Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gluten Free Baking Experiments

OK. I know it's a little on the late side for new year resolutions. But it's only February, so it's close enough. My resolution? To bake gluten-free within my home.

The more I learn about gluten-free foods the more my curiosity has been tickled. Gluten, like corn byproducts, salt, and sugar, is found in all sorts of foods if you look at food labels. Turns out it is even found in soy sauce! You logically think soy sauce would be gluten-free, but apparently it's not.

Then I'm learning that when it comes to dietary restrictions, gluten-free is the probably the easiest to work around. (Now before those with celiac disease get all defensive, I KNOW that there are so many other issues like eating out at restaurants, etc. that you have to deal with. But I'm talking purely in terms of finding cooking alternatives.) There are so many alternatives in terms of flours and pastas, etc. that you can still pretty much make anything with simple substitutions.

That's why I figure, why not go gluten-free at home? Sure, I don't need to as I have no allergies at all. But if there's an abundance of gluten-full food out there in the world, I can eat that when I leave my home. I can get my gluten and wheat products when I order a pizza or chomp on bread at a restaurant. I can enjoy brownies, cookies, and cakes baked the normal way, with wheat flour, everywhere else. I'll just not bake with it at home and in that way open a whole new world of experimenting at home. It will open a new door to adventures in baking.

To start out I decided to find the gluten-free store I had heard was located on J Street. On a furlough Friday I took off to find the Gluten-Free Specialty store at 2612 J Street. I also wanted to meet Sacramento food blogger Debbie of Gluten Free Adventures, who also works there. Turns out the owner, Melanie, also has a blog for the store at Gluten Free Specialty.

The store is small but Debbie says that they have plans to expand to at least twice the size. They have been in business for two years and I could tell that they were doing quite well. The shelves were certainly packed with all sorts of food items. Although everything in the store is gluten-free, they also carry foods in regards to other food allergies such as soy, lactose, yeast, etc.

We talked a little about my baking decision and how to know when to use what flour. Debbie explained that you needed to always have a mixture of at least three or four flour substitutes (like potato starch, rice flour, and tapioca flour together). There was a shelving unit filled with all the flour alternatives sold individually. But you have to be willing to buy all the different types and then mix them up yourself.

Debbi also pointed out many prepackaged flour mixes if you want to avoid making your own mixtures. One of her favorites was the Gluten Free Mama brand with the almond flour. I'm a fan of almond meal/flour and so I bought a small bag of that. She explained that this brand didn't include the xanthan gum but I had already purchased that a few days ago at the Coop.

Xanthan gum is also used in gluten-free baking. Since the gluten found in wheat must be omitted, xanthan gum is used to give the dough or batter a "stickiness" that would otherwise be achieved with the gluten.

Debbie explained that baking with the different flour substitutes really is a bit of experimentation and finding out what you like. Each substitute has different properties and so it will influence the final products taste, texture, and appearance. Because you don't have gluten to provide the binding 'glue' that some baked goods need, you have to expect these differences.

Off I went home with my bag of flour and thoughts of my next baking experiments. I knew I wanted to tackle lemon bars next. I have my yearly abundance of lemons thanks to my giant tree. I also knew that lemon bar crust is supposed to be a flaky shortbread and so it probably would not suffer from an alternate flour. It was also Valentine's Day weekend and the ex-hubby loves lemons. I figured lemon bars were an easy and nice little V Day gift in exchange for his buying dinner. The lemon bars came out great. Just as I thought, the crust had a nice crumbly texture but held up enough to keep the bar form.

I figured the next big test was chocolate chip cookies. I opted to use the NY Times recipe that I made a few months ago and just sub the flour. In that recipe, time was important to age and produce the complex flavors. So I made the dough and then stuck it in the fridge to age.

I baked them up today and you would never know the difference taste-wise. The texture, though, suffered a little in comparison when I had made them with wheat flour. These really spread out flat on the pan and crumbled easily.

I'll continue my gluten-free baking and learning more about the different substitutions. I'm excited about this new baking adventure and will certainly keep sharing via the blog.
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