Even though I have been doing desserts professionally for 23 years, and know baked goods and desserts literally inside and out, I have had to completely re-educate myself when it comes to gluten free baking. It’s totally crazy, and when I first started playing around with gluten free recipes, I had no idea what I was in for.
Well, sometimes you learn the most when you make mistakes. Those are the lessons that you remember, as well as learning why something didn’t work, which can sometimes be much more important than why it worked. Or at least you learn why it does work by the trials before it that didn’t work. So with each recipe I create, there are dozens of trials usually (if not more), to make the recipe spectacular.
When I started working on the recipes for my new dessert mixes, I wound up learning a LOT along the way. Things that you sometimes only discover by making things over and over again. I thought that it would be cool to start sharing some of these things, here and there, as they really can make a huge difference in the way your baked goods come out (and then you can completely bypass pulling your own hair out, trying to figure out what happened). I may or may not have some bald patches to prove this; )
Okay, are you ready for the bigest lesson I’ve learned? Always use a stand mixer for gluten free cakes and muffins, or wherever you want a nice rounded top. Seriously! I almost always use my Kitchen Aid mixer for cakes and muffins, so I hadn’t noticed this before. Then, realizing that not everyone has a stand mixer, I should see how the recipe works just using a bowl and a wooden spoon. Let me just say three words: Flat, flat flat! That darn cake rose a lot less, and didn’t get that nice crested golden crust on top. This was crazy. I couldn’t figure out at first what had gone wrong. The leavening was fresh, because I had just used it for another beautiful cake. I hadn’t left out any ingredients. Nothing else was different, and this was the same exact recipe, that I had made dozens of times before. Then it hit me. It was the mixer! I started remembering that when I was testing all of the pumpkin muffin recipes a few months back, there was one batch where I didn’t use the mixer, and they were missing that lovely golden crown that the best bakery muffins usually have.
So, come to figure out, gluten free cakes and muffins rely on a very little amount of xanthan gum for structure (and I really do use the smallest amount that I need in a recipe to help give it rise). Well it appears that by beating the batter with the stand mixer, it activates the xanthan gum. Doing it by hand doesn’t seem to activate it at all, or at least not enough. And that seems to be what contributes to beautiful, well-risen gluten free cakes and muffins. Plus, don’t forget about all that beautiful air that the mixer whips into the batter.
When I would write my dessert recipes in the past (with regular, wheat-laden batters), I would always say to “mix until just blended” or “don’t over-mix”, because you would wind up with hockey pucks as muffins or horrible tunnels throughout. But, things are very different with gluten-free dough. First off, because there is no gluten in the batter to become tough, this old rule of thumb is obsolete. So now, not only do you not need to really worry about over mixing, you need to actually beat it for a few moments to activate the xanthan gum. This doesn’t mean five minutes straight in the mixer, but once the batter is smooth, I continue beating it for another 10 to 15 seconds or so. I really should time this with a timer.
If you are doing gluten-free baking, you might want to pull your mixer out from the back of the cabinet. Or if you don’t have one, think of getting or using one of the inexpensive hand mixers that our grandmas used to use. You will be so happy you did.
So for those of you that bake gluten free, what lessons or tricks have you learned along the way? I’d love to hear.