If you’ve poked around on Pinterest, Instagram, or cooking blogs in the past half-decade, we hardly need to tell you that gluten-free baking is here to stay. In honor of Celiac Awareness Day on September 13, we’re diving into what exactly celiac disease is and how those gluten-free recipes can help the 1 in 141 Americans who suffer from celiac disease. And even if you’re not part of the growing population that has celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, we’ve got plenty of tips on incorporating gluten-free cooking into your diet if you so choose.
What Is Gluten and Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and any food products made with a combination of those grains. While there’s been plenty of press coverage suggesting that those following a gluten-free diet are “fakers,” celiac disease is a very real and painful disorder that remains undiagnosed in 83 percent of sufferers. Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is different from celiac disease, but it has many of the same symptoms as celiac disease, like joint pain, fatigue and gastrointestinal distress.
The best and only way to treat either issue is to avoid all products containing gluten. While that sounds simple enough, there are many foods and even drinks that have the special protein. Aside from the usual suspects, like bread, birthday cake or beer, gluten can also be found in flavored yogurt, soy sauce and deli meats. We know — it’s a sad prospect to go the rest of your life without any of your favorite foods. But that’s where gluten-free flours come in.
It’s worth noting that there are other dietary approaches, like the paleo diet, which stress an overall reduction in gluten intake for better health. Both of the experts we spoke with emphasized that, while those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity should avoid products with gluten, not everyone has these issues. In fact, gluten-free flours are usually highly processed, higher in carbs and lower in nutrients than traditional flour, says Chef Elliott Prag, a chef instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute. It’s a common myth that gluten-free is always healthier, but that’s not always the case.
“Wheat flour, like starch flour or a grain flour should be enjoyed in moderation,” says Vianesa Vargas, a nutritionist and founder of Halftime Foods. “Just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthier for you.”
The Science of Gluten-Free Baking
Wheat flour containing gluten is what gives bread and other baked goods their structure and helps them bind. Gluten-free flours do not inherently have the same properties. Vargas says, “When you replace wheat flour with a gluten-free flour, you will find you may still need to supplement the flour with gums and emulsifiers to give your baked goods the mouthfeel associated with traditional dough.” Going gluten-free can also cause baked goods to spread and lose their shape.
The solution, says Prag, is to mix your own gluten-free flour, combining a single-ingredient flour, like rice flour or almond flour, with a starchy binder, like tapioca powder. (When you buy gluten-free flour mixes — say, a pancake mix, for example — this is what you’re purchasing.) As Prag explains, “You can use any [flour] to different effect … There isn’t one flour blend that works with everything. You’re coupling it with different liquids, different fats and different amounts of liquids.” Your best bet, he says, is to collect a variety of flours and binders and experiment with your mixes. The combination of flours you use to bake a cake or a loaf of bread may be different from the mix you use to prepare a batch of muffins or a quiche. Here are three of the Prag’s favorite gluten-free flour mixes to help get you started.
3 Gluten-Free Flours for Everyday Cooking
1. The Natural Gourmet Institute Mix:
- 2 cups white rice flour
- 2/3 cup potato starch
- 1/3 cup tapioca starch
2. An easy, all-purpose flour:
- 1:1 ratio of Sorghum flour and tapioca powder
- 24 ounces white rice flour
- 5 ounces brown rice flour
- 7 ounces potato starch
- 3 ounces tapioca starch
- 3/4 ounces nonfat milk powder
Choosing a Gluten-Free Baking Flour
Ready to mix up your own flour blend? Here’s the low-down on some of the healthiest and most versatile gluten-free flours. (Hint: Chef Prag suggests you can cheat the system. “Collect recipes that work rather than try to think of a flour blend for each recipe.” We’ve included tried-and-true blogger recipes with each flour to help you out.)
Buckwheat flour is high in protein and other nutrients, and has a strong flavor, which can be described as almost bitter, like “darkly toasted bread or a hoppy beer.” Try buckwheat flour in lemon buckwheat waffles or pitas. Buckwheat’s also popular in soba noodles or whole as a substitute for rice.
Almond flour is, as you might expect, sweet and nutty. It’s also higher in fat than most other grain flours, and high in protein, fiber, and tons of other nutrients. You can use it in just about any baked good, including breads, cookies, pancakes, brownies and more.
Rice flour, which can be brown or white, is a great basic flour with very little flavor of its own. You can use rice flour for baking as well as breading for fried foods. According to Vargas, “Nutritionally, the best gluten-free flour to cook or bake with would have to be brown rice flour. It still contains the bran, and has more protein, fat and nutrients than white flour.” Our favorite rice flour recipes include Indian flat breads, like roti and dosa, blueberry muffins and peanut butter cookies.
With all of these delicious recipes to choose from, it’s clear that a gluten-free diet is nothing to fear. You can learn more about determining whether you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity here.