See Ingredients: Pick Your Flavor

Breaking Down Gluten-Free Baking Science... In An Easy, Non-Sciency Way

Does the thought of gluten-free baking make you want to fold into a pretzel?

I get it.

Traditional baking has been around long enough to provide all the must-dos and do-nots of creating a melt-in-your-mouth treat.

But…

Gluten-free baking is different.

There’s unusual techniques, tips, and tricks, from flours, leaveners, temperatures, times, and more.

Sorry...did you fold into a pretzel again?

It’s okay.

By the end of this giant gluten-free baking guide, you’ll know enough information to confidently step into the kitchen and whip up a batch of gluten-free goodness.

Table of Contents

  1. First Comes First: What Exactly Is Gluten?
  2. What Baking Ingredients Have Gluten?
  3. How Are Gluten-Free Baked Goods Different?
  4. The 12 Bare Necessities...Gluten-Free Style
  5. Making Your Own Gluten-Free Flours
  6. How to Convert Recipes to Gluten-Free
  7. Smoothing Out the Gluten-Free Kinks
    1. Mixing
    2. Bread
    3. Pie & Tarts
    4. Cakes, Muffins, & Quick Bread
    5. Cookies
  8. 5 Bonus Baking Tips
  9. Gluten-Free Recipes: Baked Goods Galore!
  10. Keep Calm & Bake On

gluten bread

First Comes First: What Exactly Is Gluten?

To understand the basics of gluten-free baking, you’ll need an idea of what gluten actually is:

A protein found in certain grains like barley, wheat, rye, spelt, and kamu. As you’re probably aware, it can often cause digestion issues and even severe allergic reactions.

Conveniently, gluten is also the backbone of what holds a typical baked goods’ elastic, bubbly, and stuck-together structure.

So when you’re baking gluten-free, you must find suitable replacements for the missing proteins if you don’t want to take the good out of baked goodness.

baking utensils

What Baking Ingredients Have Gluten?

Think about the essentials of baking…

Flour come to mind?

It is the chief source of gluten in baked products.

But hang on:

Flour isn’t the only offender.

Gluten can also sneak its way into baking powder, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla extract, and starch-based thickeners.

So when you're shopping for baking essentials, always grab certified gluten-free products when possible. 

gluten free cookies

How Are Gluten-Free Baked Goods Different?

The perfectionist’s poison:

Expectations.

When your expectations are off, you’re bound to feel defeated when your gluten-free treats don’t turn out exactly how you wanted.

Well, let’s nip these in the bud with a few simple truths:

  1. Some gluten-free goods are more crumbly.
  2. Some gluten-free goods become stale quicker. 

As yummy and delicious as baked goods are, gluten-free isn’t the same as the typical wheat-based because of the different flour combinations and lack of structure.

But don’t fret yet!

The other simple truth:

The more you practice with gluten-free ingredients, the more likely you’ll find the perfect ingredient combo for maximum taste, texture, and freshness for your unique set of taste buds.

And with the below ingredient lists and tips, you’ll be there quicker than you think!  

The Bare Necessities...Gluten-Free Style

Now that you know the basics of gluten and what to expect, it’s time to stock up on gluten-free staples. 

Because non-gluten baking is a lot more varied and diverse when it comes to results, there are more baking staples than traditionally.

But try not to get overwhelmed. 

Once you experiment with different ingredients, you’ll know which ones you probably don’t need to have on-hand all the time.

In the beginning, however, use this list as an idea of what kinds of ingredients to anticipate.

You can usually find these items in the gluten-free section of the grocery store.

Remember, these are just some of the most common!

Flours

Since flour is the forefront of baking basics, let’s start here.

All-purpose flour is the most common, and thankfully, there are quite a few store-bought, gluten-free brands to choose from if you’re not fond of making your own.

And gluten-free, whole grain flours:

Keep in mind store-bought brands are harder to alter, meaning if you don’t like a particular ingredient you can’t just remove it.

This and the fact that some brands have unhealthy preservatives are why some people opt to make their own gluten-free flour mixes to perfect them to their preferences.

See the making your own gluten-free flour section below if you’re interested, too.

Almond Flour

Yep, you guessed it.

Almond flour is made from finely milled almonds, and its fat content gives it a super-rich, buttery-like (delicious) depth.

When shopping, you might notice two different kinds:

Almond meal and almond flour.

Almond flour is usually made with the skin removed and is perfect for cakes, quick bread, and cookies according to culinary scientist Jessica Gavin, while almond meal can contain flecks of skin and is more course, great for cookies, tarts, pancakes, breading, and crumb toppings. 

When baking, it’s better to go with a finely ground almond flour, as sometimes the coarser varieties won’t hold their shape.

Almond flour brands:

Coconut Flour

Coconut flour is made from coconuts. (duh)

Coconut, similar to almond flour, gives a nice depth because of its fat contents, but it also creates a softer texture.

Coconut-haters beware!

Sometimes you just can’t mask the coconutty undertones in your baking, so you might as well stick to other flour alternatives to save your sanity.

Oat Flour

Oat flour is one of the greatest whole-grain, gluten-free flour substitutes. 

It’s also much more cost-effective than nut flours and rich in all the great nutrients oats offer, like manganese, magnesium, selenium, and phosphorus.

Oat flour brands:

Potato Flour

Who would’ve thought potato flour even existed?

Not me!

It’s great to have on hand when you’re making gluten-free yeast bread, as it attracts and holds water, producing an excellent moistness.

Notice that potato flour is different from potato starch, which you can find more about below.  

Potato flour brands:

Rice Flour

Fortunately for those with nut allergies, nut-free and gluten-free flours exist, rice flour being one of them.

Rice flour could mean a couple of different versions:

Regular long-grain rice flour, medium-grain rice flour, brown rice flour, or short “sweet” rice flour.

But don’t worry.

Most recipes specify which one you should use.

Try to avoid rice bran because it can go rancid quickly, and keep in mind that rice flour on its own in a recipe can be gritty. You usually pair it with something else to balance out the texture.

Rice flour brands:

Teff Flour

Teff flour, an ancient grain, is made from a type of millet and is used for heavier, whole-grain flour blends.

It adds extra depth, flavor, and richness to the recipe because of its heavier consistency and can bind other gluten-free flours together.

Teff flour brands:

Cornmeal

Cornmeal doesn’t add much structure but a great flavor.

You can find it in two forms:

Whole grain, ground from the whole kernel or de-germed, the germ removed to preserve ultimate freshness. 

The type doesn’t matter much to your recipes unless specified.

Cornmeal brands:

Cornstarch

Oh hello, familiar pantry ingredient.

You probably already have cornstarch sitting in your baking stash. It’s used for both gluten-free and traditional baking, mainly for its powerful thickening, structural, and moistening abilities.

Cornstarch isn’t as healthy as other starches, like potato and tapioca, because it’s made from processed corn, although organic cornstarch will lessen the likelihood of harmful pesticides or GMOs.

Organic cornstarch brands:

Arrowroot Flour

Even though ‘flour’ is in the name, arrowroot is actually in the starch category for thickening agents.

It’s extremely similar to tapioca starch in that it comes from a tropical tuber, but arrowroot retains its thickness in recipes even when frozen or thawed.

Arrowroot flour brands:

Potato Starch

Let’s break down the difference between potato starch and potato flour, as sometimes they’re used interchangeably.

Potato flour is ground up, whole potatoes. Potato starch is exclusively extracted starch from potatoes.

You might find ‘potato starch flour’ or ‘potato starch,’ which are both the same, but ‘potato flour’ is different.

By now, you probably have an idea of what starches do: 

Help to maintain structural integrity, which is greatly needed when gluten is gone.

Tapioca Starch

To make things even more confusing, ‘tapioca starch’ and ‘tapioca flour’ are the same thing in the United States.

Tapioca is extracted from the cassava root (cassava flour is also a gluten-free thing) and likes to add a yummy chewiness to baked goods like bread.

Tread carefully!

Too much tapioca can result in a rubbery feel, and I know you don’t want tires for dessert. 

Tapioca starch brands:

Xanthan Gum

What the heck is xasdlfksjdf gum?

Xanthan gum is a thickening agent or stabilizer that can improve the texture of gluten-free goods.

Remember how gluten-free recipes are often crumbly?

Xanthan gum can fix that and more, by improving rise and flavor profiles.

Feel free to use it when a recipe calls for starches or thickening agents. It’ll work like a charm.

Side note:

Healthline says those with severe wheat, corn, dairy, or soy allergies may want to consider avoiding xanthan gum, as it can cause digestive upset for some depending on how it’s sourced.

If you’re in this group, focus primarily on the starches listed above.

Xanthan gum brands:

Making Your Own Gluten-Free Flours

More of an all-natural, homemade kinda gal?

I getcha.

I mentioned earlier how much more control you have over which ingredients to swap in and out when you make your own gluten-free flour blend.

It might take a bit of experimenting to find the best one for you, and that’s okay!

You can start with these recipes:

Or, you can attempt on your own, keeping in mind that rice flour, potato flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch tend to work best for all-purpose alternatives, while teff flour, rice flour, and ground flaxseeds work great for grain alternatives.

Read How to Build a Gluten-Free Flour Blend from Scratch for a detailed look on individual flour characteristics and measurements. 

How to Convert Recipes to Gluten-Free

Maybe you’ve heard both sides of the story by now.

Because depending on who you talk to, you either have to stick to solely gluten-free recipes or traditional recipes. 

But I have a different approach:

Stick to what tastes best for you.

I think the reason why it’s either/or for some is because of personal preference. Some recipes just don’t taste great for some people, whereas others love them.

So, experiment. Figure out what you prefer. In the meantime, maybe you want to convert your Grandma’s brownie recipe to gluten-free.

To keep it simple, here’s what you need to do:

Find a 1:1 gluten-free baking flour, like Bob’s Red Mill, Cup4Cup, or make your own. Use it interchangeably with how much flour is called for, then for every cup of flour, add one teaspoon of xanthan gum.

Note: 

You won’t be able to convert yeast bread because it needs a special, gluten-free science approach. But, non-yeast breads are easy to convert. 

Smoothing Out the Gluten-Free Kinks

For just a moment, I want you to throw out everything you’ve learned from traditional baking and make a space in your mind for new, gluten-free baking rules.

Sound scary?

It doesn’t have to be. I’ve laid out everything you need to know for almost every type of baked good below.  

Bread

Measure like your life depends on it:

If there’s even a little too much flour, it will be crumbly, and if there’s too much liquid, it could sink.

Before you start, heat all liquids to 100°F and remember gluten-free breads start with batter rather than dough.

It will be soft and smooth but not very elastic because it contains less of those “sticky” proteins. 

For the best texture results, bake the bread in smaller loaf pans, halving the dough into two separate pans if needed.

Expectation check!

On the first day you baked, your loaf will probably be soft and moist, but it can dry out quickly the next day.

So eat up!

And then pop the rest in the freezer to toast for a later time.

Pie & Tarts

As you’d expect, gluten-free pie crust can be super delicate and crumbly before it’s popped in the oven.

Over time, you’ll get better at handling it.

For optimal outcomes, use a metal (preferably aluminum) pie plate and pre-bake crusts you’re using for custard pies, like pumpkin. 

Cakes & Muffins

Cake batter might be thicker and muffin batter more sticky.

But that’s okay!

If the recipe calls for eggs, you can try separating them, beating the whites on the side, then folding them in.

Otherwise:

Add a couple of tablespoons of applesauce or yogurt to promote moisture and freshness.

You’re going to want to prevent sogginess by taking them out of the pan as soon as possible (safely) and placing them on a rack to cool for a few minutes for muffins and 10+ minutes for cakes. 

Cookies

The key to great gluten-free cookies?

Chill the dough beforehand.

Cookies tend to spread on the pan and chilling the batter for at least 30 minutes will prevent too much spread and boost flavor.

Try adding nuts, chips, or fruit, too.

To always have cookies ready and waiting to bake, make big batches at a time, roll out the extra dough into cookie dough balls, and freeze them for as long as you need. 

When you want another cookie chow down, pull them out, and bake for an extra minute or so then called for.

Voila!

Gluten-free cookies on the fly.

5 Bonus Baking Tips

So by now, you know that gluten-free baking isn’t an exact science...yet.

But here are a few bonus baking tips to make it less uncertain.

1. Just Keep Mixing

Gluten-free baked goods that require rising, like muffins, cakes, and breads, usually need an electric mixer, whether it’s hand or stand. 

The more it’s thoroughly mixed, the more air permeates the batter, creating a lighter (more satisfying) texture. 

If you mix by hand, you might not achieve the best results due to baker error, like not mixing hard or fast enough.

Contrary to traditional baking, you also want to mix a lot longer than usual. 

No way to overmix here!

2. Measure Up

Do you use the dip and sweep method for measuring flour?

That’s a no-go here.

Gluten-free flours are finer and harder to pack evenly into a measuring cup, which can throw off an entire recipe if not measured correctly.

The best solution?

Use a scale and don't rely on volume measurements.

And if you don’t want to use a scale, spoon flour into the measuring cup, shaking the cup after a few additions to even it out. (Don’t pack the flour or tap the cup.)

Then use the back of a knife to scrape off the excess. 

3. Give It a Rest

The other day I made a batch of Birch Benders’ Gluten-Free Pancakes, got distracted, and ended up leaving my batter for 15 minutes before I transferred it to the griddle. 

And guess what?

Those were the best pancakes I’ve ever made.

After some research, I found that resting it gave the starches and flours extra time to absorb, resulting in a fabulous batter. 

So before you throw your goods in the oven, give it a little R&R. 

4. Rely On Your Timer For Once

You know the ‘ole toothpick comes out clean trick?

That doesn’t work here. 

You’ll almost always find that your gluten-free goods look underdone, too wet, or too soft. 

But don’t fret!

The starches just need time to cool and firm up.

Hint:

Make sure your oven is properly calibrated! 

5. Overbake

When you don’t bake enough, the extra liquid needed to counteract grittiness doesn’t have time to soak up into the mixture.

Which can then lead to a gummy texture...gross!

So bake, bake, then bake a little more.

The extra time won’t hurt it as much compared to traditional baking.

Gluten-Free Recipes: Baked Goods Galore!

Thankfully, gluten-free baking has been around long enough for all the hard work to be done for you.

Gluten-free connoisseurs have dedicated copious amounts of stellar research just for you and me to be able to enjoy our favorite fresh from the oven indulgences…without much conversion hassle.

Here are some of the best gluten-free baked good recipes:

Keep Calm & Bake On

How do you feel?

Hopefully, better and ready to take on the gluten-free game.

Whenever you get overwhelmed, just remember to come back to this article for extra need-to-knows.

I’ve got you covered!

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