Gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, farro, kamut, durum and semolina, becomes elastic when mixed with water and kneaded, stretching to form strands of dough that can trap gases emitted from fermentation. Think of the gluten properties like a balloon being filled with hot air. But what happens to that structure when there is no gluten in your bread?
Rice, buckwheat, sorghum, teff, millet and amaranth are some of the grains without gluten, and are therefore suitable for anyone on a gluten-free diet. However, if you have ever tried replacing wheat flour with flour made from these grains, you might have noticed how those breads, lacking any air pockets, simply collapse. That’s because those gluten-free grains lack the proteins needed to create the strands that trap air. This isn’t a big issue when we are baking tender cakes, cookies or pastry where the goal is a soft crumb, but when we are dealing with yeasted breads, we must introduce ingredients that provide elasticity and structure.
These days, bakers of gluten-free bread are shying away from hard-to-digest xanthan or similar gums as binding agents. The trend has been toward relying on flaxseed and psyllium, both of which are used as dietary fibers and gel when mixed with water and can trap air when baked.
To mimic some of the characteristics of wheat bread, it is ideal to include a mixture of gluten-free whole grain flours as well as some starch. The combination of whole-grain flour and starch means that gluten-free doughs usually need more water in the recipe to allow for larger holes in the crumb and promote a crispy texture. Psyllium is perfect, as it can absorb large amounts of water and helps to bind the dough. In the past, many gluten-free bread recipes relied on eggs for binding, but with plant-based fibers such as psyllium and flax, we can create gluten-free breads that are also vegan.
A note about oats. There is some confusion about whether oats contain gluten. In many countries, oats are not considered suitable for those maintaining a gluten-free diet because oats contain avenin, which can also cause problems for people who are gluten intolerant. In the United States, we can find certified gluten-free oats, which means they have been processed in equipment that has not been contaminated with gluten, but that does not guarantee that sensitive groups won’t react to it. I seem to tolerate oats well and love them in my bread recipes, because their starch and protein content produce a great crumb.
Here are my keys to success with gluten-free bread baking:
Note inconsistencies among brands. One of the biggest issues I have found when writing bread recipes and teaching people how to make bread is the inconsistency of milling among brands. Remember, gluten-free recipes need large amounts of water, but if your flour particles are too coarse, they will have a hard time absorbing all the moisture. Your dough will be wet, hard to shape and will likely flatten out during baking. Look for flours that are labeled superfine as much as you can. The same applies to the flaxseed meal and psyllium husk powder in the recipes. The finer the mill, the better the flour will hydrate, the better crumb you will have. My preferred superfine brown rice flour brands are Authentic Foods and Anthony’s. For fine psyllium husk powder, I like working with Anthony’s and Viva brands, and for all other flours, Bob’s Red Mill, Authentic Foods and Anthony’s are all excellent. If you find your crumb to be very gummy and wet after fully baking and cooling, it’s probably because your flour and psyllium are too coarse for the amount of water in your recipe. If you can’t find finely milled ingredients, consider decreasing the amount of water in your recipe by about 10 percent.
Weigh your ingredients. For consistent results, it’s important to weigh all your ingredients, including water. As I have tested so many recipes, I have found inconsistencies between different volume measure vessels and bread-baking, where even a 20-gram difference in water can have an impact on the final product. Digital scales are inexpensive and widely available.
Don’t skimp on baking time. As mentioned before, gluten-free breads need quite a bit of moisture, which means longer baking times. Don’t be scared if the recipe calls to bake bread at 450 degrees for an hour and a half. This is quite normal: With such high water content, it takes that long for all the moisture to evaporate, the crumb to set and the crust to caramelize with high water content.
Cool your bread completely before cutting into it. It is crucial for the crumb and crust to fully set before cutting. Any tinge of steam left in the loaf will collapse the crumb, making it gummy and dense.
Avoid overproofing. Gluten-free bread doughs are much more delicate than their wheat counterparts. If you overproof your dough because you went too long or because your environment is warm, your crumb will likely detach from your crust during baking, creating a large air pocket and a very gummy interior. Err on the side of caution, especially if your kitchen is warmer than usual.
Use a metal loaf pan. Not all loaf pans are equal. Stay away from glass or silicone pans. My preference is metal and non-coated. I like the shape of Pullman loaves, because they are tall and narrow and provide extra support for the gluten-free doughs to rise.
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