It Can No Longer Be Denied: Allergen-Free Baking MUST Be Precise Kitchen Chemistry

Baking Chemistry BWAfter a solid 13 months of attempting various types of allergen-free baking, I can no longer deny that allergen-free baking must be approached as chemistry. I can no longer hold onto the notion that there can be any flexibility in baking that eliminates the three most essential chemical elements: wheat gluten (reaction base), eggs (leavening/binding) and dairy (liquid and/or fat).

After wasting hours of kitchen time (and precious dollars), I have come to the very disappointing realization that this is – in no way – anything like wheat baking.  I have officially been forced to accept that my 15+ years of experience in wheat/dairy/egg baking has given me a sense of over-confidence with which I have scoffed at allergen-free baking authors that have warned me to either weigh correctly and/or use the exact ingredients listed. I have had a cavalier attitude about my ability to achieve great success with my recipes while saving both time and money by bypassing measurements and substituting ingredients. The results of these baking endeavors have laughed in the face of my over-confidence. That biscuit above does seem to have an under-bitten smug laugh, doesn’t it? Yeah, I’m not as brilliant in my baking as my wheat experience has led me to believe!

The only thing I can endeavor to do at this point is to no longer deny my un-brilliance in baking and that the science of it must be absolutely understood in order for this to work effectively and consistently. I must accept that the comprehensive information on gluten-free baking just does not exist, especially not in the common areas of the Internets or in the popular cooking and baking consortiums, societies and schools.

After reading about gluten-free baking in every resource I have been able to get my eyes or hands on, I STILL do not understand the reasons that there must be potato starch AND tapioca starch in nearly every basic gluten-free flour mix. Why potato starch if tapioca starch can do everything that potato starch can do? I admit that I have not googled this question. Or, if I have, I did not get a satisfactory answer. I do not understand why sweet white rice flour should be added to a mix or not, other than that I noticed that my banana bread came out a little more tender when I added it, but that sadly, it has also made my pancakes a little gummier (an effect I did not desire). Said sweet white rice flour could also be making the elusive tender biscuit too dense or heavy. I don’t know exactly why my biscuits have sometimes come out too dense/heavy or too light and crumbly. I do not know if it is the switch to a superfine brown rice flour (which could be taking up more airspace than the more grittier Bob’s Red Mill version) is to blame, or if the new aluminum-free baking powder is affecting performance.

As of this writing, I have attempted an allergen-free biscuit at least five times with varying results. All attempts have been adapted from the basic Fannie Farmer baking powder biscuit recipe. The first two attempts were a somewhat stunning success using only sorghum flour with the addition of the appropriate amount of xanthan gum. The only problem is, the biscuits were freakishly filling and did some very strange things to our digestive systems (I’ll leave out the details of those effects). Another attempt was made with the standard gluten free flour mix that I made with Bob’s Red Mill products. Then I made the biscuits and didn’t notice that I had forgotten the xanthan gum until the results were extremely crumbly. I made the biscuits again with the same mix and they were nearly perfect, with the exception of the “gritty” texture.

So, after a year of reading in various allergen-free baking books and blogs, and upon the insistence of many gluten-free recipe authors, I finally ordered some superfine brown rice flour with the goal to eliminate as much as possible, the grit texture. I waited this long because I really didn’t want to have to order a flour. All along, I have wanted all of my recipes to be accessible to everyone but I thought, if it’s really worth it to do it, it would justify the insistence from many other gluten-free recipe authors. And really, most people can order online now and it isn’t that cumbersome. It is just a matter of waiting.

A few days later, my order of Authentic Foods superfine brown rice flour came in from Amazon. When I opened the bag, I had every member of the family come into the kitchen to feel the texture. We were almost breathless with awe. It felt powdery the way a wheat flour does. And although, you’ll get down to the smallest possible grit (that is how you know that it is STILL not exactly like wheat), it was not nearly as much gritty as with the Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Flour. With Bob’s Red Mill (BRM), you can feel the grit between your fingers almost immediately and it is a larger grit.

Superfine Flour
Superfine brown rice flour feels just like wheat flour.

I was so impressed and happy with the texture, and the potential for all of my baked items to have that wheat-like tender crumb without the grit, that I really could not wait to start working with it. I wasted no time in preparing my basic gluten-free flour mix and then went right to work on biscuit recipe, which, up to this point, has been ALMOST PERFECT.

I did another thing, too (mostly because a cake I made the other day came out tasting metallic), I also used aluminum-free baking powder instead of the alum kind because, sheesh, who needs to eat alum and taste any tone of tin to their baked products? So, make I did. Then I baked. Then we ate.

The results were abysmal.

:-/ No rise. Not tender. Dense. Kinda hard.
:-/ No rise. Not tender. Dense. Kinda hard.

It’s was like taking ten steps backward in all of my biscuit making weekends. How frustrating is it to get SO CLOSE with the sorghum and BRM mix and then this, with the flour that is supposed to make every gluten-free endeavor that much more perfect, come out so hard, so dense, and with so little rise? Ugh!

A similar disaster has been going on behind the scenes with a Boston Cream Pie (which is really cake) and I’ve been so anxious to develop really good recipes for that as well.

I’m SO VERY CLOSE to having recipes that are worth posting but I refuse to post recipes that have not been tested, or do not taste good. I tend to hate untested and untasted published recipes and won’t do that to my readers.

In the end, my fiance is right, I can’t just embark on this like the wild wheat baker I once was. I need to get out some books, do some research and know precisely how each ingredient is going to work and how it will affect the others.  The good part about this is that by the end of  THIS year, I will have compiled some comprehensive information on the function and purpose of the various flours that is hopefully more comprehensive than what is currently available. And yes, the Culinary Institute of America has not even divulged the science behind the performance of each gluten-free flour. I’ve gone to the library and searched every single gluten-free baking book for this information. The most I’ve been given is that yeast breads require higher protein flours. But why garfava flour in some recipes and garbanzo flour in others? I don’t know! And neither does anyone else except that it “seems to work.” Oh so vague! Exactly how much higher is the protein content in each of these flours? I will have to do a lot more reading and determine this myself. Unless there is a comprehensive resource out there on the science of gluten-free baking that I don’t know about.

I will say that the one place that I found some somewhat more comprehensive information on baking with gluten-free flour is from a blog called Gluten Free on a Shoestring and she has even authored a few books. While I can’t defer to this site much for totally allergen-free baking (we have to avoid dairy around here), she goes into a great explanation on the reasons for weighing flours and the ratios of flours-starches-gums that work best for her. Click Here for What You Need to Know About Gluten-Free Flour and you will find some good information. I have not tried any of the recipes yet. They look gorgeous. And if you are not allergic to diary and eggs, then these gorgeous recipes are worth a shot. (And let me know what you think of them).

As for allergen-free baking, I still defer to Cybele Pascal’s book. The recipes are great. But, unless you know about the secret of weighing flours instead of measuring them by cup, you will still end up with inconsistent results. And there is still the economy issue. I really don’t want to have to purchase egg replacer, agave nectar, and expensive organic palm oil for every recipe. Is there a way that more of those items can be made with more economical ingredients such as oil instead of shortening? I’m hoping. So far, I’ve had luck with both the banana bread, chocolate cake and pancakes using oil and applesauce instead of shortening and egg replacer.

Still more recipes to play with. Many more – with a mission for the recipes to taste good and be of good texture while be as economical and accessible as possible. With that, I want to include information on how and why each flour-starch-leavener-binder works and how to make it work consistently.  After all, everyone does not have an unlimited food budget. And everyone deserves a consistently successful Sunday biscuit breakfast, or sandwich for lunch or to have an occasional slice of their favorite Boston Cream Pie.

We will get there, young dairy-free and egg-free Glutanawans. Soon.

Now, it’s time to get that kitchen scale I’ve been meaning to pick up and get seriously scientific about this.