Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flour

I just spent an hour looking for recipes on molasses cookies. Who does that? I also tried to find gluten free and vegan substitutes for the recipe so that I could possibly make it work for more—ahem, refined—palettes. Then I went on my merry way to the store and got all the ingredients.

Except the molasses. I forgot the ingredient that makes a molasses cookie a molasses cookie. I'm not dumb, just preoccupied with the extraordinary cost of cloves, ground ginger and the difficulties of replicating wheat flour.

Basically, wheat flour has gluten. So too do rye, barley, and oats but their gluten content is much lower in comparison to wheat. The gluten has an interesting property that makes it perfect for baking leavened products. It holds together under most baking temperatures creating that light fluffiness that we so enjoy in our cookies, muffins, cakes, and breads. Basically, when flour—wheat flour is used—it traps gas in the mixture, allowing for the product to rise and hold its structure.

There are substitutes out there, but they require a lot more thought and precision. The biggest challenge is taste. Usually other flours have a different flavor that can radically alter the final product. A great example is using rye flour to bake bread. The end result is a much earthier and bitter product. The second hurdle is texture and color. Most other flours give a different texture to the final product. Rice flour can make the product seem grainy. On the color side, all other flours have different colors and often must be modified in some way to make the food look edible. I've read things like using turmeric to recolor the flour.

The third problem in using substitute flours is the complexity of the mixes. What was once one ingredient quickly balloons into many because of the little tricks needed to achieve a similar final product. Typically substitute mixes require three or four different types of flour in varying combinations to maintain the color, texture, flavor character of the wheat. As a substitute for wheat gluten, it is often necessary to add some sort of starch or binding agent. Guar gum, xanthan gum, and potato starch are the most common. This addition also adds to the complexity in another way. Often the flours require different water contents than what is provided in the original recipe (they are more or less thirsty than wheat). This means that careful measurement of the liquid ingredients to get the right consistency is needed. Finally, there is the dilemma of using gums. Guar and xanthan gum are very tricky ingredients because a little goes a long way. Over or under measuring of these can make or break the final product, leading to flat dense pieces or giant oven eating blobs.

Now, it is possible to get away with buying gluten free flour and using the same recipe. The problem with this is that the product must be baked immediately and handled as if it were nitro-glycerin. The mixture becomes volatile and prone to collapse. Without careful and gentle stirring a dense piece of mush could come out of the oven. This solution generally works only for cookie mixtures that can be immediately baked. If the dough has to be cooled in a refrigerator, or if it is for something larger, all bets are off.

The point of all this is that if you like baked goods and have opted to get into a gluten free diet for non-medical reasons, there will be a significant extra effort involved in their creation. I seriously do not recommend going gluten free unless it is necessary. Also, don't think that going gluten free on baked goods will be good on the carbs front. Wheat gluten actually has a fairly high protein content and is one of the 'healthier' flours—unless of course you are allergic.