Being an honest man, I have to admit that baking has always been something of a mystery to me. How do flour, eggs, and water transform so miraculously into so many varieties of tasty treats? Earlier this year we debuted our new “made without gluten” bakery section here at the Juice Bar and it has proven to be a great success. With that success has come a number of questions regarding how we bake without gluten—what makes the recipes work and how can you do it at home are the two most frequent. This month, I decided it was time to do the research myself and find out the secrets of baking my own bread—without gluten.

My first question was, “Why does it matter?” What makes baking bread without gluten any different or more difficult than baking with it? Turns out, there’s a big difference. Bread flour is usually has a high gluten content—around 11 to 12 percent. The gluten in the flour acts like, well, glue. It gives the dough structure and traps the gas bubbles created by yeast. Those trapped bubbles are what makes the bread rise. The more gluten you have, the firmer the dough and the more likely it rises without deflating. So we have to find a substitute that won’t lose these qualities. Wheat, barley, and rye are the most common flours used in baking bread and we’ve already eliminated them.

Gluten-free flours

Flours without gluten include tapioca, potato, and white or brown rice. There are others as well, but for the sake of space we’ll limit our list. You can check numerous gluten-free lifestyle websites for more. The problem with using these flours in a straight up swap for wheat flour is that you won’t have solved the rising problem and none provide the right texture—you’ll end up with a bread that has the look and feel of a brick, and the texture of a sandcastle.

Mix your flours

To address these problems it’s best to use a mixture of flours, but you also have to use the right proportion of each since each brings its own special properties to the table. With its sweet flavor, rice flour makes a good base so you’ll want it to be around 50 percent of your mix. It also is closest in character to using wheat flour. It absorbs and thickens well, but it totally fails when it comes to binding. Tapioca flour will also thicken well and has much better binding qualities than rice flour. Make this around 20 percent of your mix. Finally, potato flour is a light flour that will help prevent your mix from becoming too dense. Make it the last 30 percent. These proportions vary—but generally it’s two parts rice, two-thirds parts potato, and one-third part tapioca.

Binding agents

While you now have some binding ability, if you want your bread to really work out well you need something extra. You need a lot of pliability in your dough to work it properly so that the bread will stay together once you’ve baked it. For this we turn to xanthan (zan-thun) gum. Xanthan gum is a by-product of sugar fermentation and it has excellent binding properties. Add about 3/4 teaspoon per cup of flour when you make bread. You can also use guar gum, which is derived from guar beans. It can be used in the same proportions, but can also give you a cakier, sponge-like texture.

Now that you have your base, you can proceed like you would with most any bread recipe. The one I followed is from The Pratt Family Allergy Free Cookbook (I found their website online and it was easy to follow.) Here it is:

  • 2 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons GF Flour Mixture
  • 2 1/2 Tbs. sugar (You can reduce the amount of sugar.)
  • 2 1/2 tsp. guar gum
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. instant (quick) yeast
  • 2 extra large eggs
  • 1 tsp. rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbs: cooking oil
  • 1 cup water (100˚-120˚F)

Directions: Mix all the dry ingredients together. Add the eggs, vinegar and oil. Mix, slowly adding the water to the mixture. Scrape into an oiled or greased non-stick loaf pan. Cover with wax paper or plastic wrap. Let rise for 35-45 minutes or until it rises about 3/4” below the top of the pan. Bake in a preheated 375º F oven for 20 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes more. Test with a toothpick. It will come out clean if it is done. (It will be light brown on top or it will smell done.)

Note that this recipe doesn’t give a lot of information on working the dough. I tried by following the recipe exactly and it worked out okay. I also tried working the dough by folding it in half, kneading, and then turning the dough and repeating a couple of times. After that, I put it in a metal bowl to rise before baking it. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference—but I did feel more like I really baked!