Delicious gluten-free baked goods without xanthan gum
Twelve years ago when my husband and two teenagers were diagnosed with celiac disease, the gluten-free industry was in its infancy. If you wanted a tasty bakery item, you had to learn to make it yourself. A scientist by training, I decided to go back to the basics: How exactly do various flours, starches, fats and liquids affect the taste, texture, aroma and shelf life of baked goods?
Investigating further, I learned that starch is insoluble in cold water; when heated, it forms an elastic gel. This gel creates structure, contributes to the crumb and aids in moisture retention. So I asked myself, why do we need binders like xanthan, guar gum, psyllium husks or other gels? And I concluded that gums are not necessary for successful gluten-free baking.
This is welcome news for people who can’t tolerate gums. It’s also great news for those who want only pure ingredients in their baked goods.
How can you bake successfully without xanthan gum or guar gum? Here are a few techniques and tips.
Turn the starch into a gel. Starch is made soluble in liquid by adding heat, an effect called pre-gelatinization. In almost all my yeast-leavened recipes, the first step is to bring the liquid (milk, water, potato cooking water) and the fat (shortening, butter, oil) to a boil, stirring vigorously to emulsify the two. This mixture is poured over the flour and mixed until the flour is just uniformly moistened. Don’t over-mix. Depending on the recipe, the result may look like moist sand or a kind of rubbery gel. As the dough cools (15 to 20 minutes), the starch becomes gelatinous.
Use a combination of gluten-free flours. Mixing at least two different flours (one a pure starch) will significantly improve the structure and integrity of gluten-free baked goods. Which flours to choose? Contrary to popular belief, you can’t apply a standard formula for substituting. Most pure starches—tapioca, arrowroot, potato and cornstarch—are pretty much interchangeable but many gluten-free flours are not. Some are grains. Some come from nuts and seeds, and some come from legumes and other less conventional sources, like banana, cassava and grape skins. Gluten-free flours have different weights, different absorption rates and different flavors. There are also many varieties of the same flour and they differ from brand to brand. In addition, protein and fiber contents vary considerably among gluten-free flours. All these factors impact baking characteristics.
What’s a gluten-free baker to do? Think carefully before making substitutions and expect to have to adjust the recipe by adding a little additional flour or liquid in order to obtain the desired batter/dough consistency. You also can make your own flour blend using a trusted recipe or you can purchase a commercial flour blend with a flavor and nutritional profile that appeals to you.
Use natural binders, thickeners and emulsifiers. Many real foods perform the same functions as xanthan gum. That is, they aerate dough, bind together liquids, fats and flour, and assist in creating structure. Eggs do the trick. Other foods include aquafaba (the liquid from chickpeas), chia seeds, flax seeds, oatmeal, bananas, avocados, sunflower seeds and pectin.
Bake with small, high-walled pans. Gluten-free bread dough is generally wetter than wheat-based dough, more like a batter than a dough. This typically impacts baking time, making it longer than you’d expect. It also impacts crumb and loaf shape. One of the greatest challenges of gluten-free baking is to create breads that have a moist, tender crumb and that hold their shape. Higher-walled baking pans are the key to supporting loaf structure. Choose a small, deep loaf pan (8½ x 4½ inches) for a 1-pound loaf.
There are no added gums or artificial binders in these recipes. You don’t have to lower your expectations, make excuses or bake with gum just because you’re gluten-free.
MAKES 8 GLUTEN-FREE BUNS
This old-fashioned gluten-free recipe is warmly spiced with bits of dried fruit. You’ll love the smell of the buns baking. For best results, do not replace the eggs in this recipe.
MAKES ONE 8-INCH GLUTEN-FREE LOAF
This recipe, inspired by Peter Reinhart’s whole-grain wheat bread, makes an outstanding gluten-free loaf with a dense, moist crumb and a sweet, almost creamy flavor. It’s absolutely sublime in a grilled cheese sandwich.
MAKES 36 GLUTEN-FREE COOKIES
An adaptation of an old recipe from Yankee Magazine, these gluten-free cookies are addictive. Molasses adds moisture and chewiness. It’s also an excellent natural preservative, meaning these cookies stay fresh long after most gluten-free baked goods go stale.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Against the Grain ©2015 by Nancy Cain. Against the Grain is published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Photographs ©2015 by Jennifer May.