Ask the ChefsOct/Nov 2013 Issue

In the Kitchen: White Sugar, Gluten-Free Baking, Corn Allergy & More!

Food editor Beth Hillson answers your questions about special-diet baking.

Photo of Beth Hillson by Oksana Charla

Beth Hillson

Our kitchen and cooking expert, food editor and author Beth Hillson, tackles reader questions on baking pans, flour, bread and more.

Q: I have trouble making gluten-free muffins and breads. They seem to crumble and dry out quickly.

A: This is a common complaint. In place of 1 cup of liquid, try adding the same amount of a fruit or vegetable puree. I like to use unsweetened applesauce or strained pureed carrots, the junior baby food variety. These add moisture and texture to gluten-free baked goods, plus some extra nutrients.

Q: I’d like to get away from white sugar. What can I use instead?

A: The simplest way to do this is to replace white sugar with another granulated sweetener that’s less processed. Try using an equal amount of date sugar, coconut sugar or maple sugar. Note that maple sugar has a pronounced flavor that might not be ideal in more delicate baked items.

Q: I’m 12 years old and I’m allergic to gluten, cow’s milk and corn. A lot of recipes call for corn syrup and cornstarch. Can you tell me the best substitutes for these? Also, do you know if there’s a substitute for cornmeal?

A: It’s always nice to hear from a young baker! If your recipe calls for corn syrup, try replacing it with an equal amount of honey, agave nectar or maple syrup. Choose the liquid sweetener that’s best suited to the recipe you’re making, based on the flavor and your personal preference. As for cornstarch, you can replace it with an equal amount of potato starch (not potato flour), tapioca starch/flour or arrowroot powder.

Cornmeal is a little trickier to replace. If you’re using cornmeal to dust pans or coat fish, substitute an equal amount of rice bran or brown rice flour. But if you’re making cornbread, there is no perfect substitute for cornmeal. For cornbread and other recipes that call for 1 cup or so of cornmeal, try a blend of almond flour (if you can eat almonds), rice flour and rice bran. Use 1/3 cup each for a total of 1 cup of flour blend to replace 1 cup of cornmeal. Do some experimenting with these flours and others based on what suits your palate and special dietary needs.

Q: I want to bake gluten-free breads and cakes for my friends. What is a good size pan to use?

A: When it comes to gluten-free baking, smaller pans tend to work best. Gluten-free baked goods often crumble easily, so making them a bit smaller can improve their quality and help them hold together. Mini-muffin pans and mini-loaf pans are preferred by many gluten-free bakers.

If a recipe calls for a large pan, try dividing the batter among two or three smaller pans and reduce the baking time accordingly. Start checking for doneness after about 12 minutes for mini-muffins, 18 minutes for mini-loaves. Test until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Q: I have a bumper crop of butternut squash from my garden. I think my family will kill me if I try to serve it to them one more time. Can you give me some ideas on how I can use up all this squash?

A: Butternut squash is full of beneficial nutrients and fiber. Turn it into puree and use it in anything that calls for pumpkin puree. (When I worked in a professional kitchen, it’s the only thing we used in pumpkin pies.) Fruit and vegetable purees add moisture and texture to gluten-free baked goods. Slightly sweeter than pumpkin, squash puree can be added to soups, quick breads, muffins, pancakes, risotto, pasta dishes and more. Your family will never know they are eating more squash.

Here’s one way to prepare butternut squash puree. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350F. Cut the squash in half from top to bottom. Spoon out the seeds and any stringy material. Set the two halves, cut side down, on the prepared baking sheet and bake in your preheated oven until fork tender, about 40 minutes. Let cool. Scrape the flesh into the bowl of a food processor or blender and puree. Divide the puree into 1 cup portions and freeze for later use. Puree will also keep in the refrigerator for several days. Use this same technique to puree pumpkin and acorn squash.

Q: I know that many gluten-free foods can be frozen. Can you tell me which from-scratch baked items will freeze well and which won’t?

A: Avoid freezing assembled and frosted layer cakes. Instead, individually wrap and freeze the cooled layers and assemble your cake on the day you’re ready to serve it.

It’s usually best not to freeze unbaked pies that contain fresh fruit, especially those with a double crust. Freeze unbaked pie crusts and thaw them before adding apples, strawberries or other fruit. Then bake as your recipe instructs. Fruit pies can be frozen after baking but the crust may become a bit soggy when reheated.

Cookies, breads, rolls and par-baked pizza crust (preferably without toppings) all freeze well. Slice your bread and wrap the slices individually before placing them in the freezer. Gluten-free bread tends to crumble if sliced after freezing and re-thawing. Cookies are best when simply thawed at room temperature.

After freezing, refresh gluten-free baked goods by wrapping serving-size portions in a moist paper towel and microwaving briefly. Alternatively, wrap them in aluminum foil and warm them gently in a 325F oven for about 10 minutes.

Q: Does it matter if I bring ingredients to room temperature before starting a recipe?

A: When making gluten-free baked goods (except pie crusts), recipes generally work best when ingredients are at room temperature. For gluten-free bread, eggs at room temperature are a must; place eggs in a cup of warm water until they reach room temperature. Yeast should be brought to room temperature before using it in a recipe.

Q: Can I let gluten-free baked items cool in their pan?

A: It’s best to let gluten-free loaves, cakes and muffins rest in the pan for 10 minutes before removing them from the pan to cool completely.They may get soggy if they stay too long in their pans. Exceptions are brownies, bars, cobblers and crisps. These can be served right from the pan.

Q: Do you have any tips for making a gluten-free pie crust that’s tender and flaky?

A: Most gluten-free pie crust recipes call for at least two or three flours and a starch or two. This combination of flours helps balance flavor and texture. To avoid grittiness, use superfine flours. Can’t find superfine? Process your flours in a clean coffee grinder, blender or food processor to make them more powdery.

Whether it’s butter, a dairy-free butter alternative or leaf lard, make sure that the fat you use is very cold. Cut the fat into the dry ingredients until pea-size pieces of fat are evenly distributed throughout the flour. (As the crust bakes, the fat melts, creating flaky layers.) Use ice water or a very cold liquid, according to your recipe instructions. This ensures that the fat stays chilled before the crust is baked.

Consider using a crust recipe that calls for an egg as it helps bind the flour and improves structure. If you’re avoiding eggs, use flax gel (or chia gel) instead. To replace each egg, combine 1 tablespoon flax meal (or chia seeds) with 3 tablespoons warm water; let this mixture sit for 5 minutes until slightly thickened.

Recipes for gluten-free crust usually call for xanthan gum or guar gum to prevent crumbling and help build structure. If you can’t tolerate gum, replace it with an equal amount of agar powder or add 1 tablespoon potato flour (not potato starch) to the dry ingredients.

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