Did you like those brownies? Yeeesss you diiiiiid.
Were you wondering about the gluten-free thing going on with them? Maybe. I’ll tell you about it anyway.
I started learning about gluten a year or so ago because it seemed a lot of people were suddenly being diagnosed as gluten-intolerant or celiacs. The gluten-intolerance is like an allergy, similar to people who are lactose-intolerant. Eating things that contain gluten may make them bloated, give them headaches, diarrhea, affect their nutrition, etc. Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder and has more detrimental effects on those who have it; malnutrition, weight loss, anemia, growth stunts, even miscarriage. The whole issue of gluten sensitivities is very biologically and chemically complex, so I won’t get into that because I can’t pronounce half the terms. There’s a lot of research still being done also, both in regards to those who are sensitive to gluten and those who can still eat it. There’s a blip in the book Breaking the Food Seduction by Neal Barnard that talks about gluten having an opiate effect on us, which may partially explain a lot of people’s worship of breads and other baked goods. Mmm, breeaaad…
So I decided to not only get my learn on, but also be able to provide delicious things to people who don’t get along with gluten. I figured I veganize just about everything, so why not take it a step further and take the gluten out?
The funny thing about the pop-up occurrence of gluten-free labels is that suddenly, people who are capable of eating gluten started to think that gluten is a bad thing. Most didn’t or don’t even know what it is. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein in wheat, and a few other grains that are related to wheat. Think of it as the muscle of these grains. It’s what gives bread elasticity, like when you tear off a piece of French bread and it has that stretch. It also lends that satisfying chew, and binds everything together. And when you prepare foods with gluten, the more you work that muscle, the stronger it becomes. Bread dough usually has to be kneaded for a certain amount of time so that the gluten develops properly. Whereas if you did that to pie crust, it would come out tough, and not flaky-goodness.
So gluten is not bad, per se. But it is rather unique. It can be hard to replace in recipes. Depending on what you’re making, you have to have the right proportions of protein, starch, absorption properties… oy. I found it fortunate that I had been baking for so long and had ideas of what textures I was looking for in a final product. After that, it’s figuring out what among your options is going to yield closest to the traditional wheat flour version. I had to read about the different types of gluten-free flours. I found out about their protein and starch content, the flavors they give off, etc. Yeah, flavor is an issue. With bean flours more than anything. And yes, they do make flour out of beans. Dried beans, not cooked. Bean flours are definitely good for soft cohesion, like in a cake. Think about their texture when cooked and mashed; they’re absorbent, have a creamy feel, and a good bind to them. But too much bean flour and the cake will taste… beany. And no matter how much you love beans, it’s gonna be a weird kind of beany. But anywho, let’s look at those brownies for now.
I discovered amaranth flour a little while ago. Faaaantastic, that amaranth flour. It has a good amount of protein, and a soft, slightly nutty flavor which will do well with almost any baked good. The sorghum flour is new to me, but I’ve seen a lot of gluten-free baking mixes use it. I read that it’s nutritious and gives good flavor. It’s also used to make syrup and beer. I thought perhaps, that if like wheat and barley, a grain can be used to brew beer (and hopefully a decent beer), then maybe it will do well with general baking. Plus, it’s relatively cheap. So far, so good in brownies. We’ll see what happens with other baked goods when the chocolate is not there to interfere with the flavor of the grain. Tapioca starch is another commonly used ingredient with gluten-free items. It’s made from cassava root, aka yuca, manioc, and a whole lot of other names around the world. It has a starchy elasticity to it, and rather light flavor. If you’ve had tapioca pearls in pudding or bubble tea (or even the cooked root itself), that may give you a little idea of why it’s ideal. But most important in gluten-free baking are the gum powders. In this case, guar and xanthan. Both act as thickeners and binders. They help to stabilize the cohesion of flours that normally wouldn’t stick together the way wheat flour can (because of the gluten, of course). A little of both go a long way, especially xanthan. The xanthan is super vital because of it’s elasticity. See what happens when it’s mixed with water…
I know, crazy. And gross-looking. But it mimics the structure of gluten, and without it, the brownies would be crumbly and sad. And so would I.
And that’s the story behind the brownies and their success in the absence of gluten. If you make them and want to try other flours, DO IT. See if you can find even better substitutes. Let me know. Share the love.
Personally, I have no health issues with gluten. I can have a happy relationship with breads, pizza, pasta, pastries, and all the other foods where gluten is obvious and not-so-obvious. But I actually have reduced my intake of gluten, to see how I feel. And there is a difference. My metabolism feels more efficient, my mid-section has seen a bit of a trim. Of course, the lack of bread and other carbohydrates will do that, but it I’ve also substituted those products with more beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables. I really should be eating more grains like quinoa, rice, millet and oats, but I’m lazy. I can attest, however, that when I bake something gluten-free, it feels lighter on my digestion. My vegan treats already make a world of difference in their after-effects, but it’s great to know that there’s a way to make them even more digestible. Big motivation to test other gluten-free recipes. And to play with xanthan gum.