Failure Is Not An Option: The Beginner's Guide To Gluten-Free Holiday Baking


The recent efforts of a German baking company to create crumb-free bread for the International Space Station reminds us of the importance of not screwing up the holiday baking. In both cases failure is not an option, as the consequences can be dire.

We all know that holiday baking is often stressful. But if you are one of an increasing number of hosts who now have to accommodate gluten-free guests, it can be downright frightening. What if you have never successfully baked anything gluten-free before?

Do not be discouraged. Gluten-free holiday baking may be an intimidating venture but it doesn't have to be the epic fail that all of us fear. Here are some things for beginners to keep in mind:

Understand the science.

A gluten-free baker once said that "If regular baking is basic science, gluten-free baking is advanced chemistry". If you're looking for the kind of consistency you typically get with traditional baking, you have come to the wrong place. The key to this is--you guessed it--the absence of gluten.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It gives baked goods their texture, nutrition and, to a certain degree, flavor. Thanks to gluten, breads are chewy and elastic and cakes are moist and fluffy. To achieve similar results, gluten-free baked goods have to rely on combinations of the right types of flour and the addition of binders and starches, all of which behave in different ways depending on which ones you choose to use.

Keep it simple.

In general, the beginner gluten-free baker should follow the rule that all smart bakers follow: do not choose complicated recipes for a first attempt. A simple apple tart, cupcake or brownie will taste just as delicious as that Brown Butter Harvest Cake With Vanilla Nut Creme you have your eye on, and won't be nearly as tricky or time-consuming to complete.

Check out these simple gluten-free holiday recipes,

Know your ingredients.

Once you've chosen your recipes, read them carefully and make sure you have all the ingredients on hand. Know what each one does. For example, there are many gluten-free flours and flour blends, and they all have certain characteristics. Eggs act as a binder and leavening agent in gluten-free goods, and so can be substituted with other binders such as flaxseed and pureed fruits if you're going vegan.

Gluten-free recipes will include these ingredients:

GF flour--Common varieties are rice (white and brown), potato, sorghum, tapioca, buckwheat, rye, oat, coconut, almond, soy, quinoa, teff and amaranth

Starches: Potato, tapioca, arrowroot, cornstarch

Binders: Eggs, chia seeds, flaxseed, psyllium husks, guar gum

Here's a more complete list of gluten-free ingredients.

Adjust your expectations.

Gluten-free baked goods often don't look, taste or feel the same as traditional. When working with the dough, for example, you may notice a certain gritty look and feel (particularly when working with rice flour). You may observe that, when dry and liquid is mixed together the dough seems dense, and the finished product seems crumbly. Also, since there is no gluten, the usual kneading step can be skipped, and baking times and/or temps reduced.

Despite these differences, when ratios are correct and the product is baked properly, gluten-free baked goods turn out just fine. Learn to adjust your expectations of what dough and batter should look and feel like. As you do more of it, you'll become familiar with the quirks.

Practice, practice

Certain problems are endemic to gluten-free baking. If this is your first rodeo, then it may come as a surprise to you that your first attempt doesn't turn out as reliably as your traditional recipes do. All the more reason to practice before you make the finished product.

What can you expect? Surprisingly, the biggest complaints about gluten-free bakery are not in the taste department (there have been leaps-and-bounds improvements here), but in texture. It's not unusual to end up with heavy/dense, dry/crumbly, gritty, gummy, sticky baked goods that fall apart easily, Practice with ingredients until you get the right combinations. As in traditional baking, ratios are important here. Your best bet is to stick to the original recipe with slight variations as needed, and several attempts may be necessary.

The hallmark of a truly awesome gluten-free dessert? Your holiday guests can't tell that it's gluten-free. Keep these guidelines in mind, give yourself a little time to perfect your recipes, and soon you will be the gluten-free holiday host with the most. Happy baking!

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