Just as appetites are growing for ancient wheat flours like spelt, Kamut, and einkorn, so too is consumer demand for naturally gluten-free flours like buckwheat, sorghum, and teff — albeit a bit more slowly. Little by little, whether they have gluten intolerances or not, bakers are beginning to appreciate the unique flavors presented by gluten-free alternatives. The result? Tastier loaves of gluten-free bread.
1. Stock up on "short" and "long" flours
"Gluten-free isn't a fad diet, and it isn't a diet that lacks," said Naomi Devlin, the U.K.-based author of River Cottage Gluten Free. "It potentially could be a diet that has a lot more flavor and diversity in it." Despite being seemingly everywhere, gluten is found only in three cereals: barley, wheat, and rye (plus hybrids like triticale). On the other hand, gluten-free grains and cereals are far more numerous: buckwheat, teff, millet, corn, sorghum, rice, lentil, chickpea, almond, quinoa, amaranth — the list goes on.
Unlike the more standardized bleached all-purpose wheat flours available en masse at grocery stores, gluten-free flours each have their own flavor profiles, capabilities, and limitations. "The way I break flours down is into long and short flours. I think of them as a kind of spectrum, with short flours like corn and rice being crumbly and dry; and long flours like oat and buckwheat being stretchy, binding, and capable of holding a shape. Teff is somewhere toward the long end. In the middle, you have things like quinoa, millet, and chestnut," said Devlin. "[For gluten-free breads], you're often looking at combining a long flour with a short flour in order to get the benefits of both. You want the short flour to dry out the crumb of the bread, and you want the long flour to provide stretch and chew." Most gluten-free recipes will call for a blend of different flours to achieve the desired texture and flavor.
In addition to providing structure and elasticity to doughs, gluten helps retain moisture in wheat-based sourdough loaves. Without it, gluten-free breads tend to go stale much more quickly. To counteract that, Ian Lowe, a Tasmania-based artisan baker and the owner of Apiece, incorporates freshly milled chickpea flour into his final mix. "The inclusion of legume flours slows staling associated with gluten-free breads due to the resistant starch content of legumes," said Lowe. "Five to 15% of the total flour blend yields the best results."
Of course, within the world of gluten-free flours, there also tends to be more variation. "There's huge inconsistency among brands. I feel like 75% of the time when I'm helping people troubleshoot their bread, it has to do with milling," said Aran Goyoaga, the author of "Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple." All of Goyoaga's recipes call for superfine flours, which hydrate better than the more commercially available stone-ground flours, thus preventing the gumminess and crumbliness often associated with gluten-free baking. Superfine flours can be purchased online (Goyoaga recommends Anthony's Goods, Authentic Foods, and Terrasoul Superfoods; Devlin is a fan of Shipton Mill in the U.K.), but if all you can find is stone-ground, Goyoaga suggests holding back around 10% of the water in her recipes.
When measuring your flours (and other ingredients), use a kitchen scale. "In gluten-free baking, weighing is the number one priority," said Goyoaga. "If you're using stone-ground instead of superfine, the densities are going to be slightly different. If you're using volume measures, you'll end up with different amounts of flour."
2. Use a strong (gluten-free) sourdough starter
The starting point in every gluten-free sourdough journey is cultivating a starter, a fermented dough brimming with wild yeast and bacteria that acts as a natural leavener. Goyoaga uses superfine brown rice flour in her gluten-free sourdough starter — compared to other gluten-free flours, rice is more economical, more mild-flavored, and creates an environment that most closely mimics a wheat-based starter.
"Wheat starters typically have 100 bacterial cells for every yeast cell; natural rice starters support approximately the same ratio," said Lowe. "Millet does as well." Teff, quinoa, or buckwheat flours will also do the trick.
Regardless of the recipe you use, the process is generally the same: Mix (gluten-free) flour and water repetitively at room temperature over several days. As the mixture ferments, it will bubble into a reliable colony of yeast and bacteria.
Once your starter is consistently rising and falling after each feeding, you can experiment with subbing in other gluten-free grains — even cocoa — to match your personal flavor and sourness preferences. Teff will contribute a more sour note evocative of wheat sourdough. Alternatively, "you don't have to embrace the sourness," said Devlin. "The method of overfeeding, or making sure that the starter is really fresh and lively, tends to make a sweeter, more flavorsome bread."
Owing to the higher starch and water content, gluten-free sourdough starters tend to be more volatile than their wheat-based counterparts. Because they rise and fall more quickly, you'll have a shorter window in which to use them. "I always tell people to only ferment their starter until it's mousse-like. If you let it go too far, your bread is just going to collapse in the oven," said Goyoaga. "You're just going to waste a bunch of ingredients." If you store your starter in a glass jar, mark the top of the starter with a rubber band just after mixing. This allows you to track progress throughout the day: how much it expands, how long it takes, and what it looks like once it begins to fall. Try to use your starter just before it peaks.
3. Learn which ingredients provide additional structure
"With gluten flour, you're either activating the gluten or avoiding gluten development," said Devlin. For example, when making chewy bread, you want gluten development, whereas with crumbly cookies, you want to avoid it. "With gluten-free baking, you're thinking, how can I support the flour to get the result that I want?" Gluten-free baking requires a few extra ingredients to provide additional structure — namely hydrocolloids, starches, binders, and fats.
A hydrocolloid refers to something that can be combined with water to form a gel. In gluten-free breads, hydrocolloids perform similarly to gluten by binding water in a matrix, thus helping the bread expand and rise. Goyoaga, Devlin, and Lowe all rely on psyllium husk powder. "Psyllium husk does not negatively impact crumb texture in the same way all other hydrocolloids do," said Lowe.
Unlike wheat-based sourdoughs, gluten-free doughs made with psyllium husk powder are not extensible — they cannot stretch. In other words, gluten-free breads have a harder time expanding around large air bubbles formed during fermentation. As a result, fermentation tends to be shorter and the dough is much more delicate. For best results, seek out a high-quality, finely ground psyllium husk powder. Goyoaga recommends purchasing from Terrasoul Superfoods.
In addition to hydrocolloids, most gluten-free sourdough recipes will call for a blend of starches to lighten up the heavier whole grain flours. "When I think about a boule, I want some open crumb," said Goyoaga, referring to loaves with a light interior featuring regular, consistently dispersed air pockets. "For that, you need to have whole grain and starch." Goyoaga's gluten-free sourdough boule recipe in "Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple" relies on tapioca starch, which is binding and chewy, and potato starch, which is tender and light.
"Starch, although not essential, helps final loaf volume and texture," said Lowe. "Generally, optimal amounts are between 20 to 33% of the total flour blend, with my favorite, in order, being corn, potato, and tapioca."
Binders and fats
Due to higher hydration and the lack of gluten, gluten-free doughs will often require further binding. This may come in the form of ground flaxseed or eggs, which help thicken, provide structure, and make it easier for dough to expand. Dough strength may also come from the addition of fats: "Fats like oil help stabilize gas bubbles during proofing and baking," said Lowe. "Fats that are liquid at room temperature work best, at levels between 1 and 10% of flour weight." In wheat-based breads, fats (like eggs, milk, and oil) are typically reserved for enriched breads like brioche, challah, focaccia, and babka.
4. Shape and bake those loaves like a pro
Rye- and wheat-based sourdoughs often require a pre-shaping step before being placed in tins or bannetons, but gluten-free breads are primarily shaped by the container in which they're proofed. For boules, gently form a smooth dough ball and place it in your proofing basket.
Because gluten-free doughs are weaker, choosing narrower proofing baskets and baking tins that contain the dough will help with achieving desired height. "You want tins that have a tall, narrow profile. This ensures good volume, with an excellent cross-section when sliced," said Lowe. "Having more surface area relative to the interior ensures adequate heat transfer. This is essential since gluten-free breads contain such high water amounts." Goyoaga recommends King Arthur Flour's specialty gluten-free bread tins or pullman loaf tins.
When you're ready to bake, boules will need to be inverted and lowered into the Dutch oven. Scoring — the decorative slashing on the top of bread — helps direct expansion, and must be done quickly right before baking. "I love to do faces on loaves," said Devlin. "But [with gluten-free sourdough] you have to go fast. You have to be confident."
Once your loaf is in the oven, get comfortable — it's going to take a while. Goyoaga's sourdough boule recipe clocks in at 120% hydration and takes over an hour and a half to bake. (For reference, most wheat sourdough recipes are in the 70 to 90% hydration range.) Once fully baked to an internal temperature of 210ºF, you'll want to let your loaves completely cool to set the crumb and avoid a gummy texture.
5. Remember: Experimenting > perfection
The foremost piece of advice that Lowe, Devlin, and Goyoaga agreed on is that gluten-free sourdough should not be an ersatz version of wheat sourdough. The flavors and textures are completely their own, with their own distinct capabilities and limitations. Goyoaga's recipe is flavorful and earthy, with a slight but lingering bitterness.
"It's not that it's dense, but it has that kind of light, close crumb that you can get from a really great rye bread. Which is actually a joy to eat!" said Devlin. "They're deeply flavorsome. You get this great caramelization on the crust with gluten-free, because the sugars are more free."
The final piece of advice is to experiment. Goyoaga's boule recipe took over a year to develop, and continues to evolve as she works with new ingredients and techniques. The same is true, I'm sure, for Devlin and Lowe.
"We're real bread-heads, you know," said Devlin of her fellow gluten-free bakers. "Everyone's always excited about the other baking we do, but actually it's the bread that makes me delighted. It's life changing."