Gluten Free Substitutions Part V: Sorting out the Nuts & Bolts

by Jenn on August 10, 2010

in GF Substitutions,Gluten Free,Photography

Thanks for your patience!  We had a bit of a web hosting hiccup this weekend with my domain registration, so Jenn Cuisine was down for a day, but now things are back up and running full swing!  And while my website was down and there was nothing I could do about it at the time, I was off enjoying beautiful views like this:


No, I wasn’t off in a fantasy land in my head, this place really exists, and it’s in Switzerland.  It’s even more gorgeous if you see this scene with your own eyes, standing on top of the world (we were pretty high up in the Alps!).  Probably more important, the clean and sometimes brisk mountain air was perfect for realizing some of the other needs I have in life, like stopping for a moment, letting my mind shut off, and seeking out a little clarity.  I really find admiring the vast beauty of nature to be the perfect method for achieving my “zen place”.  And I’m sure my knees and thighs will forgive me later.

But speaking of seeking out clarity (and my quite awkwardly abrupt transition sentence), now we are back to regularly planned things, like continuing the Gluten Free Substitution Series and elucidating all there is about cooking gluten free!

So, the past few weeks of this series have been all about simple easy substitutions that one can do to convert a dish from glutenicious to gluten-less.  We’ve learned about recognizing those meals that don’t need any changes at all, ones where simple one-ingredient switches are needed, and a bit about employing pre-made flour mixes.  If you only ever do these three things, I promise that with just a little creativity, you can create diverse flavorful meals ranging from easy weeknight dinners to fancy desserts for that romantic evening gazing dreamily like a love-sick teenager into the eyes of someone you love.  I went for a long time cooking only things that would fit into one of these last 3 posts.  Trust me, you can too, and it can be both simple to adapt and delicious.

But let’s say that you are really craving some homemade from scratch apple pie, or pancakes, or ravioli.  Things all of a sudden become a bit more complex, eh?  Now we have all of those alternative flours to choose from, and there’s no manual at the grocery store for buying gluten free ingredients.  Don’t you sometimes wish they had one?  One that said, “Yes, you need this magic flour over here, this will be the secret ingredient for the perfect brownies.”  I wanted this too, especially when I first started baking.


The first daunting task – categorizing all the ingredients.

For now, I’m going to provide my basic overview of gluten free ingredients of the powdery variety.  As I’ve stated before, I generally separate them into three main categories – binding agents, starches, and flours.  These aren’t necessarily hard and fast lines to be drawn, as some starches can work as binding agents, and some things that I would call starches actually have the word “flour” in their name…. but I’m distinguishing them based on how I use them, and I’ll spend one week on each.

For binding agents, I generally think of ingredients such as gums (xanthan, guar), gelatins, etc.  One can’t always be used for another, so it helps to know under what circumstances are most suitable for each one!  They really shine when one is making something that needs to either A) hold together or B) trap air to rise.  Sometimes (and often) you want your stuff to do both!  These are two things that developed gluten is the king of doing, and so I often think of these binding agents as the “gluten replacements”.

For starches, generally these are things that can dissolve easily in a little water to make a clear gelatenous like liquid/paste.  Cornstarch, tapioca, potato, arrowroot, etc.  They are often integral to many gluten free mixes, but rarely awesome on their own.

Then come all the flours.  Let’s keep this topic manageable, shall we?  We have cereals (like sorghum, millet, rice, and the many variations of rice flour).  Pseudo-cereals (like buckwheat and quinoa) that aren’t really grasses at all.  Beans (like chickpeas and soy). And finally nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.).  I often use cereal flours for their texture, and the others for their flavors.

Other Categorization Methods:
But this is just how I sort out all of the bags of fluffy gluten-freeness.  Others use different methods.  For example, Amy of Simply Sugar & Gluten Free likes to sort them by density, and then think about how that property is going to be needed in a baked good.  Carrie of Ginger Lemon Girl sorts by glycemic index and whole grains. Natalie of Gluten A Go Go has a great article up on The Daring Kitchen categorizing flours based on their temperaments.  Karine of Gluten Free Goddess categorizes GF ingredients by the weight of the texture, and has quite a lengthy article about using them in recipes.

The question I want to pose to you today, is how do you sort out all of the numerous gluten free ingredients?  Do you have a method?  If so, please share!  We all think and organize our kitchens differently, and it’s useful to see how each one of us makes sense of the myriad of options.  Maybe your methods of categorizing will help someone else sift through what could otherwise be quite an intimidating aisle in their grocery (or online) store!