Happy Wednesday everyone! Today I’m bringing you a veeery special treat: a guest-post from EG Nelson, vegan baker champion, and founder of Hay Gurl Hay Cafe! I’ve known EG for almost three years now, and we bonded pretty quickly over our love of vegan baking. But I am no where near as awesome at it as her. (I would know, as I am lucky enough to sample her sweets quite a bit). Today she’s here to talk about her new foray into gluten-free baking. She provides tons of super helpful information, and be sure to read all the way through for the cookie recipe at the bottom!
There is a lot of buzz about gluten-free lifestyles these days. More and more people are discovering that they have gluten intolerances or sensitivities, and others are giving gluten the heave-ho due to a number of other health benefits associated with reduced gluten intake. Personally I’ve got no problem with gluten, but I think any time you make a decision to limit your dietary intake of anything, you become more conscious of what you are eating, which is a very good thing. The main reason I’ve made the effort to learn about gluten free cooking, however, is because being vegan, I know what it is like to be the girl at the party who watches everyone eat when there’s nothing available for my dietary needs, and/or to drop a bunch of money to make something to “share” and by the time everyone tries the weirdo vegan thing, there is maybe one bite left for me. Besides that, working with a new palette of ingredients provides a new challenge and helps you tap into your creativity a bit when the same old starts to get a little repetitive.
So, below are a few tips for the vegan interested in embarking upon a gluten-free adventure.
Before you begin: you are probably reading Rebel Grrrl Kitchen because you are at least in part interested in ditching refined foods full of crap. Well, just like any vegan diet can be full of garbage, so too can a gluten-free diet. The starches used in gluten free baking are particularly refined, but mimic the texture and crumb you get in traditional baked goods. You can experiment with eliminating starches, but keep in mind that your final product will be more dense.
1. (Cheap) Supplies. For gluten free baking you are going to need a variety of flours, starches, and gums. Some good staples to have are brown and white rice flour, tapioca flour and starch, potato flour and starch, sorghum flour, some different nut flours, cornstarch, and xanthan or guar gum. If you’re new to the whole thing and want to experiment more before presenting your hypothetical gluten free show cake for consumption, you can typically find lots of gluten free supplies in East Asian grocery stores, which usually carry extremely cheap staples such as potato starch, tapioca flour and starch, and rice flours. They will be pre-packaged and sold in about one-pound bags usually for less than $2.00. You can also try buying small quantities from the bulk bins and the nearest co-op before taking the plunge. Keep in mind that if you are baking for someone who is a true celiac, the Asian store and bulk bins won’t cut it because of the risk of contamination, and you will have to buy pre-packaged items from a gluten-free facility. However, if you are just baking for someone who has a sensitivity, you should be ok with the cheapies and bulk.
In terms of equipment, you’ll probably want to invest in a good sifter (about $3.00) and a wire whisk, plus an electric mixer to incorporate as much air into your baked good as possible (unless you are going for a dense crumb) since you will rely much more on air for volume in gluten-free baking than other varieties.
2. Get poly with your flours. As noted above, you are always going to want to use a mix of flours when you gluten-free bake. I haven’t spent a lot of time on the whys of this one, but I’ll just say that different flours have different protein and starch ratios, meaning they react differently with liquids. You just can’t just replace wheat flour cup-for-cup with gluten-free flour. Well you could, but your product would probably not turn out very well. You want to make sure your flours have a good blend fat, protein and starches. Fats provide tenderness and the amount of fat impacts how dry ingredients react with water. Proteins add structure (not as much as those with gluten) and some browning. Starches are stripped of most nutritional content (fiber, protein) and help give gluten-free goods a more delicate crumb. I’ve found a mixture of 2 rice:1 tapioca:1 sorghum flour to be a good blend for cakes, muffins and quickbreads.
Note that starches and flours are not necessarily the same and therefore cannot always be substituted for one another; potato flour is made from the entire potato whereas potato starch is more refined—the proteins and fibers have been removed and only the starch remains. Therefore, the starch has less “flour” like properties and functions as a thickener like cornstarch. Whereas a flour may be used as a structure builder and to provide nutrients, starches are used to obtain a more springy, finer-crumbed product. Tapioca flour and starch, known for their ability to brown and bring an airiness to your final product, can be used interchangeably. If you are modifying a conventional recipe that calls for a cornstarch, add a bit more water and increase baking time, or try using another starch (such as rice or tapioca) or an instant starch that gels at a lower temperature to compensate for its ability to absorb liquids. Coconut flour is particularly absorbent, so you will want to add more water if you are substituting for another flour.
3. Gum up the works. Without the addition of xanthan or guar gum, your baked good will have a tendency to be crumbly. Why? The gluten formed by wheat proteins is a structure builder. Luckily, gums mimic this property. Gums also help trap air, thus add volume. Gums are expensive, but a little goes a long way. For heavier doughs like bread and pizza, use about 1 tsp gum per cup of flour. For cakes, quickbreads, cookies and bars, about ½ tsp or even less per cup of flour should suffice. Always be careful not to add too much—gums will thicken over time (particularly as things cool). I’ve had a number of episodes where I’ve said, “why isn’t this thickening?” after two minutes of mixing, then dumped in a bunch more xanthan and ended up with a sad pile of viscous sludge when it was all said and done. So, be patient and trust that it’ll do its thing. If you are skeptical of gums, you can try adding more starch (such as tapioca) or flaxseed or chia seed “eggs” (1 Tbs flaxseed + 2-3 Tbs water).
4. Mix-and-match mixing. People often don’t think their mixing method is all that important. But, how you mix any baked good can really make a difference. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “there’s no gluten, so mix it however you want!” Wrong! Your mixing method will at least somewhat impact the final crumb and texture of your good, so you should choose a method based on what kind of final consistency you are going for in the finished product.
Many (but not all) pastry recipes call for the creaming method, which blends fats with sugars first and adds them to dry ingredients. In traditional baking, this technique traps air in the fats and keeps gluten formation at bay, because for maximum volume, you want your gluten structures to build as these gasses expand from the heat of the oven. Mixing glutinous batters before they go in the oven starts gluten formation and toughens them up. So, in that sense, you can’t overmix a gluten free batter and worry about the structures solidifying ahead of time because there are none to be formed. But! Getting as much air in your batter and having your oven, etc. ready to go as soon as you have mixed it so that reactions take place in the presence of heat (which is a catalyst and for the most part makes everything in the baking world go faster and more intense) will help your foundation “set” as air bubbles expand. Using solid fats versus oils will also help, since they have some water trapped in them, which will expand as steam when heated.
You may notice when baking gluten-free that your product comes out dry, which usually is not fun. Learning your flour properties as described above or adding a bit more oil, as wheat-free flours do not “stick” as well to fats as their gluten-y counterparts, will help moisten your batters and doughs. Two-stage mixing is a one-bowl method in which you add your dry ingredients and sweeteners with your fat, along with enough liquid to form a batter (no more than about 75%) and is used in conventional baking for a denser, softer, “melty” crumb. The idea here is to first coat the flour/starch particles with oil so that they are less reactive with water/moisture. In addition, the sugar sucks up some of the moisture in the batter so it can’t react with the flour. The result is a finer, tender crumb. You’ll want this method if you want a moist, dense cake or a crumbly pie crust.
5. Sift. It. Out! A potential downside to two stage mixing is that your product will be denser and heavier, something you will not want if you are going for a stacked show cake, for example (though in general stacking gluten free cakes more than 2 layers is risky business). The difference in the two methods is not as noticeable with gluten-free baking, since the structure-builder in question is by default absent to begin with. Since you may choose a one-bowl method, another way to incorporate air into your batter is to sift the flours. I think this is always a good idea in general to ensure that your leaveners, binders, etc. are evenly distributed. All you need to do is get a mesh strainer and a whisk. Place the mesh over a bowl, dump in your dry goods and go to town with that whisk until they’re all in the bowl.
Wow, that was a lot of info. Now, are you ready to bake??
Then I suppose it is time for me to put my money where my mouth is and give you a recipe. Here is one that I have adapted from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar and frequently sell out of at the Midtown Farmer’s Market. If you are not gluten sensitive, you should try making a batch of both the gluten free and glutinous versions to compare and contrast the flavor, crumb, mouthfeel, etc. This cookie has a subtle sweetness and a crumbly texture like a pecan sandie; if you want it more chewy, add ½ tsp of xanthan or guar gum when mixing your dry ingredients.
Equipment you’ll need:
- Cookie sheet
- Measuring utensils
- Parchment paper or vegetable shortening for greasing the cookie sheet
- Food processor
- Food scale (optional)
- Double boiler (pot of water plus large stainless steel bowl) or a stainless steel saucepan
- A good spatula for scraping food processor and stirring the melted chocolate
- Your oven (kind of a no-brainer)
- 3 oz tofu (try coconut yogurt if you are allergic to soy)
- 1/3 cup canola oil
- 2 Tbsp nondairy milk
- Up to 1 1/2 Tbsp water (1 Tbsp = 3 tsp; you do the math)
- ½ cup cane sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ cup coconut flour
- ½ cup brown rice flour
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut
- 1/2 semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 tsp vegetable shortening
Ready, set, go!
1. Preheat your oven 350 degrees.
2. Puree the tofu in a food processor. Add the canola oil and nondairy milk and blend. Add the sugar and vanilla and blend one more time.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the coconut flour, brown rice flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the shredded coconut to the bowl and mix again. Add all the contents of the bowl to the food processor and pulse blend until mixed and clumps form.
4. Grease a cookie sheet or line with parchment (parchment is a better idea if you are not concerned about wasting paper since these guys are delicate and will crumble if stuck to badly. It’ll also come in handy for the chocolate part…).
5. Drop batter by spoonfuls onto the paper. If you want consistency you can weigh each “spoonful” of batter on a scale – about 2 oz each. You can also shape the drops into uniform balls for a consistent appearance. If you find that they are too dry and difficult to shape, add your water ½ tsp at a time until you can pack them in a ball. (This is the coconut flour sucking up all the liquid!) These cookies will not spread much so you can bake them closer together on the pan though 2 inches apart is recommended.
5. Bake 10-14 minutes until bottoms are slightly brown. Cool at least 15 minutes before step 6.
6. In a double boiler or over super-duper low heat (!!!) melt the chocolate chips with the vegetable shortening. If you are not using a double boiler, watch carefully and stir constantly to make sure chocolate does not burn. When fully melted, cool ever so slightly, and dip bottoms of your cookies in the chocolate and replace on the parchment. If you aren’t using parchment, re-grease your cookie sheet before placing the dipped cookies on it.
7. Cool in the refrigerator and serve when chocolate firms. (The chocolate bottoms help hold the more crumbly, gluten free version of this cookie together.)
8. Revel in the fact that you just made some dope cookies and consume them accordingly.