One of the most frustrating aspects of being gluten-free is the fact that wheat-free flours just don’t behave like their gluten-laden counterparts. A cake made with oat flour often seems to sink, have too high a moisture content, and never truly brown in the same manner a gluten-filled cake would. But why is this? What is it about wheat that gives baked goods a property unachievable by any other grain?
In terms of gluten as an aspect of food science, it is the protein portion of wheat flour with elastic characteristics necessary for the structure of most baked goods (this is why different recipes will call for more or less flour – depending on if you want bread with a lot of structure, or a sauce with just a small amount of added viscosity). Interestingly, from a culinary standpoint, gluten is not present in plain old flour! In order to form gluten from flour, the product must be hydrated (with water or milk) and be manipulated (with stirring, kneading, mixing, or mashing)!
When it comes to gluten-free grains, like uncontaminated oats, rice, and corn, the lack of gluten protein actually inhibits gas retention and the structure building properties that are natural to wheat grain. This prevents our baked goods from having any leavening power, due to a different protein content.
Because a lack of gluten creates a problem with your baked goods’ ability to rise, gluten-free recipe developers have looked to other sources of leavening. One of the most popular is the use of baking powder. Baking powder is a combination of the alkaline baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), acidic cream of tartar, and cornstarch, which is used to prevent clumping. This mixture of ingredients reduces any odd tastes that you may get from employing a chemical ingredient (hence why some cookie or cake recipes may call for 2-4 tablespoons of baking powder!).
While most of us know what gluten does to our insides when we eat it, sometimes it’s useful to know what gluten does to baked goods that make them seem so delicious. The denser or flakier textures that we often find in gluten-free baked goods is because of the specific proteins that are different within our gluten-free flours, but sometimes it’s exactly the kind of product we desire! Embracing gluten-free grains and a willingness to experiment with chemical leaveners (like baking powder) will help you achieve a delicious baked good unique to your own tastes!