Once upon a time, if you needed to stay gluten free, your choice in flours was limited, to say the least. But times have changed, and a generous array of gluten-free flours is now widely available. Grains such as rice, millet, sorghum, and teff; seeds such as buckwheat and quinoa; and nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and peanuts are all ground into flours.
But substituting these flours into recipes can be tricky because of that whole gluten thing. It's the gluten in wheat that causes cakes to rise and pizza dough to stretch. So what's an eager-but-gluten-free baker to do? Here are a few ideas.
- Start with a commercial, gluten-free, all-purpose flour mix. These products are designed to substitute for wheat flours. They usually contain a balanced mix of several different flours, and may contain additions such as xanthan gum and arrowroot to help mimic the effects of gluten. My personal favorite is Bob's Red Mill-it works well for everything from muffins to pancakes to cookies.
- Pay attention to protein. I'm not just talking about the protein content of your flour-which is important-but the protein in your recipe. It can help to substitute some egg whites for an equal portion of liquid in your gluten-free recipes, especially in delicate items such as cake. Since gluten is a protein, you can "trick" your cake batter a bit this way.
- Add small amounts of other flours to your basic mix. Try buckwheat to give your muffins a whole-grain feel, or corn flour to give your pancakes a new texture. Almond flour will add a sweet nutty flavor to a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and coconut flour is sublimely appropriate in macaroons.
- Try fruit and yogurt. Puréed fruits and vegetables such as applesauce, bananas, and even avocado (see recipe, right) make for moist, yummy treats. Think banana bread, carrot cupcakes, or pumpkin pancakes.. Recipes with yogurt or sour cream are similarly blessed.
- You may need some sugar. Sadly, most sugar substitutes just don't get the job done in the gluten-free arena. They result in baked goods that lack structure. Try either light or dark organic brown sugar. And substituting honey in some recipes will work wonders-just be sure to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe accordingly.
- Experiment. Try different flours in different amounts, throw in some dried cherries or chopped nuts, and fiddle with various sweeteners such as maple syrup and agave nectar. And if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Sow Your Wild Oats ...When Baking Cookies
Both oat flour and whole rolled oats are excellent choices when baking cookies. Just be careful, as most commercial oats are grown in rotation with wheat crops and can be contaminated with gluten. Look for strict, gluten-free brands-Bob's Red Mill comes to mind, with its certified organic gluten-free oats.
Neil Zevnik is a private chef in Los Angeles who is devoted to the idea that "healthy" doesn't have to mean "ho-hum." Visit him online at neilzevnik.com to learn more.