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Gluten-free flours tested in muffin smackdown

03/14/2014 12:59 PM

03/14/2014 1:00 PM

A decade ago, gluten-free all-purpose flours for baking were difficult to find in supermarkets. That meant some home bakers who have celiac disease or gluten intolerance spent a lot of time fiddling with starches and alternative flours to create a worthy substitute.

Things have changed.

Gluten-free all-purpose flours have joined a variety of gluten-free baking products. They offer home bakers a chance to prepare favorite recipes free of gluten, a stretchy protein that captures gas bubbles made by leavening agents used to increase a baked good’s volume.

There are about two dozen gluten-free all-purpose flours these days, both well-known brands and smaller independents. They rely on a variety of flours (from grains, legumes, beans) and starches (corn, potato, tapioca, arrowroot) to create a flour’s powdery element. To give baked goods the structure and texture usually provided by gluten, most use xanthan gum or guar gum, both commonly used food additives.

We decided to test a half dozen of these flours to see how they perform in a standard baked good. We chose a basic plain muffin recipe, preparing a control batch with standard all-purpose flour, then baked batches with the gluten-free flours. (The flours we tested can be used cup-for-cup in recipes.)

We did not add any nuts or fruit, so we wouldn’t be distracted from the taste and texture of the muffins. To those with no gum element (Bob’s Red Mill, King Arthur), we added xanthan gum.

Baking results

Bob’s Red Mill, Cup4Cup and Namaste produced a moist, somewhat typical muffin batter. The others created almost sticky, pastelike batters. Yet each made the recipe’s dozen muffins, with all but Betty Crocker and Glutino rising to a height of 2 inches plus.

Our tasters (all bakers, some with gluten issues) enjoyed the good flavor and decent texture of each. Rated on a scale of 1-9, the flours all fell in the average range — with a few quibbles noted in the chart.

Which gluten-free all-purpose flour you choose, from those tested here as well as others on the market, will depend on several factors: your budget (prices for the ones tested ranged from 21 to 35 cents per ounce), shopping criteria (no GMO ingredients, kosher), personal preferences (you like the nutty flavor of brown rice) and dietary considerations (you want the extra protein in Bob’s Red Milll; you can’t have dairy or soy or those gums, xanthan and guar).

When shopping, do not confuse these all-purpose flours with, say, bread mixes (which may have added yeast) or baking mixes (which may have added baking powder or baking soda).

Most of these are available nationally, have a store locator on their website or can be purchased online.

Note: Prices are suggested retail. Rated on a scale of 1-9.

Glutino Gluten Free Pantry All Purpose Flour

$4.69 for a 16-ounce box; 29 cents per ounce

Ingredients: White rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, guar gum, salt

Comments: Good-looking pebbly surface with an even grain, good taste. Chewy, dense; leaves an aftertaste.

Score: 5.7

Cup4Cup Gluten Free Flour

$16.99 for a 48-ounce bag; 35 cents per ounce

Ingredients: Cornstarch, white rice flour, brown rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, potato starch, xanthan gum

Comments: Crusty top and good texture. Chewy and really bland. Pretty attractive with nice, crispy outside and some fluffiness. Tastes like a muffin!

Score: 5.3

Betty Crocker Gluten Free All-Purpose Rice Flour Blend

$3.75 for a 16-ounce box; 23 cents per ounce

Ingredients: Rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, guar gum, salt

Comments: Cakelike texture with a tight crumb. A bit gummy but decent flavor. Very white and rather bland.

Score: 5

King Arthur Flour Gluten Free Multi-Purpose Flour

$7.95 for a 24-ounce box; 33 cents per ounce

Ingredients: Specialty flour blend (rice flour, tapioca starch), potato starch, whole grain brown rice flour, calcium carbonate, niacinamide (a B vitamin), reduced iron, thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2)

Comments: Tight crumb with a bit of a grainy texture. Lovely rise and not much flavor, but bland isn’t always bad. Floury taste.

Score: 5

Namaste Foods Gluten Free Perfect Flour Blend

$11.69 for a 48-ounce bag; 24 cents per ounce

Ingredients: Sweet brown rice flour, tapioca flour, arrowroot powder, sorghum flour, xanthan gum

Comments: Good browning with a slight earthy aroma. Interior doesn’t look done. Gummy with a strange grain taste.

Score: 3.7

Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour

$4.59 for a 22-ounce bag; 21 cents per ounce

Ingredients: Garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, white sorghum flour, fava bean flour

Comments: Airy crumb and beautifully browned. Crumbly and dry, with a cornlike aftertaste. Good texture but a bit grainy with off flavors.

Score: 3.3

Three new gluten-free

cookbooks to try

Just as grocery store shelves are exploding with gluten-free products, bookstore shelves are filling with cookbooks that claim you can cook gluten-free versions of virtually anything now. Here’s a quick look at three new ones we’ve checked out recently.

Gluten-Free Pasta: More Than 100 Fast and Flavorful Recipes With Low- and No-Carb Options

By Robin Asbell (Running Press, $20)

The first food that comes to mind when most people think of cutting gluten from their diet is pasta. This doesn’t have to be, writes Asbell, a private chef, writer and recipe developer who has authored cookbooks on whole grains and vegan eating. She provides recipes for homemade fresh pastas and veggie pasta substitutes, and gives store-brand recommendations. The book includes traditional Italian favorites, as well as Asian noodle dishes, soups and appetizers.

Sample recipes: potato gnocchi; spinach and chevre-filled jumbo tortellini; spicy kimchee-spiked mac and cheese; avocado, fresh mozzarella, and peach pasta salad (see recipe).

The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook

By the editors at America’s Test Kitchen (Cook’s Illustrated, $26.95)

In this 336-page paperback, the experts at America’s Test Kitchen offer meticulously tested recipes (they say developing the book was a “yearlong odyssey”), helpful tips and new techniques for tasty gluten-free food. Among the advice is to let cookie dough and muffin batter rest for 30 minutes before baking to give starches time to hydrate, ultimately reducing grittiness.

Sample recipes: sweet crepes; quinoa salad with bell pepper and cilantro; peach cobbler with cornmeal biscuits; raspberry streusel bars (see recipe).

Cooking for Your Gluten-Free Teen: Everyday Foods the Whole Family Will Love

By Carlyn Berghoff, Sarah Berghoff McClure, Suzanne Nelson and Nancy Ross Ryan (Andrews McMeel, $19.99)

The authors of this cookbook say gluten-intolerant teenagers who love food don’t have to be deprived of their favorites — and neither does the rest of the family. Written from the perspective of a teenager with a severe gluten allergy and her chef-restaurateur mother, the cookbook provides easy-to-understand guidance and personal advice to make a gluten-free lifestyle easier for families, as well as recipes for teen-friendly foods.

Sample recipes: glazed baked doughnuts; taco pie; chicken noodle soup.

— Stephanie Allmon

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