OR A STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS THAT I DON’T KNOW HOW ELSE TO TITLE!
Glutenous baking comes in many tastes, textures, sizes and shapes. There is a vast abundance of different breads and cakes and muffins and pancakes and pastas. Making a glutenous bread? You might think it is just flour, yeast, salt and water…but no – the type of flour makes a difference, the amount of water makes a difference, the extra add-ins make a difference. There is no one type of bread and different people like different breads for different reasons. In the same way, different people like different gluten free breads for different reasons. Every so often, I see questions or comments about the best shop-bought gluten free bread come up on some of the coeliac disease and gluten free Facebook pages that I am on and often some people will rave about a bread that others despise. So, while very few people like very dry and crumbly bread or stodgy and gummy bread, my ‘best gluten free bread ever’ may not be your ‘best gluten free bread ever’. There is an art to baking and cooking and a big part of it is understanding what suits your preferences.
I sometimes wonder if understanding how to harness the power of different ingredients and techniques to create food that suits one’s preferences has been lost with the advent of modern recipe books with their very specific and scientific instructions. They differ enormously from cookbooks of the past, where sometimes only the vaguest list of ingredients and directions were given and it was up to the cook or baker to put it all together into a tasty, edible dish. I agree that cooking and baking is science, but it is also art and I fear the art aspect is often lost in the fear of wasting ingredients or having negative feedback because a recipe did not work.
There are many reasons a recipe might not work, including ingredients which are dynamic and changing. Even something as simple as ‘room temperature water’ will not work uniformly in a recipe regardless of where in the world you are – room temperatures (even in my own kitchen) change and vary across a day and by season, the amount of moisture already in the other ingredients being used will vary, impacting the amount of added water that might be required, and measuring cups and even scales in ordinary home kitchens are unlikely to be calibrated to the nearest millilitre. Flour (or white rice flour if we’re talking gf baking!) is milled to different degrees of fineness by different companies and may have absorbed different amounts of moisture from the air around it before you even start to bake with it, depending on atmospheric conditions and where and how it is stored. These things will impact the final bake. Combining the art of cooking and baking with the science will help you to deal with the natural variations in environments and ingredients and still come up with great food.
I understand that cooking, and especially baking, gluten free is daunting and mistakes are expensive. Extra creativity may be needed to make use of the inevitable failures. Sweet baking, like biscuits/cookies and cakes can be used as a base for trifles, blitzed into crumbs (dry them in the oven first if needed) as a base for cheesecakes and tarts or topping for crumbles, or mixed with milk and other add-ins to make milkshakes. Savoury baking like bread or muffins can be recycled into croutons and breadcrumbs. As you become more familiar with ingredients, your confidence in rectifying problems will grow. I test the final version of recipes at least twice before posting them on this website (in addition to all the trials before getting to final recipe point) and try to make the method easy even when ingredients lists are long. I hope you find my recipes useful and successful, if you try them, but more than that I encourage you to use them and other recipes as a springboard to work out what you like in your baking and to increase your baking intuition – you’ll probably learn a lot more from a couple of failures (and working out why they failed) than from 100 successes!
I am a busy Mum with small children. Before being diagnosed with coeliac disease, I made bread very occasionally for fun, but relied heavily on shop-bought bread for toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and for quick dinner options. Cheap, nutritious shop-bought bread along with many other convenient, quick options are one of the things I have missed the most since my coeliac diagnosis. Now I feel like I spend disproportionate amounts of time each day in the kitchen. For the most part, I do enjoy being in the kitchen (apart from the dishes!) and it is like therapy for me. But, when it comes to making staples, like bread, I want the process to be as quick and easy as possible. For that reason, most of the bread recipes that I post on this website follow a ‘dump it all in the bowl and mix’ method. This is made possible through lots of use of instant, dried yeast, but if you can’t get that or think your yeast is getting old, you will need to activate your yeast before starting baking – to do that just mix the yeast and sugar in some or all of the liquid in the recipe, give it at least 5 minutes to make sure it is bubbly and alive, and, if so, then proceed with the recipe.
Ease is also the reason why I choose to write a lot of my recipes with cup measurements, although I do understand the arguments in favour of measuring by weight and that weight measurements can give results that are closer to the recipe developer’s final bake or dish. I have spoken to other gluten free home bakers who prefer cup measurements – getting to grips with a big diet change like cutting out gluten (and sometimes other foods) can be hard enough without feeling like you need to tackle a new measuring system if you are used to baking by cups. If you look at a range of recipes for the same bake (gluten or gluten free), you’ll often find the same or similar ingredients listed but quite different quantities and methods for similar results – I therefore figure there is a bit of leeway with the method of measuring and, as you become familiar with gluten free baking and cooking, you’ll become more confident and adept at adapting quantities and instructions to suit your preferences. One thing that is often recommended (and which I also recommend) when baking gluten free by volume (so cup measurements) is to measure by spooning the ingredient into the cup measure and then levelling it off with the back of a spoon or a knife rather than just scooping the ingredient up directly with the cup measure. I do often find myself giving more weight measures for cooking rather than baking recipes – that is again for ease as often those weights come straight from the package sizes of different products in the supermarket. But I realise that different supermarkets in different countries will have different standard size packages – for cooking recipes on this website, use your judgement, use my ingredient lists as a guide rather than an absolute, and adjust ingredients according to your tastes and preferences.
One thing that does take more time is my choice to use individual gluten free flours and starches, instead of store-bought pre-mixes. I have a few reasons for this. First, although a single pre-blended flour can be easier, I like being able to fine-tune my end result by mixing up the flours and starches according to my needs and preferences for a particular recipe. Although this may involve more measuring than using a pre-blended flour, I generally add all the flours/starches at the same time to a recipe and so the amount of extra time is relatively minimal. The second reason is that there is huge variation in shop-bought blends within and between different countries and every blend uses different flours and starches as their base – for example, some are based primarily on rice flour whilst others are based primarily on cornflour (also called cornstarch in some countries). This difference can vastly affect the final product. By creating mostly recipes that use individual flours instead of a blend, I hope to make my recipes more accessible to people in different countries, instead of just those who can access the specific pre-blends that I might have access to. Third, the gluten free diet, and in particular gluten free pre-blended flours and baking, often relies heavily on very refined flours and starches. Whilst I use these often and find them useful, I don’t want that for the bulk of my daily diet – blending my own flours and starches as I bake gives me more flexibility to incorporate more fibre into my baking when it is appropriate for the dish I have in mind. Finally, most pre-blended flours seem to include different amounts of xanthan gum (a substitute for gluten, for those who don’t know) which can make it difficult to get consistent results with the same recipe and difficult to know how much added xanthan gum to specify in a recipe. I am also not a big fan of xanthan gum and the texture it gives to baking so prefer not to use it most of the time. In its place, I tend to prefer extra eggs and fats in sweet baking and binders such as psyllium husk, flax seeds and chia seeds in savoury baking like breads. I do use it, however, when I think it is needed for the best result.
There are loads of resources with information about ingredients and techniques, online and in print – the more you understand about the science, the better your foundation for turning your cooking and baking into art!