemon juice. Pulse a few more times — you want texture, not hummus!
- Collard Green Wraps with Chickpea Filling
- Roasted Potato Salad with Tahini Dressing