Baking Basics: Gluten-free Flour Blends
When I started baking gluten-free, I went through a big learning curve to understand the properties of various gluten-free flours, and how to mix them to get the results I wanted. I studied cookbooks, took some gluten-free cooking classes, and did a lot of experimenting. Ultimately, I arrived at some basic conclusions that I think you’ll find are helpful.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: there are so many gluten-free flour blends available to buy these days, why bother mixing your own? While I agree there are many excellent “all-purpose” blends out there, consider that professional bakers would not use a “one-size fits all” approach for everything from cakes to bread. It simply doesn’t work as well as using cake flour for cake, or bread flour for bread. Similarly, I have yet to find a gluten-free flour blend that works well for every application. They also tend to be expensive. So, I mix my own.
A Tale of Two Flours: Protein/Fiber Flours vs. Starches
Most gluten-free flours fall into one of two types of flour: those that are what I refer to as protein or fiber flours (which includes rice flour, bean flour, nut flour, sorghum flour, millet flour, and several others) and starches (such as tapioca starch, potato starch, corn starch, arrowroot starch, and sweet rice flour).
Protein/fiber flours provide structure, stability, flavor, color, texture, and nutrition. Some are very mild in flavor, color and texture, and therefore very versatile for baking. These flours, such as brown and white rice flour, sorghum flour, millet flour, and chestnut flour, are great “primary” flours to use as a base for your blend. Others add a variety of flavors, colors, and textures to baked goods, and are often highly nutritious.
Starches are very fine in texture and cause baked goods to be lighter with a softer crumb and smoother texture. Certain starches, such as tapioca starch, help brown and crisp baked goods, while sweet rice flour will increase the pliability of rolled dough – a necessary quality for making pie-crusts or cookie dough.
Successful gluten-free baking, however, begins with using the right flour blend – using both protein/fiber flours and starches together to get good results. Protein/fiber flours are are heavy and baked goods end up very dense. Starches alone can not provide enough structure for baked goods to hold their shape. The right combination can produce excellent results, often indistinguishable from baked goods made with wheat. The trick, though, is knowing what blend to use, depending on what you are trying to make. After much trial and error, here are some simple guidelines that seem to work.
- Use an appropriate ratio of protein/fiber flours to starches. In my experience, the following ratios work best:
- Yeast bread, biscuits, pizza crust: 1 cup of protein/fiber flour for every 1-1 1/4 cup of starch
- Muffins, cakes, pancakes: 2 cups of protein/fiber flour for every 1 cup of starch
- Piecrusts, crackers, cookies: 2 cups of protein/fiber flour for every 1 cup of starch
- Exploit the characteristics of different flours to enhance the desired result:
- Yeast bread, biscuits, pizza crust: base flours such as sorghum and millet work well in bread and biscuits, providing mild flavors and soft crumb. Rice flour tends to make dense loaves of bread, but adds a nice crispiness to pizza crusts. Gluten-free Oat flour, Montina flour, corn flour and others add wonderful favors and textures to bread.
- Muffins, cakes, pancakes: base flours such as sorghum and millet work well, providing mild flavors and soft crumb. Rice flour works, but can create a grainy texture, especially if the product is refrigerated. High fiber flours, such as nut flour, GF oat flour, flaxseed meal, and bean flours, work exceptionally well in muffins and pancakes.
- Pie-crusts, crackers, cookies: brown and white rice flours work the best when the final product is crispy, crumbly, crunchy, and/or chewy. Nut flours and bean flours add flavor and texture.
- Select just a few base flours you want to use that are easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and will work in many applications. Watch out for strongly flavored flours (such as bean flours) and allergens (such as nut flours), especially if you are baking for others. Experiment with other flours and have fun creating your own unique flour blends.
Example Flour Blends
Basic “White” Bread Flour Blend (1:1 ratio)
- 1 cup tapioca flour
- 3/4 cup sweet rice flour
- 1 1/2 cup sorghum flour
- 1 cup millet flour
- 1/2 cup brown rice flour
- 1 1/4 cup potato starch
- for pizza crust, increase rice flour by 1 cup, decrease sorghum and millet flours by a 1/2 cup each
- instead of brown rice flour, try gluten-free oat flour, Montina flour, or amaranth flour
Muffin/Cake Blend (2:1 ratio)
- 1 cup sorghum flour
- 1 cup millet flour
- 1/2 cup potato starch
- 1/2 cup tapioca starch
Variations for muffins:
- reduce sorghum or millet flour by 1/2 cup and add 1/2 cup of bean, nut flour or GF oat flour
- reduce sorghum or millet flour by 1/4 cup and add flaxseed meal or coconut flour
Cookie/Cracker Blend (2:1 ratio)
- 1/3 cup sweet rice flour
- 2 cups rice flour (brown or white)
- 1/3 cup potato starch
- 1/3 cup tapioca starch
- use white rice flour for light colored cookies, such as sugar cookies
- use brown rice flour for drop cookies, such as chocolate chip
- reduce the rice flour by 1/2 cup and add 1/2 cup nut flour or bean flour for drop cookies