The Science of Baking – Understanding How to Convert to Gluten Free

My journey to learn how to bake gluten and dairy free (successfully) is ongoing. For every winning recipe, there are around five disasters, but that’s all part of the fun. The key to success is understanding what you are dealing with and how the baking process works. For me, this is about going back a few years to when I worked as a food technologist for a research company. I spent most of my time on product development of, guess what, BREAD. You could say I baked bread for a living!

I understood the importance of each ingredient in bread and the role that each of these play in structure, texture and taste. Put it another way, I know how important gluten is for your traditional loaf, so when you take it out of the equation, you really do have your work cut out to get something that compares.

Having said that it is not impossible to achieve similar results using alternative ingredients, just as long as you understand how these individual ingredients contribute to the overall structure, texture and taste, so that you can substitute them in the right way.

Oh the irony of spending all that time working towards baking the perfect loaf of bread, when here I am (quite a few) years later trying to do the same but on a whole other level. What I’d like to do though, is take you through the baking process to show you how traditional ingredients work together. By understanding this, you can begin to see how you might make substitutions in order to achieve similar results.

What are the main ingredients used in baking?
Most baked goods contain some or all of the following:
Flour, sugar, fat, eggs, liquid, leavening agents and salt


Wheat structure - A Free From Life

The structure of flour is around 10% protein and 70%starch (the rest is fats and enzymes). A baker would choose a high protein flour for bread making (around 12-14%) and a lower protein flour for cakes (8-10%). The reason for this is that the main protein of wheat flour is gluten (70-80% in fact) and it is important for structure (you need your loaf to be robust but you don’t want a tough, chewy piece of cake!).

Gluten consists of two proteins – glutenin and gliadin and when mixed with water it forms a stretchy web. Gluten is able to stretch like elastic and then move back towards its original shape. This allows a wheat dough to expand and rise whilst retaining its original shape. Gluten is the scaffolding of the loaf and it stops a cake from collapsing.

Starch granules in the flour also help to form the structure of baked goods. When the granules absorb water, they swell. Starch also helps to tenderise the crumb of the finished product, by mixing with the gluten network and thereby limiting the development of the gluten (stops it from getting too brittle). Both gluten and starch play a role in delaying the staling of the baked goods, by holding in moisture.

Sugar also plays a role in limiting gluten development, by attracting moisture that would otherwise be absorbed by the gluten. Sugar retains moisture, which adds to the overall texture and taste of the finished product. It also reacts with the proteins in the flour and this contributes to the overall browning, to give a baked good that lovely golden colour.

Adding fat to a mix is important for improving texture and for preventing staling. Fats will shorten a dough i.e. weaken its structure, resulting in a more tender or flaky product. They do this by coating the gliadin and glutenin so that they can’t bind as easily. When sugar is present, the crystals cut tiny holes in to the fat and these become surrounded by starch and gluten. This traps air and when baked it helps increase the volume.

Eggs are important for structure in baked goods. When cooked, the proteins in the eggs set to help stabilise the product. Beating eggs traps air and on cooking, the air bubbles expand to help the product rise. Egg whites in particular form a foam that traps air and can be used to make fluffy light products such as soufflés.

Leavening agents
Leavening agents help a baked product to rise. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is mildly alkaline (pH 8.2) and is often used in a recipe that contains acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, buttermilk or vinegar. The baking soda reacts with the acids to produce carbon dioxide and acts as a neutraliser of the mixture. This affects the final texture and taste of the baked product.

Baking powder is a mixture of baking soda (which is alkaline) and an acid compound. Once added to liquid, the two react to produce carbon dioxide. Baking powder helps give a fluffy and light texture to the baked product, however, if you add too much, the batter or dough can over expand, weakening the overall structure (think collapsed cake).

Yeast is a living, single cell organism. It feeds on sugar and as it reproduces, it releases carbon dioxide. A by-product of this reaction is alcohol, which adds flavour to the finished product.
The carbon dioxide produced by the leavening agents becomes trapped in tiny air bubbles (made possible by the addition of the other ingredients). When baked, the air in these bubbles expands and this is how the product is able to rise.

Salt adds flavour and it controls the growth of yeast so that it doesn’t grow too fast and overstretch the dough. Salt also acts to strengthen the bonds of the gluten network.

You can see that together, the ingredients of a baked good all have a role to play in the texture, flavour and shape of the finished product. They are all important. The question is then, how can you achieve the same success without gluten?

Gluten free flours tend to be heavier than wheat flours. They also absorb more moisture. What this means for baking is that you can’t substitute a wheat flour for a gluten free alternative in a recipe in a like for like ratio. Gluten free flours differ to each other in texture and flavour and no one flour mimics the effects of wheat flour. What food scientists have discovered, though, is that by combining different gluten free flours and starches, it is possible to achieve similar, if not better results.

Next time, I will discuss the different types of gluten free flours you can use and how to work with them for successful baking.

About Nicola Young

Freelance writer and copywriter

2 thoughts on “The Science of Baking – Understanding How to Convert to Gluten Free

  1. Brilliant post!!! I am a scientist by training so I love baking gluten-free! I find it a challenge and am always hunting out new ways to do things. I have done so much research on the different properties of flour and have finally come up with two flour blends, for cakes etc and one for bread…that I am happy with! Keep an eye out for my first book later this year where I will share the recipe for the blends and recipes using them!

    1. Thanks. I’ve been meaning to get this one off my chest for ages! I have my preferred flours, but I also make my own because I can’t have potato. A lot, in fact most, of the blends I came across at the Free From show included potato starch. I tend to stick with tapioca. Do you use arrowroot? Your book sounds right up my street. Look forward to that.

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