Being gluten-free anytime of year can be difficult, but it is particularly challenging during the holiday season.  So many baked items that represent family traditions are off the menu due to the gluten-containing wheat flour used to create them. Understanding some basic culinary science and  finding the right flour combination can be the way to keep Grandma’s cookies or Pop-Pop’s pumpkin pie on the dessert buffet.

Gluten is a combination of two proteins that, when mixed with fluid, create long, sticky strands in a batter or dough particularly suited to making baked goods light, fluffy, and moist.  Achieving a similar affect without this protein is tough, but it can be done!

When it comes to a cup-for-cup gluten-free flour to replace regular flour, a mix of two to three flours is better than one. Each gluten-free flour has different properties, such as protein content, fiber content, nutrient value, weight, etc.,  all of which affect the end product.  Due to the differences in physical and chemical properties, it can be difficult to find the best mixture that will end up hitting the right mark in your recipe. Fortunately, there are many pre-mixed cup-for-cup gluten-free flours available that you can experiment with – but you can also make your own.

Naturally gluten-free flours include coconut, oat , almond, rice, tapioca, chickpea, buckwheat, and our new favorite, teff.  Each flour offers a different texture, unique flavor, and wide array of nutrients.  Before deciding on which blend to use, check the label to ensure that the flour has not been produced in the same facility as wheat [by law it must state this following the list of ingredients.]  Also, consider the flavor and how it will work with your recipe.

Here are four tips to get you on the path to gloriously gluten-free baking:

Blend your own flour: Most recipes for gluten-free flours follow the same principles:  A mix of light/heavier flours based on protein content [flours listed above] + starch [tapioca flour] + a binder [xanthan gum].  For cookies, try 1 cup oat flour + 1 cup almond flour + 1 cup tapioca flour + 1 1/4 teaspoons xantham gum.  For muffins, a combination of 1 cup buckwheat flour + 1 cup brown rice flour + 1 cup arrowroot starch works well with baking soda as a rising agent.  Experiment with existing recipes, such as our Pumpkin Buckwheat Muffins or Grain-free Pumpkin Scones, to see how different flour blends result in different textures and flavors.

Lower the baking temperature and cooking time: Depending on the type of flour mixture you choose to use in your recipe, you might need to experiment in your own kitchen with your oven [they are all different and sometimes temperamental.] Finding the right time and temperature can be trial and error, so watch carefully. Gluten-free baked goods tend to brown and dry out easier, but after turning out a few recipes, you’ll find the sweet spot.  We recommend following several recipes first before venturing out on your own – the learning curve will be steeper.

Add moisture:  In addition to providing elasticity, bounce, and fluffiness to baked goods, gluten is also a moisture binder. Without it, the end product can be dry.  To avoid this, be sure your recipe has some ingredients that add moisture, such as puréed pumpkin, coconut oil, mashed banana, or maple syrup.  Many processed gluten-free products contain a lot of added sugar, as sugar also has moisture binding properties.

Store properly:  If you are going to batch cook your gluten-free items [which we highly recommend], be sure to freeze what you will not eat within 24-hours.  Gluten-free baked goods go stale very quickly, which is why many prepared gluten-free baked items live in the freezer section of the grocery store.  Note that storing baked items in the refrigerator will accelerate the staling process – after baking, let your product cool to room temperature then wrap tightly and pop in the freezer.

Written by: Emily DaCosta, nutrition intern

Reviewed and edited by:  Jeanne Petrucci, MS, RDN