When I first began learning how to bake gluten-free breads and cakes, I swore I would never get it right. Instead of light, airy, moist baked goods, I ended up with dry, crumbly hockey pucks. I remember trying to make my own burger buns and they could have been registered as lethal weapons with the FBI. They were hard like rocks and yet, when I touched them, they broke and fell apart. EPIC FAIL! Lucky for me, I’m a stubborn person because I didn’t give up and today, I’m so much better at gluten-free baking. I’m able to turn out baked goods that are moist and tender. The good thing about making mistakes is learning from them. If we can figure out why something went wrong, we can figure out how to fix it. You can benefit from my mistakes and all I’ve learned to ensure that your gluten-free baked goods turn out moist.
1. Gluten 101
It may sound contradictory but to learn how to bake delicious, moist gluten-free foods, you have to understand how gluten works. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it really simple. Gluten is a protein and it provides structure and strength to baked goods so they don’t crumble and fall apart. Gluten also creates a network of air pockets in the batter and that is what makes the baked goods so light and fluffy. Gluten also creates elasticity which makes baked goods tender. So if gluten is responsible for baked goods’ structure, strength, lightness, fluffiness and tenderness, what happens in gluten-free baking? How can we compensate for all the things that gluten brings to the party? Here’s how:
2. Use a Gluten-Free Flour Blend
Trying to use only one type of gluten-free flour in your recipe will lead to a dry, crumbly texture. You need to use a blend of flours and starches to replicate the flavor, texture and density of gluten flours. You can buy a gluten-free flour blend or you can make your own. There are many pre-made gluten-free, all-purpose flour blends on the market that have done all the work for you. Some use more nutritious flours than others. Read the labels to see which blends use the flours you prefer. I like my blend to have more high-protein, whole grain flours and less rice flour. Also, be sure to check whether the blend you buy already has the xanthan gum added to it. Some do and some don’t so read those labels.
If you choose to make your own gluten-free flour blend, there are many flours and starches to choose from. A few examples of gluten-free flour includes: rice flour, sorghum flour, amaranth flour, quinoa four, millet flour, buckwheat flour, teff and bean flours, coconut flour, nut/seed flours, and soy flour. Gluten-free starches include tapioca, potato starch, cornstarch, and arrowroot.
The rule of thumb is a 2:1 ratio of flour to starch. A gluten-free flour blend could be as simple as 1 cup of rice flour for every ½ cup of tapioca starch. However, too much starch can lead to gummy results and not a lot of nutrition so it is best to use flours of different protein contents, weights and densities. For more details on how to make your own gluten-free flour blends, see The Ultimate Gluten-Free Baking Substitution Guide and then try your hand at making Ooh La La French Bread.
3. Where Do You Get Your Protein From?
Gluten is a protein so it’s important to incorporate protein in your gluten-free flour blend. Protein gives structure and stability. High-protein flours include chickpea, amaranth, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, teff, navy bean and other bean/nut/seed flours. The heavier grain flours usually have more protein and are hearty and nutritious. Baking with these is most similar to baking with straight whole wheat flour resulting in dense, dark baked goods that don’t rise very much so make sure only one of the flours in your blend is high-protein and the others are lighter. See 5 Uncommon Gluten-Free Flours that are High in Protein.
To make a high-protein flour blend, combine: 1 ¼ cups bean or legume flour (i.e. chickpea, navy bean, soy), 1 cup medium-weight flour (i.e. brown rice, sorghum), and 1 cup light starch (i.e. tapioca, cornstarch, potato starch). Use the blend to make this Chocolate Chip Pecan Pumpkin Bread.
4. Gums and Gluten-Replacers
Gluten is what gives baked goods their structure. Without the gluten, foods are more likely to fall apart. Adding gums such as xanthan gum or guar gum replaces some of that structure.
For yeast products, add 1 teaspoon of xanthan gum or guar gum per cup of flour blend. For non-yeast products, add ½ teaspoon of xanthan gum or guar gum per cup of flour blend.
Some people avoid gums because of digestive issues or sensitivities. In those cases, adding psyllium, agar agar, chia seeds or flax seeds in amounts equal to the gums required can also do the job. In some recipes, you may find you don’t need any gluten-replacers at all. The more you bake, the more you will learn which of your recipes come out better with the gums added. Try these Maple Cider Cookies which use flax seeds.
5. Measure Properly
I have to admit that when it comes to cooking, I rarely measure anything. When I bake, I often continue this bad habit. When baking gluten-free, however, it is so important to properly measure all the ingredients. It is not the time for “dashes,” “pinches,” and “handfuls.” The correct way to measure dry ingredients such as flour is to scoop the flour with a smaller cup and pour it into the measuring cup you are using. Don’t use the latter cup and just scoop it into the flour bag as it might compress the flour leading to an inaccurate measurement. Scooping will result in using too much flour which will lead to dry baked goods. Level off the measuring cup by sliding a flat edge such as a butter knife over it, removing any excess flour. Practice measuring when making these Strawberry Chocolate Chip Buckwheat Muffins and this Vegan Apple of My Eye Pie with Gluten-Free Crust.
6. Lighten It Up
To make baked goods lighter, sift the flour before measuring it. When you sift flour, it’s lighter and you use less. Not sifting the flour will have us using a lot more flour which can lead to dry, heavy baked goods. Learn how to make Gluten-Free Sandwich Bread that’s actually light and airy.
7. One Size Does Not Fit All
Many say that with the substitution of a gluten-free flour blend, you can follow a recipe as written with no further adjustments. Not true! Gluten-free flours are heavy, dense and have strong flavors which can lead to baked goods that are heavy, dry and bland. In order to get light and moist baked goods that taste good, other ingredients in the recipe need to be increased.
To add lightness, increase the baking powder and/or baking soda in the recipe by 25 percent. If the recipe stated one teaspoon of baking powder, add 1 ¼ teaspoons instead. In recipes requiring yeast, I typically double the amount of yeast as well since gluten-free breads don’t rise as easily. I do this in my Vegan and Gluten-Free Challah.
Gluten-free baking can often be dry so it is important to add moisture. This can be achieved by increasing the amount of vegan butter or oil, adding fruit such as applesauce or pumpkin puree or using brown sugar rather than white sugar. To bring out the most flavor in a gluten-free baked good, you will need to use more sugar, more spices and more vanilla. I automatically double (and sometimes triple) the amount of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla in a recipe to be sure I can taste them. When I make my Gluten-Free Carrot Cake with Walnuts and Cream Cheese Frosting, I add more fresh grated carrots than most recipes call for and my cake is always moist and delicious.
8. Add Air
Yes, air is an ingredient or at least it should be in gluten-free baking. Remember, gluten creates air pockets in the batter and since there is no gluten, we need to create those air pockets ourselves. We can do this by beating the batter for at least 5 minutes. It will make the baked goods lighter and if you do it by hand, it will work your arm muscles too!
9. Stay Loose
As I previously confessed, when I bake, I often play it by ear. If a batter or dough seems too loose, I just throw more (unmeasured) flour in it until it “feels right.” But gluten-free batter is supposed to feel loose. It will look too thin and too runny but that’s how gluten-free batter is supposed to look. Don’t add more flour no matter how much you want to because that will make your baked goods dense, crumbly and dry. You won’t believe the moistness of this Vegan Pear Crumb Cake.
10. Is It Done Yet?
When it comes to the actual baking, doing it gluten-free means breaking a lot of the rules. Lower the temperature by 25 degrees because gluten-free baking tends to brown faster on the outside than it cooks on the inside. You know that rule about sticking a toothpick into a cake and if comes out dry, it’s done? Well, forget it. Take your cakes out of the oven a little early, before the toothpick comes out dry. That’s another trick to add moistness to your gluten-free baked goods. Even if your bread or muffins don’t have that golden-brown color yet, cooking it until it does could lead to dryness. You want the moistness of these Chocolate Frosted Gluten-Free Pumpkin Cookies and these Zen Fusion Carrot Cake Muffins with Pecan Frosting.
Gluten-free baking takes practice, patience and a sense of humor but if you keep trying, you’ll soon learn that it’s easy to make moist, light and delicious treats. For more help, check out 7 Tips for Gluten-Free Vegan Baking and How to Avoid 6 Common Baking Mistakes. Happy Gluten-Free Baking!
Lead Image Photo: Gluten-Free Carrot Cake with Walnuts and Cream Cheese Frosting