Gluten-Free Baking — The Lowdown on Popular Gluten-Free Flours
By Juliann Schaeffer
A celiac disease or gluten sensitivity diagnosis immediately can strike fear in clients’ hearts—a fear that resides primarily in the kitchen. “For many people newly diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the kitchen instantaneously becomes an intimidating place,” says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of 10 gluten-free cookbooks, including 100 Best Gluten-Free Recipes, noting that people suddenly are faced with a surplus of scary questions, such as “What can I eat without getting sick?” and “How can I cook for my family and myself while avoiding cross-contamination?”
However, while cooking gluten free can be intimidating, baking is an altogether different animal and poses its own distinct challenges. “I think gluten-free baking is harder than gluten-free cooking because baking of any kind requires more precision than cooking,” Fenster says. “We see Food Network chefs on TV and they add a little of this, a handful of that when cooking, and it looks so easy. But this doesn’t translate into successful baking, which requires precision in order not to upset the delicate balance between liquid and dry ingredients.”
Baking also is less amenable to substitutions compared with cooking, Fenster adds, and this can create difficulties since one of the staple ingredients in many baked goods and breads is wheat flour—a no-no for those with celiac disease. Yet with the plethora of gluten-free flours available today, there’s no reason celiac patients who want to bake should have to settle for packaged goods. It just takes some introductory information, a few pointers, and practice, practice, practice.
“It takes a little trial and error to get it right with gluten-free baking,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People new to the gluten-free diet are generally unfamiliar with gluten-free flours. Because these flours don’t contain gluten, they cannot replace wheat flour one to one in recipes.”
As such, Begun says a combination of flours (and ingredients) is necessary to mimic the characteristics gluten provides in regular baking. To help you convince clients to dust off their mixing bowls, we’ve asked two experts for the lowdown on what’s popular (and what’s most nutritious) in the way of gluten-free flours.
• Rice flour: Perhaps the most common of wheat flour substitutes, rice flour has a neutral taste and comes in three well-known forms: white, brown, and sweet (sticky), Fenster says. “Rice flours lend a light color but somewhat sandy texture to baked goods. White rice flour produces grittier baked goods than brown rice flour.”
While brown and white rice flours both are milled from rice kernels, Fenster likes the nutritional qualities of brown rice flour better. “White rice flour has more of the exterior layers milled away than brown rice flour, so the latter is more nutritious,” she says.
“White and brown rice flour can be used in flour blends in all kinds of baking, especially delicately flavored cakes and cookies,” Fenster says. “Sweet rice flour is particularly good for adding pliability to pie crust dough so it rolls out and shapes without tearing.”
• Tapioca flour: Also called tapioca starch or manioc, this neutral-flavored, pure white starch is made from the cassava plant, which is cultivated in South America and Florida. “Tapioca flour lightens gluten-free baked goods, lends some ‘chew’ to [them], and encourages browning with a crispy crust,” Fenster says.
She notes that tapioca flour is a mainstay in gluten-free baked goods, “especially when a slight crust and light browning are important to the overall quality of the baked item.” It typically makes up about one-quarter to one-third of the total flour blend and is widely available in grocery stores.
• Corn flour: Milled from whole corn kernels into a fine white powder, corn flour lends a distinct yet mild corn flavor to baked goods. “Corn flour can refer to a variety of flours made from corn,” Fenster explains. “The major difference between corn flour and cornmeal lies in particle size.”
She says corn flour, which is the finer particles of corn, is best used in breads, desserts, pancakes, waffles, and homemade tortillas, while the coarser particles of cornmeal work better for breading, cornbread, and muffins “where the larger particles lend crunch and texture.” Corn flour should not be confused with cornstarch—which is pure white and has little nutritive flour—but often is used in flour blends.
• Soy flour: Soy flour is made from soybeans and, according to Fenster, brings wonderful qualities to gluten-free baking, “including a moist, fine crumb and a smooth, hard crust. It works especially well in baked goods containing nuts, fruit, or chocolate, but it carries a strong flavor.”
Soy flour contains more nutritive qualities than most other popular gluten-free flours used today, as it’s high in protein and fiber. Fenster recommends blending soy flour with other, starchier flours such as cornstarch or potato starch (along with tapioca flour) in baked goods recipes. “It works especially well in limited amounts in breads and muffins, but its strong soy flavor may overpower delicately flavored items,” she adds.
While these are the four more popular gluten-free flours used today, Fenster notes that many other gluten-free varieties, such as amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum, sweet potato, and teff flours, are available as well—and many are more nutritious, too.
“I'm a big fan of almond and garbanzo/fava bean flours,” Begun says. “Both are higher in protein, fiber, and phytonutrients than refined gluten-free flours. Almond flour imparts a nutty flavor and moist texture to recipes. Garbanzo/fava bean flour has a neutral flavor and is great in savory recipes where lots of herbs and spices are used.”
Whether trying out one of the more popular gluten-free varieties or a lesser-known flour, Fenster says the secret to using any successfully lies in understanding “their unique traits and how to combine them with other flours to maximize the traits of all of them put together.”
The best tip both Fenster and Begun give to clients who are new to gluten-free baking? Invest in a good gluten-free cookbook and follow the recipes’ instructions to the letter “so you can learn the chemistry of gluten-free baking, which is quite different than when using wheat flour,” Begun says. “Once you get the hang of it, you have all of these recipes at your disposal to start adding your own spin to.”
— Juliann Schaeffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a frequent contributor to Today’s Dietitian.
Pão de Queijo (Cheese Bread Balls)
These super-easy Brazilian breads are wonderful gluten-free accompaniments to any meal and also can be used as buns to make sandwiches.
1 1/2 cups tapioca flour
1 cup plain milk of choice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large whole egg
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or soy Parmesan
1/4 tsp salt
- Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Line a 13 X 9 X 13-inch rimmed baking sheet (not nonstick) with parchment paper. Have the tapioca flour measured and ready by the cooktop.
- In a medium, heavy saucepan, bring the milk and oil to a rolling boil. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the tapioca flour with a wooden spoon until thoroughly blended. Let the tapioca mixture cool in the saucepan for 5 minutes.
- Place the tapioca mixture in a food processor and add the egg, Parmesan cheese, and salt. Process until the dough is smooth and forms a ball.
- With a 1 [1/2] or 2-inch spring-action metal ice cream scoop, drop 12 balls of dough about 2 inches apart onto the baking sheet. For smoother balls, roll the balls between oiled hands before placing on the baking sheet.
- Bake until the balls are lightly browned and crisp, about 30 to 35 minutes. They’re best served warm or at room temperature, but not cold.
Nutrient Analysis per serving (1 ball)
Calories: 120; Protein: 3 g; Total fat: 6 g; Dietary fiber: 0 g; Carbohydrates: 14 g; Cholesterol: 19 mg; Sodium: 121 mg
— Reprinted with permission from the forthcoming Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginners Guide to Easy Gluten-Free Cooking by Carol Fenster, PhD
Makes about 56 cookies
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
1 3/4 cups brown rice flour mix (see below)
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
Brown Rice Flour Mix
2 cups extra finely ground brown rice flour
2/3 cup potato starch (not potato flour)
1/3 cup tapioca starch/flour.
** It’s very important to use an extra finely ground brown rice flour (and not just any grind) or the muffins will be gritty and heavy. Authentic Foods in California and King Arthur Flour Company make good ones.
- Beat shortening and sugar in large bowl of electric mixer until light and creamy. Beat in egg and molasses and mix until smooth.
- Add flours, baking soda, xanthan gum, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt; mix to form a soft dough. Shape dough into a flat square and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 375˚F. Position rack in center of oven. Lightly grease cookie sheet with cooking spray.
- Use your hands to shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll balls in confectioners’ sugar and place on cookie sheet.
- Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until cooked through. Transfer to a wire rack and cool. Store in an airtight container.
** Unbaked dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days in a tightly sealed plastic container or frozen for up to one month. To freeze, cover top of dough with plastic wrap and place inside tightly sealed plastic container so no air touches the dough.
After three days, store cookies in refrigerator. Can be kept in refrigerator for two weeks or frozen for up to one month.
— Source: Annalise Roberts, Gluten-Free Baking Classics, Surrey Books, April 2008 ©2006 by Annalise Roberts