Ask people about the holidays and favorite foods are sure to be mentioned. Maybe it’s sugar cookies, a beloved bar recipe, or a pie or cake that is eaten only on special occasions. For me growing up it was my mother’s phenomenal pumpkin pie that she made only in November and December. Whatever desserts your family loves, the holidays are designed for indulging, and there is no reason to let a gluten-free lifestyle get in the way.
Personality of flours
One of the hardest things for new gluten-free bakers to figure out is which flour(s) to use when there are so many to choose from.
Now, instead of just wheat flour, you have a whole list of unfamiliar varieties to choose from. And it’s not long before you realize you need a blend because no single flour performs like wheat. But how do you know which flours will work best in the blend you are using for a particular baked good? All flours have unique traits or personalities, so how we use them should be based on what they do for baking.
Here is a simple framework to explain how I think about gluten-free flours in baking.
Creating a blend
To assemble a blend (see “Framework for Using Gluten-Free Flours”), I know I need a protein flour such as brown rice or sorghum for structure and stability. But the flavor of this flour can dominate the food, much like a strong ego sets the tone of the conversation at the dinner table. Personally, I think sorghum tastes the closest to wheat. If I use bean, millet or oat, their flavor will definitely carry over into the food, so I reserve them for darker, bolder-flavored items.
Then, I need a mediator. A starchy flour like potato starch (arrowroot or cornstarch) adds lightness and airiness to the crumb while softening the dominance of the protein flour. Tapioca flour (also called tapioca starch) also lightens the crumb but adds a bit of “chew” and encourages a crust to form. (Trust me, you want some sort of crust or it won’t feel right in your mouth.) Tapioca flour/starch is somewhat like the guest who is conspicuous by his or her absence. If you don’t use tapioca flour in certain recipes, you know something is missing, so always use it when the recipe calls for it.
Next, I whisk these flours together and store them in a canister. When it is time to bake, I measure from the canister just as I would measure wheat flour. Then, depending on the recipe, I might also add sweet rice flour, chestnut flour and other nut flours (such as almond, hazelnut, pecan or walnut) for flavor or texture.
Sometimes, depending on the recipe, I add nut flours for fiber, nutrition, flavor, color, visual interest or easier handling. I might use Expandex™ (modified tapioca starch) to improve the rise, texture and shelf-life of baked goods or sweet rice flour for greater pliability when shaping the dough for a pie crust. But I wait to add it when I assemble the recipe, not in the blend, so I have complete control over how much goes into each recipe.
Using this approach and these flours, I can make just about anything. The percentages in the chart on page 34 are just guidelines and may change depending on the recipe and the flours, but this framework provides a starting point. The amount of each flour in the blend is more art than science and accomplished more by trial and error than mathematical equation. By the way, my pantry also has amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and teff, but I use them for post-holiday, hearty yeast breads when I am housebound during the cold days of winter.
A framework for using gluten-free flours
START WITH PROTEIN FLOURS
- For light-colored, mild-flavored items: Brown rice Sorghum
- For dark-colored, bold-flavored items: Bean Millet Oat
WHAT THEY DO …
Flavor, Texture, Structure Stability of crumb
A. ~35 percent
Arrowroot, potato starch & cornstarch
B. ~30 percent
WHAT THEY DO …
Arrowroot, potato & cornstarch: Lighter color; airier, softer crumb
Tapioca flour/starch: Browns and crisps crust; better mouth-feel and “chew”
WHISK TOGETHER AND STORE IN DARK, DRY PLACE
add as ~10-20 percent of flour blend
- For flavor, texture: Chestnut flour Nut flours (almond, pecan, walnut)
- For greater pliability in pie crust dough: Replace about 20 percent of the flour blend with sweet rice flour
- For higher rise, better crumb, and longer shelf-life in yeast breads: Replace 12 percent of the flour blend with Expandex™ (modified tapioca starch)
WHAT THEY DO …
Depending on flour, add fiber, nutrients, flavor, color, visual interest or easier handling
~ = about. Percentages can vary depending on the recipe.
The holiday pantry
Here is a brief summary of the flours that work well for holiday baking.
Arrowroot flour: Neutral-flavored, pure white starch from arrowroot plant grown in West Indies. Lightens the crumb in baking and also acts as a binder. Can be used in place of potato starch in any type of baking.
Bean flours: Ground from whole beans, the most commonly available flours include black bean, chickpea/garbanzo, fava and white bean. Contain high amounts of protein and fiber but also have a distinctive “bean” taste that varies in intensity across bean varieties. Color can vary from almost-white in white bean flour to very dark as in black bean flour. Bean flours extend the shelf-life of baked goods, so they are a good choice for items that are not consumed in one day, such as cakes or muffins. Best for chocolate cookies, brownies, or gingerbread.
Brown rice flour: Ground from the whole rice kernel; contains some of the bran so it has more protein, fiber and is a little darker than white rice flour but not as gritty. Extra-fine versions of brown rice flour may need special recipes. Ideal for light-colored, mild-flavored baked goods such as pies, cakes and cookies, but can be used in all baking.
Cornstarch: Highly refined, pure white flour that is ground from the endosperm (starchy portion) of corn. It lightens the crumb but also adds crispness in baking, especially in cookies.
Millet: Light yellow flour ground from millet whole grains. Mildly sweet and somewhat nutty flavored, it is high in protein and fiber but can also turn rancid, so refrigerate or freeze to prolong shelf-life. Ideal in cookies, bars and cakes but also in yeast-leavened breads.
Nut flours: Chestnut flour is ground from the fruit of the chestnut tree and is a favorite for holiday baking because of its sweet, delicate flavor and smooth texture. It is lower in fat and calories than other nut flours. Flours made from whole almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts are characteristically coarser, and each lends its own distinct flavor and color (e.g., skins on hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts can darken baked goods). Almond flour can be ground from blanched almonds for a lighter product. Nut flours can be used in pie crusts, bars, cookies and cakes.
Oat: Ground from the oat groat (after the bran is removed), light beige in color with “oat” flavor. Lends beige color to baked goods and also softens the crumb, so not ideal for crisp cookies or crusts. Good for bars and cakes. Be sure the package says “gluten free” since regular oats are likely to be contaminated after coming in contact with wheat or related grains in the field or the manufacturing plant.
Potato starch: Pure white, neutrally flavored flour ground from the dehydrated starch of potatoes (not the whole potato as with potato flour). It lightens the texture of baked goods. Good in all baking.
Sorghum: Light tan-colored flour ground from the whole sorghum grain. Contains higher amounts of protein and fiber than brown rice flour, and lends a flavor somewhat like wheat, though not an intrusive flavor. Ideal in heartier baked items such as gingerbread or cut-out cookies but not in delicate white cakes because of its tan color.
Sweet rice flour: Ground from sticky white rice commonly found in Asian restaurants, this white, neutrally flavored flour adds a suppleness and pliability to baked goods, especially pie crusts, making them easier to roll out but retaining their desired crispness.
Tapioca: Ground from the manioc, or cassava plant, this pure white, neutrally flavored flour is cultivated in South America. It lightens the crumb but also adds “chew” and encourages crust formation. Without it, baked goods lack good “mouth-feel.” Regular tapioca flour (also called tapioca starch) differs from modified tapioca starch (sold under the brand name of Expandex) because Expandex is specially designed to make baked goods rise higher, form a more appealing crumb, and extend the shelf-life—all without altering flavor or appearance. Use Expandex in quick breads and yeast breads or in thin cookies or shortbread where extra crispness is desirable, such as graham crackers. (Check Expandex availability in your area at Expandexglutenfree.com)
Once you know a little about each flour and the way it functions in baked goods, you’ll build confidence in making choices for your holiday cakes, cookies, pies and more.
Whenever possible, start with a flour blend because it saves time and makes baking seem less daunting. I use the Sorghum Flour Blend (see below) often because I like its flavor and higher protein and fiber content, but I use the Brown Rice Flour Blend (see below) for items that must be lighter in color and more delicate, such as sugar cookies or white cakes like coconut cake.
Carol’s Flour Blends
(percentages are rounded)
Sorghum Flour Blend
1 1/2 cups sorghum flour (about 35 percent)
1 1/2 cups potato starch or cornstarch (35 percent)
1 cup tapioca flour (30 percent)
Use whenever lighter color and flavor are not important.
Whisk together until thoroughly blended and store, tightly covered, in a dark, dry place. I use the brown rice flour version when I want a lighter-textured, lighter-colored item. But I use the sorghum flour version whenever I can (especially when lighter color and flavor are not critical) to take advantage of its higher protein and fiber content.
Brown Rice Flour Blend
1 1/2 cups brown rice flour (about 35 percent)
1 1/2 cups potato starch or cornstarch (35 percent)
1 cup tapioca flour (30 percent)
Use for items where lighter color and flavor are needed.
To the rescue
Flour cures for common problems
At some point almost all gluten-free holiday bakers run into the same challenges when making cookies, pies and cakes. Common ones include cut-out cookies that aren’t crisp enough and pie dough that’s too sticky to roll out. Slight adjustments in the flour you use can help solve these problems and others. Here’s how.
For Extra Crispness in Cookies
To assure extra crispness in sugar cookies—especially cut-out cookies, gingerbread people or shortbread— I replace about 1/4 cup of the flour blend with the same amount of cornstarch. For shortbread or biscotti or the crust of lemon bars, I might also use cornstarch or the same amount of Expandex™ for a similar effect.
For Greater Pliability and Ease of Handling Pastry Crusts
Pastry crusts for pies or tarts start with a flour blend (I use both the sorghum and brown rice blends), but I construct the recipe to include sweet rice flour as about 20 percent of the total flour to make the dough easier to roll. Sticky white rice (common in Asian restaurants) translates into pliability and suppleness when ground into sweet rice flour, making pastry dough less likely to break or tear when rolling and shaping.
For a More Tender Crumb in Cakes
Cakes, especially hearty cakes such as carrot, red velvet, spice or gingerbread (which is really cake, not bread) can begin with either flour blend. For a softer crumb (desirable in cakes), I might replace 1/2 cup of the flour blend with oat flour. Or for tenderness and a longer shelf-life in these darker, more boldly flavored items, perhaps the same amount of bean flour because its resistant starch retards deterioration.
Lighter-colored and flavored cakes, such as white and coconut, are best made with the brown rice flour blend but can also use chestnut flour in place of the sorghum or brown rice for its delicate sweet texture.
More Pleasing Crust for Bars and Pies
Cookie crumb crusts, such as those for cheesecakes or bars, can be enhanced in taste and texture with the addition of 1/4 to 1/2 cup of ground nuts to the crumbs. The flavor of the crust is strongly influenced by the type of cookies and nuts used, so choose ones that complement the filling. For example, a cheesecake is lovely on a crust of vanilla cookies and almonds. However, a pumpkin cheesecake is fabulous on a ginger cookie crust laced with pecans or walnuts. A chocolate cheesecake is perfect nestled on a chocolate cookie crust that has ground hazelnuts in it. You get the idea; try your own combinations.
Converting Your Own Recipe
Every year about this time, I get this question: “How can I make my family’s favorite (fill in the blank) without wheat flour?” Some baking recipes convert to a gluten-free version easier than others, but here is the approach I use:
I begin by assuming that the amount of flour blend will be the same as the wheat flour. I don’t know if this is true, but I begin with that assumption. Then I assemble the ingredients (both liquid and dry) and put the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.
I then beat in the eggs and about half of the liquid (milk, water, or juice) and see how the batter or dough looks. If too dry (which it usually will be), then I continue adding the liquid in one-quarter cup increments until it looks right. It might require more liquid than the recipe states; it might require less. I write down what I did in the margins of the recipe so I can do it again next time.
Remember, gluten-free batter and dough should be a bit softer or wetter than wheat versions. I use the same leavening and flavorings, but I might change that after I have made the recipe once and know how it turns out—a topic for another time.
Carol Fenster is the author of 11 gluten-free cookbooks, including the new Gluten-Free 101: The Essential Beginner’s Guide to Easy Gluten-Free Cooking. She also offers a weekly, subscription-based cookbook and menu planner at GfreeCuisine.com and blogs at CarolFensterCooks.com.