Science! Experiments in Gluten-free baking

by amanda on November 6, 2012

One of my interests/passions is education: what should we teach, and how should we teach it? (It may sound stupid, until you realize that no one is asking these questions. Our current educational system wasn’t designed by people trying to make the best educational system — it just grew out of temporary measures to short-term crises, and kind of stuck around.)

And one of my theories on teaching science is that it’s not as important to teach physics or biology or chemistry per se (if you want to be a chemist, you will learn the periodic table. If you don’t want to be a chemist, why on earth do we think you need to know it?) as it is to teach the underlying concept of what science is. I would be content if every student graduating high school could pass a Science/Not-Science quiz. Guy in a lab coat with beakers and test tubes, mixing the same chemicals he mixed yesterday in the exact same proportions, knowing exactly what’s going to happen? Not Science. New mother experimenting with settings on the microwave to find the right power/time combination to heat her baby’s bottle? Science.

Science, after all, is the process of figuring out how things work through controlled experimentation. With that in mind, I’ve also become convinced that one of the best ways to teach science, for those who are interested in such things, is with cooking. Cooking is all about science — about modifying a recipe in just one way, and seeing what the outcome is, and then trying something else.

I have recently developed a need for gluten-free baked goods. And yes, there are recipes available online, but all of them offer a fair amount of leeway: you can select different kinds and mixtures of flour according to your tastes and goals. How to decide which one is best? Science!

So I’ll be recording here my experiments and outcomes. I hope it may be useful to anyone else who has a newly-developed desire for gluten-free baking. Or anyone who would like some information on how different baked goods work with different ingredients. Or anyone who is looking for interesting ways to teach science. Or anyone looking for an awesome and yummy science fair project.

Experiment #1: Biscuits

So I take (as you might have guessed) a fairly scientific approach to cooking. And so I actually know what gluten is and why it’s in our baked goods. Gluten is a protein molecule formed when two little flour molecules get together with some water. The higher the protein content of the wheat, the more gluten it will form. There’s more gluten in whole wheat flour than in white flour, which is why whole-wheat bread behaves differently than white bread. And gluten is essentially what gives whole wheat bread its characteristics: the chewy crust, the stronger crumb, the flavor… all of those are the result of gluten.

Now protein content of wheat varies with a lot of things, prime among which is the climate where the wheat was grown. Northern wheat, grown in cold climates, has a lot of protein and forms gluten easily — as a result, northern breads tend to be yeast-raised crusty breads. Southern wheat grown in warmer climates has less protein — as a result, southern foods like biscuits and corn bread tend to be chemical-raised flaky breads. In fact, not creating gluten is a significant challenge when trying to create authentic southern biscuits.

Given that gluten is what makes yeast bread what it is, it’s obviously going to be quite a challenge to create a crusty, chewy loaf out of gluten-free flour. The place to start, it seems to me, is with things where you’re trying to avoid gluten in the first place. Scones, pie crust, biscuits…. all of those should be pretty trivial to make a yummy gluten-free version, given that you were trying to avoid gluten in the first place.

So today I’m starting my experiment with biscuits. A quick search on Google finds us a recipe. Phase one is to simply follow the recipe as printed.

Gluten-Free Biscuits

From Simply… Gluten Free.

1½ cups superfine white or brown rice flour plus more for rolling
¾ cup tapioca or potato starch (not potato flour)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
6 tablespoons cold fat (such as butter, Earth Balance or shortening), cut into small pieces
¾ cup milk (any kind including dairy free)

We have butter in the house, so I’ll use that. And almond milk, because… um… I think because I’m getting gluten-free mixed up with vegan. Also, because I like almond milk. Also, because it doesn’t really matter.

Our first experiment, then, looks like this:

Title: Gluten-Free Biscuits 1.0
Purpose: To create gluten-free baked goods options that are actually good, not just pale “I wish I could have bread again” imitations
Hypothesis: That we can make a pretty decent gluten-free biscuit simply by substituting gluten-free flours for the wheat flour of a normal biscuit recipe
1½ cups superfine brown rice flour plus more for rolling
¾ cup tapioca starch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
¾ cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk

Pastry Cutter
Rubber spatula/spoon
Rolling pin
Silpat rolling mat
Baking sheet
Mix flour, starch, baking powder, and salt until thoroughly intermingled.
Add butter; cut in with pastry blender
Add 1/2 cup of the almond milk; stir. Add more milk as needed until dough will hold together into a cohesive unit.
Roll dough out on the silpat to about 1/2 inch depth.
Cut out biscuits. (Dough can be recombined and re-rolled for more biscuits as needed. Unlike traditional recipes, there is not need to be stingy or hesitant here, as these flours can’t form the gluten that makes wheat biscuits tough.)
Bake on cookie sheet at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Other Changes (this shouldn’t be part of a normal scientific experiment, but in the kitchen stuff inevitably happens. So I make a list here in case any of them are significant)
I didn’t cut the butter into pieces; I just dropped the stick in and started in with the pastry cutter. It probably took longer, but it shouldn’t change the outcome.

It took more liquid than I was expecting — probably closer to a full cup than to 3/4.

Wheat biscuits bake for about 10 minutes, and sticking them in for 20 minutes straight made me nervous. So I set the timer for 12 minutes, checked on them, then set it for another 8.

This is the best part of cooking science, because observation = eating yummy things. In this case, the biscuits turned out really well. They’re very crumbly and flaky, which is exactly what you’d expect given that it’s gluten that holds baked goods together. But they stay together well enough to butter them, which is all you can really ask for out of a biscuit.

Taste-wise it’s a little odd… definitely not exactly the same flavor I’m used to in my grandmother’s biscuits.. but by no means bad. It’s mild enough to not be distinctive — there’s more flavor in the butter than in the biscuit itself.

Texture-wise it’s amazing. The perfect biscuit should be light and flaky and crumbly, and kind of fall apart as it reaches your mouth. I’ve always done reasonably OK at that, but never as well as I’d hoped — I simply am not good enough to get it right the first time, and the more you handle wheat-flour biscuits, the more gluten they form. These ones don’t have that problem — no matter how many times I have to redo it, the texture is as flaky and crumbly as my grandmother’s best biscuits.

Overall, I’ve been served much worse biscuits at restaurants. These are better than Pillsbury canned biscuits, and better than my first several attempts at homemade biscuits. Definitely a win.

Southern quick breads are definitely the place to start your gluten-free baking journey. The lack of gluten is an asset, rather than a liability, leaving you free to focus on selecting ingredients and balancing flavor.

Areas for further research
Rice and tapioca are the mildest-flavored flours we could find; adding in millet flour, quinoa flour, or almond flour could make for some yummy flavor combinations.

What The Joy of Cooking calls pinwheel biscuits — essentially cinnamon rolls made with biscuit dough — would probably also be fantastic with this recipe.

The same base with some add-ins could make some wonderful chocolate-chip or oatmeal-maple scones.

  • Megan Z Taylor

    Pie crust is actually a bit counter-intuitive when it comes to gluten.

    It’s true that you don’t want to over-mix it or else there is too much gluten and then the dough is impossible to work with.

    But at the same time, it’s the gluten you were trying so hard to avoid when mixing the dough that holds the pie crust together as it gets thinner.

    Without the gluten, the pie crust just crumbles and is not as useful.

    I’ve only tried to make gluten-free pie crust twice, so I’m sure there is more experimenting I could do. But I will be very curious to see what you come up with for a gluten-free pie crust.

  • AnotherSkip

    I still think you need a Flow Chart for your baking efforts so you can aim for certain levels of gluten…

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