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Solving the GF Flour Mix Mystery

PART I

When we first learn about the niche of baking without wheat, one question typically comes to mind. “How can you possibly bake bread without wheat?” The mere thought of making bread without “flour” may initially seem like trying to solve a mystery without clues or attempting to play Scrabble® without vowels. But for most of us self-proclaimed foodies armed with varying degrees of knowledge in the area of traditional baking with wheat flour, the scenario is rather similar when we first decide to become a GF sleuth. Our first gluten-free (GF) baking adventure is typically packed with intrigue and may seem daunting at first, but with a bit of investigating, we quickly find a trail of hot tips and leads that unfold before our eyes, unraveling the mystery one GF flour at a time.

In the beginning, we discover a new ingredient vernacular is used and quickly our eyes, ears and palates transform into sensitive antennae as we tune in closely to learn about the world of alternative flours that do not contain gluten (the gluey protein found in wheat, barley, and rye that millions of Americans can not stomach, literally). We discover that some of the most commonly used GF flours include white rice flour, brown rice flour, potato starch flour, and tapioca flour. We also learn about other GF flours and grains that are not as commonly used but offer valuable baking features and nutritional benefits such as soy flour, Garfava flour, arrowroot flour, sorghum flour, amaranth, quinoa, flax seed flour, buckwheat flour, chestnut flour, corn flour and pinto bean flour. With this knowledge, many of us eliminate some GF flours as options due to other food sensitivities besides gluten. We are also introduced to the peculiar ingredient called Xanthan Gum (pronounced Zan-thun), a critical link in providing “stretch” to help build structure and bind together a gluten-free bread.

As the GF mystery further unfolds, we roll up our sleeves, don our aprons and eagerly or cautiously, depending on our baking personality, dive into the task of experimenting with GF flours in our own kitchens. We even talk about GF ingredients with our friends and family as if practicing a brand new language, the gluten-free tongue or GF Speak if you will. But when first starting out, we naturally draw upon our knowledge of traditional methods of baking, but soon learn and reluctantly admit that we should table much of what we know about traditional baking and start fresh with a new slate. We try recipes gathered from GF cookbooks, publications, organization websites, friends and family. Our first GF baking attempts yield results ranging from “Hmmm…that’s not quite what I expected” and “This tastes pretty good” to “Wow! This is so delicious I can’t believe there’s no wheat in it!” Thankfully, for most of us, our GF baking and tasting experiences delightfully improve each time as we try different recipes and learn from our not so successful first attempts. After a few successful efforts that we deem to be delicious by our epicurean standards, our palate adopts a strong appreciation for the new gluten-free way as the fond memories of the tastes, smells and textures of wheat baked goods fade away and we become more accustomed to and satisfied with our own delicious GF creations.

And so the initial mystery of baking with gluten-free flours loses the ambiguity it once had as we increase our knowledge of the art. But as we hone our GF baking skills further in pursuit of ultimate satisfaction if not perfection, the GF mystery presents itself yet again. For the gluten-free epicure, the natural urge to understand the art and science behind the GF Flour Mix in baking is like wanting to know the different taste components of grapes in wine, the percentage of cocoa content in fine dark chocolate, or the particular qualities and growing regions of olives in 100% Extra Virgin olive oil.

So then, what constitutes an optimal GF Flour Mix you ask? What flours work best together? Why are some flours more appropriate than others? What are their key qualities that help create a quality baked product? The art of gluten-free baking has come a long way since the time when gluten-free breads were widely known for their dry and crumbly texture, brick-like weight and lack luster taste. But slowly and surely, the mystery of baking without wheat began to unravel. Today, we can enjoy GF breads and baked goods that rival their wheat-based counterparts with tastes and textures that amaze us. And for this we can be grateful to the pioneers in the field of gluten-free baking who have spent years of exhaustive research and experimentation in concocting GF Flour Mixes that yield the ecstatic “I can’t believe it’s not wheat” response. We can thank leading GF experts such as Bette Hagman, Carol Fenster, Beth Hillson, and Dana Korn. They have discovered many of the secrets to gluten-free baking, helping to solve the GF mystery for all of us to quickly benefit from.

If you are an artisan GF home baker in training, having an all-purpose GF Flour Mix at the ready for a quality wheat flour replacement which works well for virtually anything you want to make that traditionally calls for wheat, is a boon. As you search for a GF Flour Mix to make in a large quantity, experimentation is always recommended. But before we recommend a few GF Flour Mixes to try, the following basic grassroots clues help shed light on the art of creating a good quality all-purpose GF Flour Mix to replace the wheat flour in your baking:

GF FLOUR MIX MYSTERY CLUE #1: A Flour Combo Works Best
A combination of GF flours is important to making a transitional GF Mix for breads and pastries. Rice flour is a cornerstone ingredient for much of GF baking, but if you simply substitute rice flour for wheat flour, you can create a gritty mess that will produce a product resembling that of a brick. For example, brown or white rice flour works well in combination with potato flour and tapioca flour. The fine powdery quality of potato starch flour makes the dough lighter helping to balance and smooth out the “gritty” texture of rice flour while tapioca flour helps prevent crumbling, assists browning and provides a chewy quality to your bread.

GF FLOUR MIX MYSTERY CLUE #2: The Flour Ratio Is Key
When combining GF flours for your mix, the ratios are also important because each flour has a unique texture and quality of absorption. For your GF Flour Mix, rice flour serves as a good base flour to which you add potato flour starch and “polish” with tapioca flour. Not all GF flour blends have to be made with rice flour as the headlining flour, but according to Carol Fenster of Savory Palate, Inc., potato starch usually comprises no more than approximately 33% of the mix while tapioca flour typically accounts for about 20% of your mix. While ratios of these flours can vary depending on your recipes, when you are making a GF Flour Mix in bulk for multi uses these proportions serve as a general guideline.

GF FLOUR MIX MYSTERY CLUE #3: The Flour Stretch Is Critical
Baking with gluten-free flours requires additional tender loving care to make it work. Without gluten, you do not have the key factor of pliability that helps you work the dough and keep the bread together after it is baked. So, you must add extendibility to your dough with xanthan gum, the most widely used “protein” replacement. Guar gum is an alternative to xanthan gum. But, once again, the mystery ensues when you ponder how much xanthan gum to add to your GF Flour Mix. Thankfully, Bette Hagman has already cracked the “stretch factor” case and recommends a specific formula for adding xanthan gum to your GF Flour Mix. According to Hagman: add ¾ teaspoon per cup of flour for breads; ½ teaspoon per cup of flour for cakes; and ¼ to ½ teaspoon per cup of flour for cookies. Because GF flours lack the stretchy protein known as gluten, in addition to xanthan gum you will need to add more leavening or protein to your recipe such as egg whites, gelatin, or dry milk powder. (Source: The Gluten-Free Gourmet Revised Edition by Bette Hagman, page 39).

With these clues in mind, the GF Flour Mix mystery comes out of the dark and the following recipes for a GF Flour Mix are a great place to start in your GF baking adventure. As you uncover a variety of other GF Flour Mix options created by experts, you’ll find very basic flour blends to more complex ones. Discover which mix suits your tastes best and enjoy branching out to experiment with other flour combinations as you are guided by these basic principles. Is there one GF Flour Mix above all others that is coined the absolute ultimate? No. But, ultimately, the best GF Flour Mix is the one that pleases your palate and baking inclinations most while being suitable to any food sensitivities you have.

SUGGESTED WHEAT FLOUR REPLACEMENTS


Bette Hagman recommends the following two mixes in her book, The Gluten-Free Gourmet Revised Edition:

Formula:
2 parts white rice flour
2/3 part potato starch flour
1/3 part tapioca flour
For 9 Cups:
6 cups white rice flour
2 cups potato starch flour
1 cup tapioca flour
   
Formula:
2/3 part Garfava bean flour
1/3 part sorghum flour
1 part cornstarch
1 part tapioca flour
For 9 Cups:
2 cups Garfava bean flour
1 cup sorghum flour
3 cups cornstarch
3 cups tapioca flour

Source: The Gluten-Free Gourmet Revised Edition
by Bette Hagman, Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Page 38


Carol Fenster recommends the following mix in her book, Gluten-Free 101 – Easy, Basic Dishes Without Wheat:

1 ½ cups sorghum flour
1 ½ cups potato starch or cornstarch
1 cup tapioca flour
½ cup corn flour or almond flour or bean flour or chestnut flour

Source: Gluten-Free 101 – Easy, Basic Dishes Without Wheat
by Carol Fenster, Savory Palate, Inc.
Page 41

 

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