It takes a little extra time and patience, but there are few do-it-yourself foods so satisfying as homemade yeast bread. It presents a special challenge for gluten-free cooks. Gluten-free bread gets a bad rap for being fussy and cardboard-like. However, I’ve discovered it’s no harder than conventional bread and, as usual with gluten-free cooking, with persistence we can find alternatives every bit as delicious as conventional recipes, if not more so.
I didn’t have much information when I realized I was gluten intolerant seven years ago. I had recently bought a bread machine as consolation when my mother was dying of cancer, but it only brought more grief. I was aware I had some unidentified food sensitivity but unfortunately it was all that good, fresh, homemade bread that made me truly sick for the first time. When I started recovering on a gluten-free diet, one of the first things I had to do was get that bread machine out of my home.
We didn’t have as many gluten-free options in 2008. All the bread I tasted was truly horrible. So I stopped eating it entirely for several years. We didn’t have that many recipes either, so I had no idea delicious homemade loaves were possible let alone straightforward. I consoled myself with simpler experiments, and discovered gluten-free muffins can be awesome.
Recently, some delicious gluten-free bread has become available from local bakeries. Over the past year, we have become daily consumers of fresh bread again. However, I have several serious reservations about these.
First and most serious, they don’t necessarily come from dedicated gluten-free bakeries. While the recipe itself contains none of the forbidden grains – wheat, rye, barley, spelt or kamut – conventional wheat bread comes out of the same kitchens. No doubt the pans and ovens are contaminated with gluten. Though I’m not sensitive enough to get sick at these low concentrations, it’s still a serious consideration because people with celiac disease can have ongoing damage without showing any symptoms.
I hate to criticize local bakers who want to make life easier by baking for people on a restricted diet. Unfortunately it’s part of an overwhelming fad around the gluten-free diet that can trivialize the safety of millions of people with a serious health problem. In my own life I’m moving toward buying food only from dedicated gluten-free kitchens, and it seriously restricts my options. I may not be able to buy bread from the neighbourhood bakery, as I’d like to. Fortunately, many more businesses, restaurants and food stores are beginning to take gluten contamination seriously.
My other gripe has to do with healthy grains, never mind whether or not they’re gluten free. Gluten-free baking has to combine whole grains flours for flavour and nourishment with refined flours and starches to soften the texture. In my own baking I use two parts whole grain to one part starch, which provides a good balance of wholesomeness and tastiness. The delicious local bakery bread calls itself quinoa flax bread, two seeds rich in healthy fibre, protein and fatty acids, but I suspect the soft texture comes from an overabundance of tapioca starch.
This is no different from conventional baking. People love the texture of white bread, but it’s not so healthy for you. Those refined flours have a higher glycemic load. Recent information from food research indicates starches are also to blame for high cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease.
Finally, it’s hard for budget-conscious folks to buy gluten-free bread without balking at the price. Three loaves of quinoa flax bread sell for $15 at our farmers’ market. It’s a bargain by gluten-free standards, but still 60 percent more than I’d expect to pay for conventional artisanal bread.
With safety, nutrition and economy in mind, I recently started baking our own bread again. In the future I’d like to experiment with my own formulae, but it’s best to take a few lessons from experience. There are lots of excellent blogs about gluten-free cooking. Two I’ve often drawn inspiration from are Gluten-Free Goddess and Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I’m confident any of their recipes will turn out well, plus providing interesting and beneficial information.
In the past month I’ve tried four bread recipes, and it’s not as hard as expected. They tend to follow the same pattern: proof the yeast, whisk together the dry ingredients, add the liquids, blend thoroughly with dough hooks in the stand mixer, pour into a loaf pan, let rise in a warm oven and then bake. Kneading doesn’t come into it, because that’s a process designed to activate the stickiness of gluten. Neither does punching down the dough and letting it rise again a second time. So in fact gluten-free bread involves less hassle if we get the formula right. Thankfully, for the past few years lots of people have been experimenting and telling us what they know.
All the recipes I’ve tried this month have been excellent, but this is partly because I have enough experience to know a disaster (or at least a waste of time and ingredients) when I see one. For instance, as yummy as buckwheat may be, I won’t be trying pure buckwheat bread with no other flours. My intention was to get a few promising recipes in my arsenal so we don’t have to eat the same bread every week, and find out what makes the perfect loaf before I start tweaking to suit our own taste buds. Here’s a review of the ones I’ve tried so far:
- Gluten-free oatmeal maple bread from Gluten-Free & More. My first attempt was possibly the best bread I’ve ever made, no exaggeration! My favourite conventional recipe for many years was maple oatmeal bread from one of the Harrowsmith cookbooks. I tried to convert the recipe several years ago, but while cakes and muffins can handle conversion, bread recipes don’t work very well because the differences in moisture and flours is so drastic. So I was delighted to find this recipe (top photo) turned out so well: soft, not crumbly, slightly dense but not heavy, not dry, crust slighty crunchy, and with my favourite redolence of oatmeal and maple syrup. As a first effort, it was an overwhelming success. I expect this will become my favourite standby again. The recipe makes two loaves and freezes well.
- High protein quinoa bread from Simply Quinoa. It was hard to find fault with this one. If I hadn’t been so blown away by the first experiment, I’d be more effusive about this one. It’s an excellent bread that will become another standard in the repertoire.
- Gluten-free multi-grain sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Goddess. Another delicious bread. The cornmeal imparts a certain squeaky crispness to the crust (like deep snow on a very cold day) and a novelty to the inner texture. The bread was slightly crumbly. My partner liked it a lot. It was my least favourite so far, but only because the others were so outstanding. It scores high enough to become another regular.
- Gluten-free pumpernickel bread from Carla’s Gluten Free Recipe Box. I recently discovered Poschaven Farms grows and mills organic, gluten-free buckwheat in Northern Ontario. This inspired me to look for a rye-style bread based on buckwheat, containing molasses and caraway seed. It took some persistent Googling to find one that met my criteria. I used to love pumpernickel, so this was fun to make. It just came out of the oven this morning (photo below) and it’s very good: more fragrant than flavourful, but still tasty. It’s a little on the soft and spongy side, very appealing, but it contains more starch than is necessary. So I might try tweaking this one next time around by replacing some starch with more buckwheat or another flavourful flour: quinoa or amaranth. But this clearly holds its own in my Evernote cookbook.
Note that all these breads become a little stiffer with time. I’m not sure what does this to gluten-free breads, but I suspect its the eggs, used for leavening, which harden with age. It doesn’t mean they’re stale. It might take getting used to, but toast the slices lightly and they’re awesome as ever. The maple oatmeal bread makes particularly wonderful toast.
I slice the entire loaf as soon as its cool (fairly thinly, because these breads are hearty enough to stretch a long way). I suspect they would be more crumbly if I didn’t slice them right away. They’re good for four or five days in the refrigerator. I froze the second loaf of maple oatmeal bread (already sliced) and it was just fine.
I almost regret waiting seven years to start baking bread again, but maybe the timing is important. We’re getting ready to move so it’s a time of transition. I’ve recently been trying to make even more of our food from scratch: things like hummus, granola cereal – and bread. It’s less convenient and requires some commitment, but the reward is better nutrition and satisfaction in what we eat.