A Beginner's Guide to Gluten-Free Baking
Gluten-free baking recipes work differently than conventional ones. Here’s what to expect, from technique and texture differences to other helpful tips and tricks!
Cooking without gluten can sometimes be as simple as omitting certain ingredients, but gluten-free baking requires a bit of a different approach. All-purpose wheat flour plays such a large role in traditional baking that, when you remove it, you not only need to figure out what to replace it with, but you also need to understand how those new ingredients will behave in—and affect—your recipe.
Once you get a hang of the unique “rules” for gluten-free baking, though, you’ll be on your way to recreating all your favorite treats with confidence, sans gluten!
What to Expect with Gluten-Free Baking
Understanding how and why gluten-free recipes work differently than conventional ones will help you achieve the texture and flavor you crave.
First: Let’s talk about gluten.
Gluten is an elastic protein found in certain grains, like wheat, barley, and rye, that, when used in recipes, helps provide structure and a satisfying chewiness. Gluten’s elasticity allows batters and doughs to trap air released by leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, or baking soda), which is how they’re able to rise.
Without this protein, gluten-free baked goods have the potential to be grainy, dense, and crumbly, but they don’t have to be! The first step towards gluten-free goodness is coming up with a suitable flour alternative.
The most common flour in baking, all-purpose wheat flour, has a unique composition that cannot be replaced with just one gluten-free grain. So, to mimic this makeup, you need either multiple flours and binders or a store bought, premixed combination.
As good as these blends may be, they won’t be identical to wheat flour. Even if you’re using a 1:1 blend designed for a seamless swap with traditional flour, there are some differences you should expect between traditional and gluten-free baking recipes:
Gluten-free flours absorb more liquid.
You might notice a different ratio of ingredients in gluten-free recipes. Gluten-free flours often contain fine starches, so they absorb more liquid than conventional flour.
To address this, gluten-free recipes usually call for more liquid and produce looser batters. They may also call for a larger quantity of leavening, like baking powder, to help add volume and lighten the texture. Even ingredients like eggs may be increased to provide the necessary structure and improved crumb.
Gluten-free batters can tolerate (and even benefit from) overmixing.
In traditional baked goods recipes, you’ll often read to be careful not to over-mix the batter. Overmixing develops the gluten and results in an unpleasant toughness.
With gluten-free recipes, of course there’s no gluten to consider, so this is a nonissue. In fact, gluten-free baked goods actually benefit from a longer mix, by providing more structure and allowing a better rise.
Gluten-free batters need to rest.
Right after mixing comes a step you don’t always consider with traditional baking: letting your batter rest. Even the best combinations of gluten-free alternative grains and flour blends can yield a gritty texture. This is remediated by resting your batter for about 30 minutes so the flour has time to hydrate and soften.
Resting is especially important for gluten-free baked goods that have a shorter bake time, like pancakes and cookies.
No kneading required.
Traditional breads and baked goods require kneading to develop the gluten. Since gluten-free recipes don’t have any gluten (surprise!), they don’t require any kneading at all.
It’s also worth noting that while kneaded bread dough becomes smooth and stretchy, gluten-free bread “dough” will look more like a sticky batter.
Gluten-free batters need a longer bake time.
Because gluten-free batters contain more liquid than traditional versions, they typically take longer to bake. If you remove them from the oven too soon, you may develop a gummy, mushy texture.
It’s important to follow the bake time as outlined on the gluten-free recipe, rather than on cues you might normally use for traditional baking.
Essential Gluten-Free Baking Ingredients
The staple in a traditional baker’s arsenal is all-purpose wheat flour. To replace this one grain, we need multiple gluten-free ingredients to try and match its composition: some high protein, some high in starch, and others to act as a binder.
These days, you can find store-bought blends of ingredients that are meant to work as an “all purpose” substitute for traditional all-purpose flour. Rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch are among some of the most commonly-used ingredients.
That said, the selection varies widely from one company to the next and so these blends cannot be used interchangeably without varying results. When following a recipe that calls for all-purpose gluten-free flour, be sure to use the same brand called out in the recipe in order to have a similar end product.
In addition to an all-purpose blend, there may be times you want to make a bran muffin, a specialty cake, or even a yeasted dinner roll. When all-purpose flour won’t cut it, stock your pantry with additional gluten free flours, like oat flour, nut flours, bean flours, even powdered dry milk and others. You’ll also need binders, like xanthan gum or psyllium husk, to adjust the structure in what you’re baking.
Lastly, if you need to account for a strict gluten-free diet, it’s important to read the labels on everything you will be baking with. Because of manufacturing processes, wheat can sometimes sneak into ingredients that would otherwise be naturally gluten-free, like oats, yeast, cornstarch, and more. Fortunately, if a product may contain wheat due to cross-contamination, package labels are required to let us know.
What I Wish I'd Known When I Started Baking Gluten-Free
Over the course of my 15+ years being gluten-free, there are a few things I’ve learned that help me enjoy consistent and delicious gluten-free baked goodies every time.
Stick to the recipe.
Remember that gluten-free baking doesn’t follow the same visual cues as traditional baking. You might be tempted to improvise on a recipe and use your tried-and-true baking know-how but, until you're comfortable with the particulars of gluten-free baking, use recipes designed for gluten-free flour and follow them as outlined.
If the recipe includes a specific brand of flour, use that one for best results. If you’ve purchased a gluten-free blend but aren’t sure where to start, the back of the package and the brand’s website are great places to look. Those recipes are developed with that specific brand in mind and have been tested for success.
Don’t “dip and sweep.”
While that might be the go-to move for measuring all-purpose wheat flour, it doesn't work for gluten-free flours. Gluten-free flours are finer than wheat flour and so scooping that way can lead to inconsistencies.
Instead of measuring by volume, the most accurate way is by weight using a kitchen scale. If the recipe you’re following only shows the amount in cups, spoon the flour into the measuring cup and then level it off with a flat edge, without tapping or packing it down.
The less flour, the better.
I find that the easiest and most passable gluten-free baked goods are those that don’t rely solely on flour for their composition, but have other major ingredients mixed in. Think: banana bread, cornbread, peanut butter cookies, oat muffins, carrot cake. Those all get structure, flavor, and texture, from those other featured ingredients. Compare that to a crusty French baguette which might only have flour, water, yeast and salt.
If you're just starting out, recipes with other things going on are a great confidence builder.
The freezer is your friend.
Homemade gluten-free baked goods are often tastier than what you can find at the store, but it takes a bit of effort to fire up the oven every time the mood strikes. Whenever I bake a batch of something, I make it a habit to freeze a portion for a future indulgence. Brownies, bread, quick breads, pizza crusts, cupcakes, muffins, and waffles all freeze very well.
Plus, since gluten-free baked goods do not stay fresh as long as their conventional counterparts, it’s always a good idea to freeze whatever you won’t finish in a couple days.
When you’re ready to convert your favorite recipes to gluten free, consider the first attempt an experiment and be prepared to tweak accordingly. While there are no hard and fast rules to address a given textural challenge, the below tips are possible solutions:
- Mushy or gummy: Lower the temperature and increase the cooking time
- Crumbly: Increase the binder, like xanthan gum or psyllium husk
- Gritty or thin: Rest the batter 30 minutes before baking
- Dense: Increase the leavener, like baking powder
- Dry: Add more liquid
Gluten-Free Baking Recipes
Thanks to the many experienced gluten-free bakers out there, there are recipes that will fool even the most avid gluten-lover. That said, don’t be too discouraged if you make something that’s not as pillowy, flaky, or perfectly chewy as you remember. Just because a gluten-free baked good may look or feel different, doesn’t mean it can’t still be delicious.
Need a good place to start? Start with one of these recipes!
- Gluten-Free Banana Bread
- Gluten-Free Monster Cookies Bars
- Gluten-Free Cinnamon Rolls
- Gluten-Free Chocolate Banana Cupcakes
- Gluten-Free Fudgy Chocolate Brownies
- Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake Donuts
- Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Gluten-Free Biscuits
- Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Muffins
- Gluten-Free Pumpkin Muffins
- Hetty McKinnon's Flourless Soy Sauce Brownies