I learned to bake from my mother. She’d get me to retrieve the heavy bag of white flour and heave it up on the counter. Then I watched her mix that flour with butter and sugar, milk and baking powder, into cookies or pies. As I grew older, I became the baker. The flour flew as I made dozens of cookies at once. I knew the texture of cake batter, pizza dough and bread dough by heart. And then I found I could no longer eat gluten.
At first, I mourned. Months past, and I began to experiment. Sometimes, my baking sessions turned out well. I threw together a faux Fig Newton recipe that was so extraordinary from the first try that it ended up in my book. However, the bagels with teff flour? Those were gross.
Mostly, I felt mystified. Why did some recipes work while, other times, cakes fell or came out of the oven raw in the center? I was following established recipes, substituting gluten-free flour mixes cup for cup. Then this year, a breakthrough. I bought a kitchen scale.
Reading Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratio, I discovered what I had been searching for – a formula. I learned that traditional bread always follows the same ratio: five parts flour to three parts water, plus some yeast. I baked a few loaves with gluten-free flours in this ratio, hoping it would work. It didn’t. They were a little too dry and crumbly, with the consistency of cornbread.
I don’t give up easily. I pulled out pen and paper, a calculator, and recipes from my website that really worked. After some time, I understood. Gluten-free bread has to be five parts flour, three parts water, and one part liquid that’s also a protein (for me, that’s one egg, which weighs two ounces. Another suggestion is flaxseed meal mixed with water, sour cream, or yogurt.) Gluten is a binder, but it’s also a protein. We have to replace both parts.
I baked a loaf of bread weighing everything on the scale: 20 ounces of flour, 12 ounces of water, plus two eggs. I threw in xanthan and guar gums for binding, some sugar, the yeast, a good pinch of salt, a bit of honey to counteract the slight bitterness of the gums, and great hope.
Three hours later, I had a good loaf of bread. Not just good gluten-free bread, but good bread.
I’ve much to learn but have started to crack the code. These days, my toddler stands on a chair beside me at our kitchen counter. As I tumble sorghum flour into a bowl, she reaches for the buttons on the scale. Gently, I block her hand. “Wait a second, sweetie. Mama needs four more ounces and then we can make this pie together.”
See Shauna’s recipe for gluten-free pie crust .
Shauna James Ahern’s and Daniel Ahern’s new cookbook is Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, published by John Wiley & Sons. Their blog is Glutenfreegirl.com .