gluten-free flour 101 (plus grain-free focaccia), with elizabeth barbone
GUESTS ARE MORE frequently on restricted diets, and I need some recipes to accommodate—especially gluten-free ones. Beyond that, I want help decoding all those packages at the market of familiar-sounding but also completely unfamiliar flours. While they’re milled from plants I know—almond and coconut, sorghum or garbanzo, brown rice and millet—what do you do with them? Which works for what use, and what do they taste like, anyhow?
Apparently I am not alone in my curiosity. I took a class with Elizabeth Barbone of glutenfreebaking dot com, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who said that at many of her workshops, everyone is happy to just talk flours because it is so perplexing when you’re on a restricted diet.
She also said that as in my case, many of her students have no food allergies themselves, but attend class in behalf of someone else. In the room were grandparents wanting to bake for their grandkids, an older sister with her younger sister who had severe food allergies, plus parents, and friends. (She’s giving another class near me, in Hillsdale, NY, in May; details on that.)
Elizabeth, author of the new book “World’s Easiest Paleo Baking” and of two titles on gluten-free cooking and baking before that, gave me an expert guided tour of all those ingredients and more insights into the mechanics of baking with them. Read along or listen to the February 29, 2016 edition of the public-radio podcast using the player below (or at this link).
Enter to win a copy of Elizabeth’s newest book at the bottom of the page—and also get her gluten-free Paleo focaccia recipe right now.
my gluten-free paleo baking q&a with elizabeth barbone
Q. Your bio on glutenfreebaking dot com explains that you were born with severe food allergies. So I have to ask: why did you go to professional cooking school?
A. [Laughter.] That is a great question, and I actually went to cooking school because of those allergies. I was born, as my mother likes to joke, allergic to everything. I had dairy allergies, I was egg-allergic—those two have resolved—but I am still allergic to most tree nuts, and I can’t do soy, sesame, I have celiac disease so I can’t eat wheat or gluten.
Q. Oh my goodness.
A. Yes, it’s a lot, but I was gifted with a Mom who loved to bake. I loved watching her in the kitchen. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of recipes available for food-allergic folks. So she did really, really well, but I wanted to learn sort of the backbone of baking science: What does flour do? What does sugar bring to a recipe besides sweetness?
So off to the Culinary Institute of America I went, never intending to work in a bakeshop, never intending to work in food service. I wanted to learn the mechanics of baking so I could take that and then apply it to allergen-friendly baking.
Q. Because you wanted to taste some of those familiar flavors—you have anecdotes in the book, like the whoopee pie that the neighbor’s Mom had for snack time and you couldn’t have any of. Not that we all crave whoopee pies all day long but you know what I mean: It’s those formative things, and kids wanting to be able to be like the other kids.
A. Exactly. My lunch looked very different from everyone else’s, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but I certainly noticed it as a child.
Even as an adult I notice it sometimes—I’ll go to a wedding or to someone’s home for dinner and I can tell they feel really anxious about what they’re going to serve me. So being at the table has always brought lots of joy, but also a little bit of trepidation, and sometimes feeling more than a little left out.
Q. Though you have done previous books on gluten-free baking and cooking, this new one called “World’s Easiest Paleo Baking.” What does that mean? I think we always think it means being a “meathead,” as I always say (because I am a vegetarian, so I say other people are meatheads). [Laughter.]
A. And that’s exactly what I thought. I actually met Michelle Tam, who has this fantastic blog Nom Nom Paleo. We were at a conference together, and she said, “Do you do Paleo baking?” And I had no idea what she meant. I had the reaction, “Paleo? Doesn’t that mean all you eat is meat all the time?”
Q. Right. Lamb-chop cupcakes.
A. [Laughter.] I learned pretty quickly, and she was very kind to clue me in, that folks who are following Paleo diets eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Most include meat in their diet, though there are some vegetarian Paleos out there, but most do include meat. They also avoid grains—no grains—and no legumes. So what do you do with that?
With so many of my readers, it was amazing how quickly I went from talking about gluten-free to when suddenly people had questions about grain-free baking.
How you bake with almond flour? How do you bake with coconut flour? I wanted to bake along with them so I could answer some questions. That was my first introduction to Paleo.
In the book it means no grains and no dairy. Some Paleo folks include dairy in their diet; others do not, so I just avoided it.
Q. So if it’s grain-free it’s also gluten-free?
Q. So let’s talk about flours. I shop at a food coop and that shelf just keeps growing—it’s got more things on it. I’m fascinated, and they range in price and color and there is a lot going on in what used to be just “white” and “wheat.” [Laughter.]
Your adventure personally started a bit before the Paleo flours, so maybe we go back a bit?
A. I think it’s good to stop back and ask why folks want to bake gluten-free. Many people do because they have celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder—or they have other dietary restrictions, or perhaps they just don’t feel good if they include wheat and other gluten grains in their diet. What that means for them is no wheat, rye, barley. Oats are sort of in this gray area, depending on how they are processed. Those are big gluten-containing grains: wheat, rye and barley.
So when I first started baking gluten-free, we were lucky if we could find white-rice flour at the grocery store. If we were really lucky we might have found brown-rice flour and sorghum flour, and that was it.
Like you said, now you go in and there is millet flour, garbanzo-bean flour, coconut flour—and these are all gluten-free flours and they all behave very differently. They behave differently from wheat flour, and differently from each other. That’s where it gets a little confusing if you’re trying to bake gluten-free.
Q. So this is where your Culinary Institute of America training comes in. I had to crack up in the book or on your website where you confess that with an average recipe that the testing might take 30 attempts to get the recipe right—30 tries. It’s not like you go, “I think I’m going to make some blah-blah and this is what I’m going to throw in it and then that’s done.” Thirty times around to get it right.
A. And I’m a bit of a pain when it comes to getting the texture just right. I think it’s good to admit that any gluten-free flour—no coconut flour or white-rice flour behaves like wheat flour. I think it’s a bit of wrong-headed thinking to try to apply the rules of wheat flour to gluten-free baking.
If we can talk about that for a second—even though we’re talking about gluten-free baking:
Gluten is so exciting and so essential. It provides these long, elastic strands in baking. That means if you’re making pizza dough—we’ve all seen in thee pizzeria where someone tosses the pizza dough above their head. It’s the strands of gluten that’s allowing that to happen.
With gluten-free baking we don’t have those long, elastic strands. Our bread can very dense and very heavy, so we not only look to the flours to bring structure, but we also look to other ingredients—like eggs.
A lot of times in gluten-free bread if it’s what we would know as a “lean dough” in traditional baking, that would just be flour, water, salt and yeast. In gluten-free baking we tend to add eggs, so we have that protein structure.
Q. Oh, I see.
A. So we’re not just looking at the flour, but what everything brings to the recipe.
Q. So again you applied your learning from your traditional culinary training, and you also acknowledged that it’s not going to be the same—we won’t have the long strands of elasticity that we do with wheat or rye or barley. So we’re doing something slightly different—though nevertheless, we crave certain things. We want a yellow cake, or a pizza crust, or such-and-such muffin. We still want these familiar forms.
A. Exactly. And for cakes and cookies, they actually can be quite similar. For breads, they can be quite different—and different isn’t always bad. The beauty of these flours is that wheat flour can be a little bit boring—it’s bland. There was a time in my life before I was diagnosed with celiac disease that I could eat wheat, so I know what it tastes like.
Sorghum flour and millet flour are very, very flavor for, which is wonderful. Coconut flour is super-flavorful. So although we’re giving up a little in the texture department and the workability department, we gain so much in the flavor department.
I have lots of folks who are not gluten-free for any specific reason, but there are some gluten-free bake treats that they love, because the flavor is really good. It’s really intense, and you tend to use less sugar. It’s a different way of thinking about baked good.
Q. That was what was interesting at the class I came to that you taught. There was a cookie made with almond flour [above, and recipe at this link] and it had very few other ingredients, and you only put a very small amount of maple syrup in it, and yet the flavor was naturally sweet and delicious, and satisfying. It wasn’t like I was being cheated. That really interested me, because I’ve stared at these bags of almond flour in the store—which by the way is not a cheap ingredient in price like white flour. It’s a special ingredient, so you might hesitate to buy it on a whim if you didn’t know what to do with it.
Let’s talk about sorghum, millet—other ones like rice flour that have been along the journey for you?
A. Sorghum, millet and white-rice flours are the flours I reach for the most. I tend to avoid legume flours. I don’t use garbanzo flour because it’s heavy and it brings a bean flavor with it. Some folks love it. But if I’m not working with an almond flour or a coconut flour, I want something that is in the same flavor profile.
Garbanzo bean flour is sort of outside the scope of the palette I am doing.
Q. If we were doing Indian cooking we would be using it.
A. Exactly. If you’ve never baked gluten-free before, I would suggest starting with sorghum and millet—those are two really flavorful, nutritious flours. I would also bring some white-rice flour into the pantry, because that flour actually fades into the background, and sometimes you want that. Sometimes you don’t want a huge flavor punch, and you do want one that takes a back seat. So those are the first three I‘d bring home.
And I know we’re talking about flours, but I have to bring up starches.
Q. I know, it’s funny because that always confuses me—the starches. When I read the labels of products that are labeled gluten free, a lot of times one of the primary ingredients is potato starch or tapioca starch, and I’m like, “Wait a minute, what’s that?”
A. Starches bring body to the table. So without that stretchy gluten, we need something that will provide a little bit of elasticity. It’s not the same, but it does bring some to the table.
The two you mentioned—potato starch and tapioca starch—are fabulous for that. Tapioca starch is great for grain-free baking as well as gluten-free baking; I use it throughout the Paleo baking book. It actually allowed me to knead bagels so I can take the dough and mix it and knead it. It’s nice and elastic, so you do want to add that to your flour blends. Without the addition of starch in some recipes—you don’t need it in all recipes, but some—it adds the lightness and stretchiness you need, and it’s so important.
Q. I noticed in the Paleo book that the brownies, chocolate chip bars, or soft chocolate chip cookie don’t have the tapioca starch in them, whereas the firmer cookies and crackers do. Am I saying that right?
A. You are getting that exactly right. If you think about walking into a professional bakeshop, you don’t see all-purpose flour—you see bread flour, cookie flour, pastry flour. Think of starches as moving more toward the bread flour category—they add a firmness and a stretchiness that is wonderful for bagels, pizza crust.
For a delicate little cookie, you don’t need it. [Get Elizabeth’s Paleo chocolate-chip cookie recipe at this link.]
Q. I meant to ask: Are any of these ingredients used in conventional baking at all, or only invented for this special-diet market? Did you use them at the Culinary Institute?
A. I was there in the late 1990s, so it was not part of the curriculum when I was there. I’m guessing that has changed, since the diets of Americans have been changing.
I could see these flours being incorporated, but as you mentioned, it’s really expensive. Let’s be honest, a bag of it can cost from $10 to $15. It’s expensive, but it is a nut flour, so in traditional pastries you would see that used.
Q. And if you look at all these flours we’ve been talking about, and the starches as well, they have different nutritional qualities besides having different elasticity compared to wheat or more common flours.
They have different nutritional profiles—like tapioca not so much (no fiber) compared to almond (lots of fiber, protein, good fat). It’s all very different in terms of what you get out of them nutritionally speaking. The Bob’s Red Mill website has nutritional info on all of them if people want to look. I found that interesting.
A. I think that’s a great resource. As we vary our diets, we don’t always want to be hitting the same things day in and day out—same flours, same yogurt for breakfast, same thing for lunch. Treats should be treats, and we don’t want to look to our chocolate-chip cookies to provide a huge nutritional boost to our diet…
A. I always like to say that if you’re going to eat the chocolate-chip cookie anyway, why not get some nutritional benefit from it?
Q. It’s not just the flours that make the difference in baking. I was fascinated; your book is so full of learning. Even the ingredients in tiny proportions like salt—you can’t just leave the salt out because you prefer lower sodium. It has an action that it performs, yes?
A. We could have spent 20 minutes talking about salt. [Laughter.] I love flour, but salt is really important. It’s a flavor enhancer. In some basked goods like chocolate-chip cookies, you might look and see it’s only a quarter-teaspoon or half-teaspoon of salt, but it actually enhances the flavor of baked goods.
Q. And when there is yeast involved, does it also have an action there?
A. Yes, and when we’re talking about yeast baking—and this holds true with gluten-free, grain-free or traditional baking—salt will control yeast growth. That’s important. You might think you just want the yeast to go crazy, but if you have your yeast producing too much, your bread dough just expands too much, and as you bake it, it can collapse onto itself in the oven.
If you leave the salt out of a yeast bread recipe, the bread will taste really flat. It almost has a cottony flavor to it, it tastes so flat. So yeast and salt are really important—but I have to say, you never want to add salt directly to your yeast mixture. It will control the yeast growth in your dough, but if added directly to your yeast mixture, it will kill your yeast.
Q. Too much for the living yeast.
A. So you whisk it into the flour mixture, and that insures that it’s not in direct contact with the yeast.
Q. Quick question: If I want to make gravy for friends who are gluten free, what flour would I use instead of a normal white flour?
A. You have two options. If your friends are strictly gluten free, I love sweet-rice flour. It’s made from glutinous rice—sticky rice—and makes a beautiful gravy. If your friends are grain free, reach for tapioca starch, like you would do with cornstarch. That’s totally grain free, and it will taste like a starch-thickened gravy, but it’s very good.
Q. True confession: How many takes did it take to figure out the Paleo gluten-free grain-free bagels? I was so impressed.
A. We had so many bagels in bags in the freezer, because I didn’t want to be throwing them away. Although it got to the point where my husband said, “You’re testing these recipes. These are inedible. They have to go.” There were lots and lots of tests.
But the grain-free bagels—you boil the dough or simmer the dough, and they are fabulous, and it was worth the work. But lots of almond flour went to that cause.
elizabeth’s grain-free focaccia recipe
- 227 grams (2 cups) finely ground almond flour
- 57 grams (1/2 cup) tapioca starch, plus more for shaping
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs (about 100 grams out of the shell)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for topping focaccia
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar Kosher salt
- About 2 teaspoons dried herbs, such as basil, oregano, rosemary, or thyme
- Crushed red pepper (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch cast- iron skillet* with nonstick cooking spray or brush with melted coconut oil.
Whisk the almond flour, tapioca starch, baking soda, and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Add the eggs and olive oil and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough holds together.
Add the vinegar and stir until the vinegar is completely absorbed. It’s normal for the dough to fizz a little.
Place the dough in the prepared skillet. Generously dust your hands with tapioca starch and press the dough evenly into the skillet. Dip the handle of a clean, dry wooden spoon in tapioca starch and use it
to imple the dough all over. Brush generously with olive oil. Sprinklethe kosher salt, herbs, and crushed pepper over the top of the focaccia.
Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the oven. Allow the focaccia to cool in the pan for 5 minutes before serving.
Focaccia is best enjoyed the day it’s baked.
* Don’t have a cast-iron skillet? Make this in a greased 8-inch round cake pan.
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win a copy of ‘paleo baking’ by elizabeth barbone
I’VE BOUGHT an extra copy of “World’s Easiest Paleo Baking” for one lucky winner. All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question, entering your reply into the comment box at the very bottom of the page, scrolling down beneath the last reader comment:
Do you avoid any ingredients…and do you have any experience with these special flours as a baker (or an eater) to share?
Feeling shy, or have nothing to share? Just say “count me in” and I will include your entry–again, put it in the box-like form at the bottom of the page! Good luck to all. I’ll choose a winner at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, March 6, 2016.
(Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Barbone, used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)