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Ask the ChefsAug/Sep 2012 Issue

In the Kitchen: Flours & Starches, and More!

I’ve come across several websites that recommend flours and starches in recipes be measured by weight. Most cookbooks and even your magazine don’t mention this. Why?

I’m glad you asked this question. Measuring by weight rather than volume has been romanticized, probably because many professional and celebrity chefs weigh their ingredients. Weighing has its place, particularly if you’re making the same recipe over and over again for commercial use. Weighing guarantees consistent results and helps control costs. It also allows a professional chef to more easily scale a recipe up or down without altering the ratios.

But weighing doesn’t work well for those using substitutions and our readers substitute all the time to accommodate their individual dietary needs. Someone can’t eat rice flour so they replace it with sorghum flour or they prefer potato starch to cornstarch. The weights of each of these ingredients can vary quite a bit, which means measuring by weight rather than volume can change the outcome of your recipe. Think: A pound of feathers versus a pound of lead. The same holds true for 4 ounces of white rice flour versus 4 ounces of bean flour.

So I’m reluctant to give out weights for home cooks, particularly those who regularly substitute ingredients to accommodate their special diet. If you want to weigh, find a recipe you love, weigh out the ingredients and make a note of the weights. This way, you can recreate the recipe more precisely again and again.

Sometimes my bread falls after taking it out of the oven. What causes this and is there a way to prevent it?

Gluten-free bread is very sensitive to the balance of wet to dry ingredients. A tiny bit too much liquid can cause the bread to over-inflate in the oven. Extra liquid leaves space for the gases from the yeast to expand like a balloon. As soon as the bread is taken from the oven, the gases stop expanding. There isn’t enough structure in the bread to maintain that lovely shape and it caves in. To prevent this, reserve 1 to 2 tablespoons of liquid from your recipe. Mix the ingredients and then add back some of the reserved liquid, a little at a time, until the dough is smooth and shiny but not soupy.

Also, make sure you’re using the proper size eggs called for in the recipe (if you’re using eggs). The wrong size egg can throw off a recipe’s liquid measurement and impact your final results.

I have a question about “all-purpose” gluten-free flour. “All-purpose” wheat flour can be used for all baking needs and also as a thickening agent. But there are so many different versions of all-purpose gluten-free flour blends that I don’t know which fits what type of recipe, like the cake I want to make.

I understand your confusion. No one all-purpose formula is the absolutely perfect master blend for all gluten-free recipes. To make gluten-free baking easier, heed these two principles:

(1) Use a blend rather than a single flour for any recipe that calls for more than ¼ cup flour. This is because no single flour can do all the work to replace gluten. Some flours are too gritty, some too gummy, some too dry. Others can overpower with an aftertaste. Creating a blend allows gluten-free bakers to minimize negative qualities and maximize the positive properties of the various flours and starches. For example, rice flour adds bulk and texture while starch absorbs moisture and lightens a baked good. A high-protein flour (amaranth, quinoa, teff, millet, chickpea, sorghum) provides elasticity but it may have an aftertaste if it’s the predominant flour used.

(2) Bakers have more control over the end product by using a blend that’s customized to their specific recipe. One blend delivers extra elasticity, ideal for a yeast bread or pizza. Another gives a fine crumb, perfect for cookies. A third provides a light texture, great for cakes. This is why there are so many blends.

So don’t worry if you can’t come up with one formula that fits all your baking needs. At the very least, a gluten-free all-purpose flour blend should work in your cake recipe. If you want to lighten it just a bit, add approximately 2 tablespoons extra cornstarch to your blend. (Cake flour is all-purpose flour with cornstarch added.)

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