Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Using gluten-free flours to adjust flavor and texture

Maybe I'm just a 'silver lining' kind of gal, but I think I'm pretty lucky to have been diagnosed gluten intolerant.

First and foremost, I now feel better than I have in years, and probably better than I've felt my whole life. I'm lucky that I found the source of my symptoms, and at such a relatively young age.

Additionally, my diagnosis forced me into the the kitchen like never before.

I loved to cook and bake in my previous life. In fact, one of the reasons I didn't want to believe a food intolerance or allergy could be at the root of my symptoms was because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to cook as freely or imaginatively as I wanted. I feared having to scrutinize my ingredients and, ultimately, having to leave certain things out. I worried I would never be able to cook for others, because I didn't want to serve an inferior product! (I laugh now, thinking that had been a concern!)

In fact, it turned out to be just the opposite.

If I had never been diagnosed gluten intolerant, I wouldn't know what agave nectar is. I wouldn't have figured out how easy it could be to make macaroni and cheese from scratch (I would still be struggling with that darned roux method). I wouldn't know the peppery-nutty flavor of amaranth at breakfast. I would probably never have ventured into the realm of baking with any flour besides wheat flour.

In this life, I have done more experimenting with ingredients than I ever had in my previous life.

One of my greatest discoveries is that you can change the texture and flavor of baked goods simply by changing the combination of flours you use. I feel now that wheat flour baking is really limited; bakers stuck in the rut of using only wheat flours can change liquids and fats and sugars in their baking, but are limited in what they can produce with plain wheat flour.

I have several different flours lined up in my cupboard and in my refrigerator, waiting, at the ready, to become delicious (and usually healthy) muffins, scones, cookies, and bread. I play with new ones as often as I can, curious to see how they operate in a recipe, in combination with other flours, and in combination with still different flours. I feel like I have made a million different batches of muffins over the past few months, each one slightly different in texture and flavor. I keep changing up the flour combinations and quantities.

After a lot of reading, and a lot of playing, I've started to develop a feel for what each flour lends to my baking. So far I've tried:

Coconut flour: It's slightly sweet, so it's perfect in sweet baked goods, especially if you aren't using a lot of sugar. It also creates a smooth, pillowy texture when used in small quantities, but it can be somewhat heavy if you use it as the dominant flour. I recommend increasing your liquids a bit when using this flour as a substitute for another in a pre-written recipe, because it absorbs moisture pretty readily. And, with 6 grams of fiber per 2 Tablespoon serving, it adds a lot of fiber to your baked goods.

Millet flour: This flour has fallen back into favor with me, especially in combination with coconut and sorghum flours. It creates a crumbly texture, which, when used exclusively with brown rice flour, creates gluten free baked goods many people complain about – they fall apart too readily. However, add this flour to a combination of tapioca, coconut, and sorghum flours for baked goods meant to be somewhat crumbly (e.g., pecan sandies, Russian teacakes, or scones) and voila! you get the perfect texture you were looking for! This flour, too, is high in fiber – 4 grams per ¼ cup.

Sorghum flour: I have read several gluten-free bloggers advise newly diagnosed individuals to avoid baked goods for a while, until their palate begins to forget what wheat-filled baked goods taste like. And, rightly so, since wheat, rye, and barley definitely have distinctive tastes that we probably even take for granted until we do not taste them anymore. They don't want the newly diagnosed to be out-right disappointed when the package of gluten-free cookies or their store-bought gluten free breads don't taste right. However, these products usually have rice flour and potato flour as their base, which means they don't really have taste at all. Sorghum flour probably most closely emulates wheat flour in taste and function (although it still doesn't have the ability to bind, because it's gluten free). It is a good, sturdy, and all-purpose flour and has become the taste of bread for me. This flour is relatively high in iron, supplying 8% of our daily needs in a ¼ cup, has 3 grams of fiber, and provides 4 grams of protein.

Teff flour: This is another flour that adds a cereal-like flavor to baked goods. It is made from the smallest grain in the world, and is super-fine as a flour. It is nearly as fine as a pure starch, like tapioca, and can sometimes be used as a thickener. However, unlike pure starches, it is really high in fiber (4g), protein (4g), and iron (13%) per ¼ cup. I use it to add flavor to savory baked goods as well as in breads. It has a unique ability to yield a smooth texture while also adding fiber. I have also read a lot of buzz about this grain on training websites (e.g., runners world), where they tout it's health benefits to those who are highly physically active.

Tapioca flour: It's also called “tapioca starch” so that should give you some idea of what it's like. It's a pure starch, nothing but empty calories. However, it does a lot for gluten free baked goods and has become a staple in my pantry since I have to avoid corn and potatoes as well. It helps to bind gluten free baked goods, gives them a bit of 'sticky' mouth-feel (if you use a lot and that is what you are going for, such as with potstickers), and provides the nice firm crust typical of gluteny baked goods. Even though tapioca is completely devoid of nutrition, I almost always add it to my baked goods in small quantities in order to get that golden crust. I also use it as a thickening agent for sauces (in place of cornstarch or potato starch) and in my fruit crisps (mixed with the fruit and in the topping).

Almond flour: This flour is pure, ground almonds, so it naturally adds a nutty flavor and a good amount of protein (6 grams per ¼ cup). It's primary benefits are the rich flavor it adds to everything and its almost moist spongyness (yes, I made up that word). It is very versatile; you can almost throw a small amount of almond flour in the place of any flour to enhance the flavor and nutritional value and you will get great results. It is also great in pastries and crackers. I have yet to use large amounts of it in my baked goods (aside from the financiers), since it is incredibly expensive.

Garbanzo and Fava bean flour (a.k.a. GaFava flour): This flour is ground from garbanzo and fava beans, which means it is really high in fiber (6g), low in carbohydrates (18g), and high in protein (6g), per ¼ cup. It also provides 10% of your daily value of iron. On the positive side, it's really healthy and lends a pliability to baked goods, such as wraps. However, it tastes like beans. So, if you don't like or want the taste of beans in your baked goods, either use very little of it or make sure your recipe is filled with other, stronger flavors to cover up the beany taste.

White and brown rice flour: These flours are the most common substitutes for wheat flour in gluten-free cooking, however, they are pretty devoid of nutrition and are pretty starchy. Not to mention, they are pretty flavorless. Also, they can be somewhat grainy, especially if they are not ground fine enough; in contrast to coconut flour, which is a moisture absorber, rice flour doesn't absorb liquid as quickly, so baked goods using strictly rice flours can be very grainy and crumbly. However, they can be used as a relatively inexpensive base flour, in combination with some of the other gluten free flours. I often use rice flour as a 'base' because I cannot afford to use others, such as sorghum. Also, given they are relatively tasteless, they provide a nice blank flavor canvas with which you can play.

As you can see, I could never play around with flavor and texture this much with just wheat flour, and I likely wouldn't have even thought about using any of these flours if I hadn't been diagnosed gluten intolerant.

I have several more to try, such as buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa, and I look forward to discovering what these flours have to offer as well.

As an example of what difference a few flours make, I have been playing around with baking bread. I have to give serious credit to Kate over at gluten free gobsmacked, who came up with a sandwich bread recipe that is the best I've ever seen.

It does not crumble. It sits on the counter for days and does not harden. It has magical powers. (okay, not really, but it feels like it). I had given up baking my own bread because I was tired of being disappointed. Every recipe I tried was an exercise in clearing out an entire day, complicated directions, and expensive ingredients, all that ended up with disappointment.

I tried Kate's recipe for pepita-powered bread after reading the recipe 100 times and hearing great reviews from other readers. I did a little happy dance as soon as I cut into it. It didn't just “suit it's purpose” it was GOOD!

However, I'm the kind of girl who used to eat whole wheat bread you could sand wood with. My favorite bread is German seeded bread. And this bread was pretty close to white bread in its consistency. Nutritionally, it was great, but consistency-wise, it's similar to white bread.

So, armed with my gluten-free flour knowledge, I made some tweaks. It's still soft, but a bit sturdier and more textured, perfect for my German-girl roots.

See how the type of flour changes the results?

(This is the turkey sandwich I had for lunch today, complete with cranberry sauce, spinach, zucchini slices, and a good goat cheese.)

I don't want to post her recipe, since it is her genius, but you can find the recipe at the link above and I will detail what I did to make it the tougher kind of bread I like:

I followed her recipe exactly, except I used 1/2 cup sorghum flour and a 1/4 cup teff flour in place of the millet flour. I also used only 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast (I need to watch the amount of yeast I ingest) and used 1/4 cup of raw honey in place of the brown sugar. Since my sweetener is liquid, I reduced the water by a 1/4 cup (at the end). Oh, and since I don't have a cooking thermometer, I just baked it for the full 45 minutes and that seems to be perfect every time.

Now that you've seen an example, and are armed with the extent of my knowledge, I encourage you to enjoy playing with some different flours, learn how they work for you, and make your baked goods your own!


DeerDominique said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to put this all up here! I don't personally have gluten intolerance, but I do believe that that we WAY over consume most grains, and we use alternatives quite often. Now I have a great resource, Thanks Again!

Lauren Denneson said...

deerdominique - so glad it is helpful!

Catherine said...

So happy I found your blog! I was just diagnosed with a wheat allergy so I'm excited to try this bread recipe! I'm very new to the whole GF baking thing...

Lauren Denneson said...

Catherine - welcome to the wheat-free world! Feel free to email me or comment with any questions you may have as you re-learn how to bake again :). If you do try out this recipe, I really recommend placing the bread on its side right when you take it out of the oven, like Kate suggests. Place it on one side and then switch to the other side after a few minutes (it sags to one side otherwise!). It will sink a lot in the middle if it cools up-right. Also, it will look a lot like cake batter, not like any bread dough you are previously used to working with - GF flours need more liquid as they bake.

Amity Susan Kate (am su ka) said...

Hi Lauren,
Thanks so much for your breakdown of the different flours- and nice to see a mention of coconut flour! I use it a lot in my desserts. I am so grateful for the tip of placing fresh bread on its sides to prevent the collapse- will definitely try that next time. Great site- found you in the bread comments over at GFGirl...Cheers!

Jackie said...

I'm not gluten intolerant, and I love to bake. I've been experimenting for years now with alternative flours simply for the added nutritional benefits, and I love people sharing like this. Thank you so much for taking the time to share. I good friend was recently diagnosed a celiac, and I love being able to surprise her with gluten free baked good that she thought she would never be able to have again. Your blog, and blogs like them bring so much more joy than you can possibly know.

Lauren Denneson said...

Jackie, Thank you so much for this kind comment. I'm sure your baking brings much joy to your friend as well!

Annette said...

Thanks for the post. This is really helpful.