The Answer…to the Ultimate Question…

By BE Gluten Free | GF Information

May 27

Have you have ever tried to convert a recipe to “gluten free”? Then you have experienced the glory of true frustration and failure (usually repeated failures) and probably discovered several new ways to communicate with the inanimate object of your angst. “What the fluffy bunny?” is a favorite of ours — particularly when dealing with breads or pastries.

This difficult problem also points to the question that everyone eventually gets around to asking at the Farmer's Market:

The ultimate Question: “What flours do you use?”.

Seriously?? THAT is the ‘ultimate question'?? Well…yeah… It never seems to be “How do you…” or “Can you…”, it always boils down to that question – and it really IS the ultimate question in gluten free baking\cooking. Granted – there are a LOT of other questions we had (and still have) getting into the ‘gluten free' lifestyle. Unfortunately this is not a simple question to answer. The ultimate answer is apparent when we look at what makes gluten free different from gluten based. What is it about wheat baking that make things taste, or look, or smell ‘just so'? What challenges do we need to overcome to produce a true replacement and not just a looks like.

The challenge is that, when substituting for wheat flour, you have to deal with a lot more than just replacing gluten. This means we may need to ‘tweak' our flour replacement as we go to meet the demands of the recipe.

An Example:
Wheat flour brings a variety of different elements to a dish, try comparing “whole (red) wheat” and “(bleached) white flour”:

  • texture (coarse vs. velvety)
  • flavor (vibrant vs. mild)
  • appearance (rustic vs smooth)
  • handling (dense and firm vs. light and delicate)

These basic elements (and other less obvious ones) must all be represented in a final product for it to be a viable replacement in an gluten free diet. We know too many people who have simply given up on bread after years of trying the various commercial products because it only ‘looked like' bread…

  • Sure, that ‘rice loaf' LOOKS like bread – but try to wrap it around a bratwurst (or eat it without water…lots of water.
  • Absolutely, that ‘tortilla shell' LOOKS the same, but you'll need solvents to remove the sticky thing from your teeth when cooked, and um, don't let it cool down again before you wrap it – unless you enjoy glass-like shards?
  • Holy Cow that pastry tastes delicious, too bad it looks like a pile of ….(I'll post my ‘Failed Croissant Experiment” soon)

Typically one element – and often several – are given only token attention in commercial products, thus the stereotype for gluten free food: Tasteless, gritty cardboard\sawdust like substances. Thankfully that is changing rapidly!

SO – “What flours do we use?”

For a reliable “General Purpose” flour we try to balance the texture and structure of the “rice flours” with the lighter “starches” and add a bit of ‘wheat like flavor'. Often this results in various combinations of

  • White and Brown Rice
  • Sweet White Rice
  • Tapioca
  • Cornstarch
  • Potato Starch
  • and Sorghum,
  • plus some binding agents like Xanthan Gum and Guar Gum

However – as we've noted before…every recipe is a little bit different. Even though a general purpose flour mix will work in about 85% of the recipes on a nearly direct replacement, it will NOT work in certain situations.

No Kidding… tell me something NEW!

For us a lot of research goes into each variation of gluten free flour mix. For example:

A tortilla shell recipe CAN use our general purpose mix and it will taste ‘almost as good as' – but it's a bit “ricey” for our famliy so we tweak the recipe to use more starch (less sticky) and sorghum (flavor and color). By replacing almost half of the rice with these two items we have a tortilla shell that has both the texture, taste, and appearance of the ‘real deal' without falling apart – even our 5 year old eats them without noticing.

In making gluten free baklava or even crêpes we need to tweak even more. To get a truly flaky phyllo dough you can not use as much rice flour as in the general purpose mix. Rolled thin enough – to see the texture of the counter through the dough(!) – that much rice flour will dry out and become brittle too quickly. By switching to a greater proportion of starch and sorghum a more tender dough, that browns well and holds together can be obtained. …Granted there are still a few secrets about handling, layering, flouring, etc. involved to really get it to work right, but hey – check us out at the Farmer's Market or pics on Flickr!

Cool… but I was really looking for a list…

OK – but I really suck at lists…consider this a continual ‘work in progress' as I stuggle with getting what's in my head out into a usable format – cool? 🙂

Ingredient Dough Handling Appearance Taste Texture
White Rice Flour VolumizingFirming Fine GrainedLight Color Light tan when deep fried

Brown crusting when baked

Mild flavor Brittle\HardSticky


Sweet White Rice Flour(aka Glutinous Rice Flour) VolumizingAids in air entrapment

Dough softening

Delicately grainedLight Color

None to Light tan when deep fried

Brown crusting when baked

Mild Flavor Gooey if under cookedBrittle if over-cooked\used

Can easily add ‘mochi like’ stickiness

Brown Rice Flour VolumizingDough Firming Light Brown ColorLight tan when deep fried

Brown crusting when baked

Nutty Flavor Brittle\HardSticky


Potato Flour Dough ThickeningDough Softening Light tan when deep fried (think french fry)Light Brown crusting when baked Potato Flavor Mashed Potato textureFine, soft grain


Sweet Sorghum Flour Dough Firming Brown when deep fried and baked “Wheat” like flavor, slight nutty-ness SmoothSpringy
Garbonzo Bean Flour Structure enhancingDense Slight yellow\green colorDense Strong ‘bean’ flavor FirmSmooth

Slight ‘mashed potato’ like texture – medium grain


Tapioca Starch Thickens quickly at a lower temperature than other starches Delicately grainedWhite

Light Tan

Satiny smooth, glossy appearance alone, moist ‘glow’ in baked goods

Mildly starchy otherwise none Imparts a chewier texture similar to gluten in breads
Corn Starch Does not absorb liquid until cookedVolumizing

Thickens less in acidic environments

Does not freeze well

Delicately grainedWhite

Light Tan

Satiny smooth, glossy appearance alone, moist ‘glow’ in baked goods

Unpleasant ‘raw’ taste when uncooked (frostings)Essentially flavorless after cooking Very delicate and light textureExcellent in Angel Food Cakes

Starchy if undercooked

Arrowroot Thickens quickly at a lower temperature than other starches (similar to tapioca starch) Delicately grainedWhite

Light Tan

Satiny smooth, glossy appearance alone, moist ‘glow’ in baked goods

Least flavorful of starches Slimy in acidic or dairy based environments

Also, pay attention to your leavening agents!

Additional Resources:

Like any good recipe each one is unique we have found a general purpose flour mix that “works” for the quick, day to day cooking needs that keeps our palates happy and our eyes pleased – but for that experience of just like the ‘real thing' we still end up modifying as we go.

We would love to hear from you on what your experiences are,  and especially any questions you might need answers for to help you tweak your gluten free recipes to perfection!

About the Author

Classically trained in Biology and Genetics at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Biological Sciences campus. Gluten free for more than 5 years.