Gluten-free cooking offers instructors an opportunity to explore and learn on-trend baking strategies.
By Chef Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
Last month I wrote Culinarians Should Know the Gluten Gamut. This was a primer on teaching your students the basics of gluten, gluten allergies (Celiac Disease), gluten intolerance and the gluten trend. For this month, I would like to give pointers on teaching gluten-free cooking and baking. If you haven’t had a chance to read last month’s article first, please take a moment to do so. It will help explain the importance of the techniques below.
(Caveat: I am not a baker. If you are a baker and/or have substantial experience working with gluten-free products then skip this article, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and relax a bit before your next class begins.)
Several years ago when I began teaching at JobTrain, a new CEO started who was gluten free. After that, a newly appointed person to our Board of Directors indicated they had Celiac Disease. Since the culinary class prepares a number of special events for the Board and CEO, I realized I had to up my gluten-free game.
Practicing what I preach, the first thing I did was contact one of my key vendors who introduced me to several other people which lead me to a meeting with Chef Sarah House, the in-house baker and recipe developer and product tester for Bob’s Red Mill. Chef House invited me to join her in her test and development kitchen when I was next in the central Oregon area. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to spend the morning with her. Since Bob’s Red Mill features a number of gluten-free products (and processes its gluten-free grains in a separate facility from its products containing gluten) she was a wealth of information.
This is a summary of what Chef House taught me that morning.
Gluten-free Baking and Cooking:
- Although all-purpose flour and baking flour come from wheat, there is no universal standard on what is gluten-free flour.
There are two ways to bake gluten free: First is to use one or more types of gluten-free flour and use them individually or combine them on your own. Second is to buy a prepared gluten-free flour product, which will be a blend many gluten-free ingredients. Some are better than others.
I personally recommend you experiment with different flours. Ironically, and through no pushing from Chef House, I settled on Bob’s Red Mill’s 1-to-1 which basically allows you substitute this gluten-free flour on a one-to-one basis with bread flour and even (for cookies and such) all-purpose flour.
- Many gluten-free flours require the use of Guar or Xanthan Gums, which are generally used in cooking and baking as a thickening agent. In gluten-free baking the gums help keep the ingredients from separating. They are available from baking and general food supply companies. (Chef House noted that one-to-one and similar flours will probably work well in general baking without Xanthan or Guar Gums, but they may be needed for bread baking.)
- Experiment, practice and then experiment some more. Chef House’s job is to experiment. She encouraged me and now I encourage you to do the same. Play with recipes and play with different types of gluten-free flours to see which works the best for you.
Gluten-free Bread Making
- It is possible to make a gluten-free white bread, but it won’t be light and fluffy as Wonder Bread nor have the texture of French bread. The bread will be relying primarily on starch and not protein to hold its shape.
- Chef House recommended instead of trying for a white bread, develop a whole grain gluten-free bread formula. The heavier texture and stronger flavor of gluten-free flours will fit in better with a whole grain bread. Next month, I will publish my gluten-free bread recipe which I will match against almost any whole grain bread. (Note: Chef House recommended before attempting gluten-free bread, work on developing your conventional bread skills first and then switch over. That way you are not trying to develop two new major baking skills at the same time.)
- When making gluten-free breads, use a paddle in the mixer and not a dough hook. You are trying to mix the ingredients and not knead the dough. Since there is no gluten (protein), the dough won’t knead into a firm ball. The dough hook will just swirl around the ingredients and not really do a good job of mixing.
- There is no second rise in gluten-free bread making. After the product is mixed, put it immediately into a prepared pan for the first and only rise. Don’t punch it down and don’t move it to another container.
- You can develop a gluten-free starter. It is a bit more difficult to start and maintain than a conventional starter. This will help leaven the bread and will add an additional depth to the flavor.
- There are many good gluten-free cookbooks, including: "Gluten-Free Baking for Dummies"; "Gluten-Free Baking Classics" by Roberts; and "Gluten-Free Baking with the Culinary Institute of America."
Following Chef House’s advice, I went back to my classroom and started working on whole grain breads. I found one I liked best and modified it to use gluten-free flour. I also worked on a gluten-free gingerbread recipe. I will publish these next month.
In playing with gluten-free baking and non-baking recipes I found out a few things on my own:
- Gluten-free flours are a blend of ingredients. They are not just made from one ingredient. Often gluten-free flours have a bitter after taste. (I believe this comes from the use of nut flour as one or more of the ingredients.) Some gluten-free flours have strong flavors. Find one with less bitter after taste and mask that taste by using it in recipes with stronger flavor foods. For example, a gluten-free gingerbread works well because ginger has a strong flavor. Gluten-free sugar cookies don’t work as well.
- Don’t apologize for your food. Some of my gluten-free recipes, such as gingerbread cookies, are indistinguishable from conventional gingerbread. I even fooled my wife and she is an expert at making gingerbread. Some foods, such as popovers, will never be the same using gluten-free flour. When you serve a food of this type, I recommend you make two batches: one regular and one gluten free. When you do, don’t apologize for the gluten-free product. Just put the two products out. The gluten-free people will appreciate your efforts and will be thrilled.
- You can add extra value to a dish by making it both gluten free AND vegetarian or vegan. This hits several food trends at one time.
- Any good gluten-free flour blend works great for dusting. For example, dusting fish in gluten-free flour before cooking, or dusting meat in gluten-free flour before braising, works fine.
Next month I will publish my most successful gluten-free recipes.
Personal Note: When I started to write last month’s article about gluten free I took the view that I would just quickly discuss the gluten-free trend and distinguish that from Celiac Disease. After the second draft, I realized I was giving very short shrift to the subject. After a couple of more drafts, I realized teaching gluten free-cooking is an important teachable moment on broader categories of allergies vs. intolerances, customer trends and wishes, and the importance of chefs and cooks keeping up with food trends. When I finished the last draft and asked my wife to edit it for me, she said that I was leaving the reader hanging with just teaching WHY gluten free is important without teaching HOW to do it.
I originally intended to put the gluten-free recipes into this article. However, this article became so thorough and detailed that there was no room for the recipes! WHAT I LEARNED in this process is that we as teachers and chefs need to be more open and receptive to teaching new things.
It is amazing how many chefs and bakers I spoke to had very negative things to say about the gluten-free trend. Yet, I found more than enough material for three articles. My wife, who is not a chef or teacher, inspired me to do more than just hit on the subject quickly and move on. In other words, we all need to learn new trends, understand them and learn how to teach them.
Next month I promise there will be gluten-free recipes for you and your classes.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.