When you bake bread, make a cake or a batch of cookies, or whip up a few buttermilk biscuits for breakfast, you use cereal grain flour. Wheat, rye and barley are cereal grains, and these contain a protein called gluten. If you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, or other autoimmune disorder that calls for a gluten-free diet as treatment, you can’t use all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, or rye flour when you bake. You have to use gluten-free flours.
Not all flour comes from cereal grains. In gluten-free baking, some of the more common flours called for are rice flour, tapioca flour, potato, bean, and buckwheat flour. These flours are derived from plants and vegetables that do not contain gluten, so are safe for those on a gluten-free diet.
Many gluten-free recipes call for a mix of flours, combining white and brown rice flours, or potato with rice and tapioca flour for example. Combining flours utilizes each of their characteristics to create a mix that more closely mimics some of the properties of cereal grain flours.
Gums and starches
What gluten-free flours can’t do is replicate the desired effects gluten has in baking. The elasticity of bread dough, the chewiness of fresh baked cookies, and the tantalizing texture of muffins and cakes are results of gluten interacting with other ingredients, including yeast, baking soda, and baking powder.
Xanthan gum and guar gum are both possible additives in gluten-free baking. Xanthan gum is derived from microorganisms, and guar gum is a plant based product. Both act as binders, and help to add structure to dough and mixes.
Gluten-free baking also relies on starches, such as corn starch, potato starch, and tapioca starch. These are high protein ingredients, and complement the flour mixes. A gluten-free flour mix, then, is likely to consist of two or more flour types, along with at least one type of starch.
Adapting a recipe that calls for all purpose flour or other cereal grain flour to gluten-free isn’t just a matter of swapping one cup of a gluten-free flour mix for the amount of wheat flour in the recipe. The absence of gluten changes the chemical reactions necessary to make the recipe work. You’ll likely need more baking soda and/or baking powder, more liquid, and more fats.
In gluten-free baking, trial and error is essential to the process. When trying to convert your favorite recipes, write down every step and change you do and make. If a trial run fails, you have a written record of what not to do. When you succeed, you have the recipe written down, so you don’t have to try and remember what you did to make it work. This is the only way to learn how to convert recipes to gluten-free.