Our guide to gluten-free baking with tips and a glossary of alternative flours and ingredients, plus recipes (which happen to be dairy-free too!).
No-one said it was going to be easy! But once you shake off the expectations that baking without gluten is just about, well, baking without gluten, these tips will help you get your head around what’s really needed to achieve good gluten-free baked goodies.
1. Keep experimenting
Gluten-free flours aren’t necessarily interchangeable with gluten-containing flours or even other gluten-free flours. Different flours may or may not work in similar ways in a recipe. It can be a gamble. But the more you bake and experiment with gluten-free flours and ingredients, the more familiar you will become with how they behave in your baking, and the easier the process will become.
2. Manage the flavours
Some gluten-free flours, like quinoa and amaranth, have strong, assertive flavours. To help balance them, use ingredients such as vanilla, ground spices, banana and dark chocolate. I recommend to use twice the amount of vanilla than you would normally, opt for ripe bananas with a strong, sweet flavour and use dark (not milk) chocolate.
3. Mix well for success
When using a number of different flours in the one recipe, always sift them together, along with any raising agents, cocoa and spices, before adding the liquid. Then add the liquid all at once so that the flour doesn’t clump together and make it hard to mix.
4. Utilise nut meals and coconut
The addition of nut meals and desiccated or shredded coconut will help to lighten a gluten-free mixture by breaking up the flours (particularly the starchy ones), making them less sticky and less dense. They will also add moisture because of their fat content, as well as adding flavour and texture.
5. Combat dryness
Gluten-free baking can be dry, as many of the flours (and in particular coconut flour) draw in a lot of moisture. Add fruit puree, such as stewed pear or apple or mashed banana, an extra egg, and/or a little yoghurt to help compensate for this.
6. Enlist extra eggs
Some gluten-free baking benefits from adding extra egg. The protein acts as a welcome binder and also provides structure once baked. Eggs also provide often needed moisture.
7. Keep it small and short
Gluten provides structure and ‘stickiness’, so you need to compensate for the lack of this when baking gluten-free goods. Rather than big cakes that will need to be sliced, it is best to make smaller biscuits, cupcakes and muffins where possible. Making individual serves will also require a shorter baking time, which means minimising the problem of drying out around the edges before the centre is baked through.
8. Blending is essential
There is no single gluten-free flour that can be used in place of gluten-containing flour, so sometimes you will need to create a blend to achieve the right balance of flavours and baking qualities. Keep in mind the ideal combination ratio of 3:2 of major flours to minor flours (see Gluten-free flours and ingredients glossary below) as a general guide for a balanced all-purpose gluten-free flour blend.
9. Find the keepers
The quality of gluten-free flours can vary enormously between brands, including flavour, colour, aroma and texture. So find a brand you like for each flour and stick with it.
10. Be gluten aware
Remember that other ingredients, not just flours, may contain gluten. Chocolate, sprinkles, cornflour and baking powder are just some of the other baking ingredients that can contain gluten, so make sure you check the ingredient list and package labelling before using.
11. Use your freezer
Noticing that your gluten-free baking doesn’t stay fresh for very long? Gluten-free cakes and muffins that have a short shelf-life will generally freeze well. Wrap whole cakes or individual serves or slices in plastic wrap, seal in an airtight container or freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw at room temperature.
12. Change your expectations
Gluten-free baking is not like conventional gluten-containing baking. That’s a reality that needs to be acknowledged. So let go of unreasonable expectations because baking without gluten is going to be different, and often very different. Rather than trying to emulate gluten-containing baked goods exactly, aim to create gluten-free goodies that are delicious in their own right.
Also, generally speaking, gluten-free baking is never as reliable or predictable, so cooking gluten-free is all about experimenting and being open-minded. If you have a less-than-perfect outcome, try to work out what will improve it or try something different next time.
Want to make a favourite recipe gluten-free and don’t know where to start? Well, first of all, you’ll need to establish whether it actually contains gluten and, if so, what role the gluten is playing in the recipe.
For example, gluten flour, along with eggs, provides most of the structure in baked items. When hydrated (when liquid is added) the flour protein glutenin is transformed into a new protein called gluten which, through agitation by mixing or kneading, creates an elastic web that provides flexibility, binding, structure and strength to baked recipes. The more these networks are developed, the stronger they become, having a real effect on the texture of the final product. Therefore, the more gluten development, the ‘stronger’ the structure will be, allowing lots of valuable air to be trapped.
So now that we know what gluten does, let’s look at the principles that apply to adapting a regular recipe to become gluten-free.
Principle 1. If it doesn’t contain gluten to start with, it doesn’t need adapting.
Some recipes simply don’t need the stability, structure, flexibility or texture that gluten provides, and can be successfully made without it. A dense flourless chocolate cake based on nut meal is a good example.
Principle 2. Sometimes a simple swap will work.
There are some recipes (although not many, admittedly) that will just need to have the flour content replaced by the same quantity (by cup measure) of a gluten-free flour blend, and perhaps a few other small changes, without dramatically affecting the texture, flavour or look of a recipe.
Principle 3. Most recipes will usually need a bit of work to be adapted successfully.
In most cases, you can’t simply just replace gluten-containing ingredients with non-gluten ingredients as in Principle 2 and expect the same result. Because of the unique nature of each ingredient and what they contribute to a baked product, it usually just doesn’t work. It may sound extreme, but mostly it’s like replacing bricks with balloons when building a house and not taking into consideration the effect of the substitution on other elements in the structure and indeed the effects on the final result.
When adapting such recipes, a little understanding of the original and replacement ingredients will go a long way. And keep in mind that the final result will always be affected by the how these ingredients are used, the other ingredients you are combining them with and the method used to combine them.
Principle 4. Not all recipes can be adapted successfully.
A recipe that relies so heavily on the presence of gluten that it can’t be removed without major consequences is never going to be be adapted successfully. A good artisan sourdough with a great chewy texture and plenty of air pockets is the perfect example of this type of recipe – the gluten provides the flexibility, structure and strength to create the bread’s signature texture. It’s just not going to work without it.
Baking gluten-free has been problematic in the past because of the mystery surrounding many of the ingredients. But there is no need to rely on the many commercially made, premixed gluten-free flour blends available because most tend to be proportionally high in refined starches such as rice, potato, tapioca and cornflour.
These ingredients might be highly effective binders when hydrated and tend to be less expensive than wholegrain flours; however, baked products made with them often lack flavour and have a starchy texture with little body. So it is best to choose a flour or other ingredient that specifically suits what you are baking.
My guide on how to choose and use the main flours and ingredients available will demystify and simplify gluten-free baking.
Major or wholegrain flours
These flours will provide bulk, body and structure to your gluten-free baking.
Hearty, earthy and quite assertive in flavour, amaranth can be used interchangeably with quinoa flour (see below). It is a fine textured flour that is high in protein and best combined with other flours and/or used with strongly flavoured ingredients to balance its distinct flavour and aroma.
This flour has a strong earthy flavour and dark colour (which can vary enormously between brands). It will absorb considerable amounts of water and if overworked can become gelatinous and slimy so, even though it doesn’t contain gluten, don’t overmix when using buckwheat flour. It contains more protein than rice, wheat, millet and corn, and because of its distinctive flavour is best combined with mildly flavoured flours and/or teamed with strongly flavoured ingredients.
Made from dried coconut flesh that has had almost all the oil removed, this non-grain ‘flour’ has a distinctive coconut flavour and fine texture. It tends to be very ‘thirsty’ and will soak up remarkable amounts of moisture. Also, because of its high fibre content, when baked it can give very heavy results, so use it in small amounts in conjunction with other gluten-free flours.
This fine yellow flour is made from the whole corn kernel and has a sweet full-bodied flavour. Similar to fine polenta but more finely milled and with a similar texture to rice flour, it can be mistaken for starchy cornflour (see below).
Alkaline in nature and therefore easy to digest, millet flour is mild, sweet and nutty in flavour (although lesser quality millet flours can be strongly flavoured and unpleasant to the taste). It is a good source of protein and dietary fibre, but too much millet flour can give a dry and heavy result.
The strong earthy flavour and aroma with a slight bitterness of quinoa can vary immensely between brands. It is best combined with other flours and/or used with strongly flavoured ingredients. It works particularly well with chocolate and coffee. High in protein, it can be used interchangeably with amaranth flour.
Rice flour (brown and white)
Brown rice flour is slightly nutty and has more flavour than white rice flour. Its texture can be a little gritty and quite heavy when baked, so it is best blended with finer flours and starches, or nut meal or coconut flour, to break it up. White rice flour will give a lighter result than brown rice flour.
Slightly gritty (similar to rice flour) in nature, sorghum flour has a mild pleasant flavour and the ability to take on other ingredient flavours within a mixture. All of which make it wonderful to use as a base for gluten-free baking. It is often labelled as sweet white sorghum flour.
Its subtle sweet nutty flavour makes teff flour the closest to wheat flour in taste of all the gluten-free flours. Even though it has a slightly gritty texture, it has the ability to create a soft crumb in gluten-free baking.
Minor flours and starches
Starches add lightness by breaking up the heavier major and wholegrain gluten-free flours. They also add a ‘stickiness’ to mixtures that will aid binding and provide structure once baked.
Arrowroot (true arrowroot)
Similar in appearance to cornflour, true arrowroot is made from the root of the tropical arrowroot plant. It is often confused with tapioca, and many products labelled as arrowroot are actually made from tapioca, so be sure to check the labelling and ingredient list when buying. It has a bland flavour but is more nutritious than tapioca flour and is very easy to digest.
Cornflour (corn starch)
This white flavourless starch is made from the endosperm of the corn grain. Always check the packaging and ingredient listing when buying cornflour, as it can often actually be made from wheat.
As its name suggests, potato starch is made from the starch extracted from the potato. It is a fine white flour-like substance with a mild potato flavour and is effective in retaining moisture in baked goods. But it can create a heavy texture when used on its own or in large amounts, so always combine it with other flours and use in small amounts. Don’t confuse it with potato flour, which is made from the whole dehydrated potato and has a very strong potato flavour and aroma.
Made from glutinous short grain rice, unlike its name suggests, sweet rice flour doesn’t contain gluten. Its ‘sticky’ characteristic is thanks to a high starch content, which is great to utilise in gluten-free baking for binding other flours together. It is a fine white powder-like flour found in the Asian section of the supermarket (it is not the rice flour you find in the baking section) or in specialty Asian grocery stores.
Made from the root of the cassava plant and also known as manioc flour, tapioca flour tends to have the least flavour of all the starches; in fact it is tasteless. However it is a great gluten-free starch flour to use in baking, adding lightness and helping to bind mixtures.
Gums and other binding ingredients
These substances are used to bind, stabilise and add texture to the crumb in gluten-free baked products.
The gelling ability of chia seeds, used whole or ground, when mixed with water effectively helps bind gluten-free mixtures and is great to use in baked goods such as breads, loaves and muffins.
Like chia seeds, linseed can be a very helpful binding ingredient, used either whole or ground, when combined with water in gluten-free baking.
Great to add to baked products such as breads that rely heavily on gluten. Psyllium husk becomes gelatinous when hydrated and binds and adds flexibility to a dough. It is available in the health products section of supermarkets and in health food stores.
A corn-based thickener, xanthan gum is made by fermenting corn syrup with bacteria to create a powder that is easily incorporated into gluten-free flour blends. It adds a ‘stickiness’ to gluten-free flours, emulating gluten, and provides structure to help stop crumbling. Unlike some other gums, it remains stable over a wide range of temperatures. Use it sparingly, though, as too much will cause your baking to be gummy and dense (a characteristic often found in commercially baked gluten-free goods). Also be aware that xanthan gum can cause digestive problems in some people.
Guar gum, made from the guar bean, is another thickener used in a similar way to xanthan gum. It is an off-white powder with the ability to thicken, stabilise and add stickiness to hold gluten-free mixtures together.
Other useful gluten-free ingredients
The oil in coconut helps make baked goods moist and tender. Desiccated coconut is also used to break up the flours and make the final baked product lighter.
Ground nuts or nut meal
Sometimes also referred to as nut flour, ground nuts and nut meal add flavour, moisture, bulk and tenderness to baking. But they don’t absorb moisture and therefore don’t have the ability to bind a mixture.
Simply quinoa grain rolled into flakes, similar to the idea of rolled oats. These actually make a great substitute for rolled oats. As with quinoa flour, lesser-quality brands can have a very assertive flavour and aroma. They will soak up a lot of water and can make baked goods dry, if overused.
Although there are many commercially premixed gluten-free flour blends available, it is a bonus to have the flexibility to choose the flours within a blend, as well as the proportion you use them in, depending on what you are baking.
As a general rule, you will need to combine two to five types of gluten-free flour to create a balanced blend, depending on what you are baking. Each flour will contribute a different characteristic, flavour and baking quality, and it is this combination along with how they react with the other ingredients in the recipe that will determine the final results.
For an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend I generally use a ratio of about 3:2 of major/wholegrain flours to minor flours/starches (see Gluten-free flours and ingredients glossary above) by weight, or about 60 per cent major/wholegrain flours and 40 per cent minor flours/starches. But it’s a good idea to have a play around with these ratios, as it will depend on what you are baking and what other ingredients are included in the recipe.
When blending flours, make sure you sift all the ingredients together so they are evenly combined.
Store all gluten-free flour blends in an airtight container in a cool dry dark place, or in the fridge if they contain ingredients high in oils such as nut meals.
These all happen to be dairy-free too!
Often gluten-free muffins have little substance – they lack not only flavour but also texture. These ones however, thanks to a clever combination of gluten-free flours, along with three forms of coconut and loads of fruit, will not disappoint.
With its subtle lemon flavour teamed with an aromatic rosewater icing and light nutty texture, it's the perfect afternoon-tea cake. It will dip slightly in the centre due to its delicate nature but this is just a sign of how lovely and light it is.
Super simple, and equally delicious, these cupcakes with chocolate frosting are the perfect party cake for kids (both big and small) when gluten and dairy needs to be avoided – no more missing out on the fun stuff!
This bread is almost the complete opposite of most commercially made gluten-free breads - wonderfully substantial (it won’t ‘dissolve’ in your mouth), moist and flavoursome without containing any gums. The key is the inclusion of psyllium husks and chia seeds to give the dough flexibility and structure in the absence of gluten. It’s great fresh, but toasting really brings out the nuttiness of the flours used.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O'Brien. Food preparation by Tina McLeish. Creative concept by Belinda So.
View previous Bakeproof columns and recipes here.
Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. For hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook,Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.