Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Make Gluten-Free Bread: a Quick Primer and Three Recipes

Gluten, that super-long protein string that gives wheat bread its delectable fluffiness, can also make some people sick. In celiac disease, the consumption of gluten creates an immune reaction in the intestines and flattens the villi, the little hairlike things that are responsible for absorbing nutrients. No villi, no nutrient absorption. You can see how that would not be a good thing, but it gets worse. People who have celiac disease but continue to eat gluten are at increased risk for colon cancer and type I diabetes. So if you have this condition, it's really important to lay off the gluten.

An interesting fact about gluten: no human being can digest it. That's right: even if you're not celiac or gluten-sensitive, you're not breaking the stuff down. Not being birds, we're not designed to eat grains. It's just that in most people, the little strings sit around quietly in the intestine not causing trouble, while in a minority of people, the intestine gets fed up with the alien presence and launches an immune system attack.

So what to do if you belong to this minority? Whether we're designed to eat grains or not, most of us don't want to give up eating pizza and sandwiches.

The trick is to find another substance that will bind your dough together the way that gluten does. Two types of ingredient that will have this effect are gums (xanthan, guar, etc.) and eggs. In most cases, you'll need to add either a gum or some eggs to your dough, or the resulting bread will crumble to bits, and that's a pain when you're trying to butter it. (For the one exception I know of to this rule, see socca bread. That's a flatbread though.)

Most gluten-free recipes also include some sort of starch, typically a mixture of some of the following: potato, corn, tapioca and arrowroot starch. Starch lightens up the bread so it can rise higher. It is not a requirement though, as we'll see later.

As for the flour, a blend of flours are typically used. One popular flour in gluten-free recipes is garbanzo-fava flour, a mixture of chick pea flour and fava flour. This flour, often referred to as garfava for short, is said to rise well. Rice flour is commonly used as the base flour. Buckwheat is sometimes added for extra fibre. Sorghum flour, from the seeds of a grasslike grain, is added for flavour, as it has a natural sweetness.

This is about all I know about gluten-free flour blending, which appears to me as an arcane science akin to alchemy. Still, I say, don't be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is that you'll have to throw out a loaf of bread. And most of the time it isn't that bad. At the least you can usually turn it into breadcrumbs and bread fish with it, or make it into turkey stuffing.

But maybe you don't want to bake. Baking is a lot of work. You might want to go to the supermarket and buy a gluten-free bread in a bag, premade. Fair enough, but there a couple of things you should know:

  • Most store-bought gluten-free bread is disgusting. It's like chewing on a mattress, only with less flavour.
  • Most store-bought gluten-free bread is very low in fibre, because it is made primarily out of white rice flour*. This goes a long way towards explaining its lack of flavour as well.

That said, I do know of a great gluten-free bread mix that you can buy in a supermarket. It's not a premade bread, so you still have to do some work, but it's worth it. It's better than any other gluten-free bread I've tried. It's Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread. The name sounds boastful, I know, but they're telling the truth.

If you're just starting out with gluten-free baking, you may be reluctant to go out and purchase a weird and freaky ingredient like xanthan gum. I know I was. So try the following two recipes, which can be made without it. They also don't contain any starch. The third and final recipe is a more traditional, gummy, starchy, gluten-free bread recipe; basically, it's my attempt to duplicate Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread, and I think I didn't do too bad a job of it, if I do say so myself.

Recipe #1: Rolls

This recipe is really passover rolls with gluten-free flour taking the place of the matzoh meal. You see, during Passover, in commemoration of the escape from Egypt when the Jews had to make a quick snack before fleeing, leavened bread is forbidden. That means no yeast or baking soda. However, Jews have a long history of getting around the letter of the law while doing what they want: witness that string that Hassidim put around their neighbourhoods during Shabbos. So naturally they found a way to make rolls light and fluffy without yeast or baking soda. It just takes a lot of eggs.

This recipe is adapted from the recipe for passover rolls in Second Helpings, Please! Revised edition. Mt. Sinai chapter #1091, B'nai B'rith Women, Montreal, Canada.

  • 2 cups gluten-free flour (whatever kind you want: I used 1 cup brown rice flour and 1 cupbuckwheat flour. If you like it sweet, throw in some coconut flour)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 4 eggs

Combine dry ingredients. Bring oil and water to a boil and add to dry ingredients. Mix. Beat in eggs one at a time. Let stand for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a cookie sheet.

Oil or wet your hands so that the dough won't stick, and shape rolls. Place on cookie sheet. Bake for 1 hour or until brown.

The resulting rolls are nice and crispy, and surprisingly puffed up inside. Now, you may be concerned about using such a lot of eggs. I find you can reduce it to three eggs and still get good results. Just replace the missing egg with 1/4 cup of water. You can also replace as many eggs as you like with egg white, for a lower-cholesterol roll.

Recipe #2: Socca

This recipe is from Mediterranean Light: Delicious Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine by Martha Rose Shulman. Shulman does great cookbooks.

  • 2/3 cup chick pea flour
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • Pepper
  • Olive oil

Beat together the flour, salt and water with a whisk or blender until there are no lumps. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Now, some timing issues. The oven has to preheat for 30 minutes, but the pan has to heat up for 15 minutes. So as soon as you've got your batter beaten up, turn the oven to 475 degrees F, then set a timer for 15 minutes. Oil a pan with the olive oil; a 12-inch pizza pan will do nicely. When the timer goes off, stick the pan in the oven and set the timer for another 15 minutes.

When the timer goes off again, yank the hot pan out of the oven (don't forget your oven mitt!) and pour in the batter. Put it in the upper third of the oven. Shulman says to bake for five minutes, then turn the oven to broil and broil for 3 to 4 minutes. I don't think I bother to do this. It's been a while since I made this bread, but I think I probably just bake it for 8 or 9 minutes.

Full disclosure: the reason I don't make this bread often is because it's wildly addictive and I ate myself sick on it the last time.

Recipe #3: Sandwich Bread

As I said above, this is my attempt to make something similar to Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread.

  • 1 1/4 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/4 cup fava flour (or: replace the above with 1 1/2 garfava flour)
  • 1/2 cup sorghum flour
  • 1 cup starch (I don't think it matters terribly which one you use. To get closest to Bob's recipe, try 1/2 cup potato starch, 1/2 cup minus 1 tbsp. Corn starch and 1 tbsp. Tapioca starch)
  • 1 tbsp. Xanthan gum
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Salt
  • 2 1/4 tsp. Yeast
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. Maple syrup
  • 1 beaten egg + egg whites to 3/4 cup
  • 1 tsp. Cider vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1 2/3 cup water

Warm up the water. I like to put it in the microwave for about half a minute. It should be about bath temperature, not so hot that you can't comfortably wiggle a finger in it. Add the yeast, stir and let sit 5 to 10 minutes while you blend the rest of the dry ingredients together. Mix the eggs, egg whites, maple syrup, cider vinegar and oil in a separate bowl. When the yeast is ready, add to the wet ingredients and then mix the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until well blended. Bob's Red Mill actually says to use an electric mixer, but I find a fork adequate to the task.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Oil a loaf pan and pour in the batter. Smooth out the top with a rubber spatula. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 20 minutes. Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes. Bread is done when it makes a hollow sound when you tap it. Let it cool in the pan for 20 minutes before removing and cooling all the way on a rack.


  • Egg-free version: You can reduce or remove the eggs by substituting water. One egg is equal to about 1/4 cup of water. If you remove all eggs, you should also up the xanthan gum by a teaspoon.
  • Starch-free version: Starch is not essential to gluten-free baking. It is just used because people are accustomed to light and airy baked goods. You can substitute the starch with the same amount of brown rice flour.
  • Egg-free, starch-free version: You can do both the substitutions described above at the same time. However, the result is not as tasty, in my opinion. It might be worth replacing some of the egg with apple sauce, although I haven't tried this myself.

Rest assured that all suggested substitutions (aside from the apple sauce one) have been tested in Vivian's kitchen have have been found to give acceptable to delicious results.

Further Reading

The best gluten-free cookbook I have found so far is unquestionably Babycakes by Erin McKenna. It's more dessert-centred, featuring cup cakes, cakes, muffins and pies, but there is also a chapter on tea breads (breads made with baking powder rather than yeast). All recipes are scrumptious. On top of all that, Erin goes to some lengths to make her desserts as healthful as possible; most are sweetened without sugar. Note that not all recipes in the book are gluten-free; some call for spelt flour.

* Can I just say something here? Why does white rice flour exist? Why does white rice exist? Why doesn't everybody just eat brown rice? Is it part of that self-destructive human condition that also leads to the existence of movies like Jackass 3D? What I find particularly weird about white rice flour is that even brown rice, really, doesn't have much fibre. It's a lot lower in fibre than rye or even wheat. So if you find fibre that unappealing, brown rice should be fine. [back]


Susan said...

I am certain that there is a connection between Jackass and white flour as well.

Where do you get your flours?
Have you had any success with bread machines? I bought a pre made gluten free bread mix, but I thought it was gross and crumbly. My son still liked it.

Vivian said...


I mostly get my flours at the health food store. Some of them you can find at the supermarket in the natural foods section, if your supermarket has one of those.

I don't have a bread machine, but Bob's Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread can be made in the bread machine. It has instructions for both machine and hand making.

Susan, didn't you have a blog?

Vivian said...

Never mind, it was another Susan. Everybody who's comment on my last couple of posts has been named Susan! :)

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