04/27/2014 - America's Test Kitchens Gluten Free Cookbook & Broa

Cook books

Why buy a cookbook? I had to ask myself this question after I read through the new America's Test Kitchens Gluten Free Cookbook that I borrowed from the library. The recipes look absolutely delicious, and I'd love for someone to invite me to a lunch or dinner using these recipes. But would either I or my wife make the recipes - probably not. How come? First of all there is a matter of "style" and "taste." For example ATK's favorite picks of sandwich bread and pasta brand are different from mine as is their choice of pizza sauce and cornbread recipe. My taste is divergent from the authors' and their testing panel. But there are other reasons, too. I don't necessarily want to duplicate the dishes they have painstakingly perfected. Instead, I want to apply an improved technique. And, my focus is bread.

A side note: I think The Science of Good Cooking does a much better job of improving my overall technique. For example, it says that most home ovens lack the heat to really cook pizza well and recommends that the pizza stone and pizza be placed near the top of the oven. Interestingly, this suggestion is in opposition to ATK's gluten free recipe book.

Most of the bread recipes that ATK has developed in the gluten free cookbook are based on their flour blend that uses a lot of refined starch and not much whole grain*. Their bread recipes focus on variations of their butter-eggs-milk bread recipe, which is not a "lean" bread. And lastly, they advocate using psyllium husk powder in bread instead of xanthan or guar gum in the amount of 2X the amount of gum (Page 16). The Gluten Free Cookbook has a nice discussion of ingredients, ingredient choices, and commercial flour blends. Like GF On A Shoestring (see below), ATK does not endorse Cup-4-Cup.

Psyllium husk powder, as a replacement for xanthan or guar gum, has an appeal for those people who seem sensitive to the gums. I searched the internet and found only a few useful references to psyllium husk powder in baking: Shauna James Ahern posted a video (click) and Tara Baker posted a bread recipe using only a small amount of psyllium husk powder and a large amount of xanthan gum (click).

Apparently, psyllium husk powder in the 2X amount works well in ATK's bread recipes, but it certainly didn't work in my test recipe—Portuguese Broa, the fairly "lean" bread I wanted to perfect. Below is a photo of two different attempts of using psyllium husk powder in two different concentrations. The bread dough formed a nice boule and was easy to work with; however, the dough didn't rise well, and the bread had an off-flavor and remained wet and sticky inside. Both breads, unfortunately, went into the garbage as basically inedible. The large amount of psyllium husk powder sucked up lots of moisture and affected the taste, texture and color of the loaves.

Here is the Portuguese Broa recipe that I used for the test (click). I used some psyllium husk powder, but not nearly as much as ATK uses in their breads. The boule was a little flatter than the two tests above and still did not rise as much as I wanted; however, I loved the taste of the bread**.

The PBS interview of the ATK cookbook authors identified a surprising omission—gluten free croissants. When the interviewer asked the author, he said that he felt that making gluten free croissants was not possible. I personally haven't made a gluten free croissant, but there are lots of recipes on the internet, and some of them look really delicious. Just put gluten free croissants into your browser's search bar. Here are a couple of recipes that look noteworthy, but there are many others— GF on a Shoestring and GF Canteen.

Another surprising omission was the lack of a discussion of sweet rice flour/glutinous rice flour and gelatin in bread baking. I haven't found gelatin useful, but maybe I'm wrong because it is a staple in Nicole Hunn's recipes. I have found sweet rice flour helpful, but I'm still working on amounts and proportions. I know that too much makes for a rubbery result.

Here in California we are blessed to have an abundance of Asian and Latin American cuisines. I was pleased to see a nice write-up on arepas which are made from pre-cooked maize flour and are prominent in the cuisines of Colombia and Venezuela. I would have expected the cookbook to have a section on making Asian dumplings, but it did not. Andrea Nguyen, a Bay Area cookbook author and cooking instructor has several recipes, all worth investigating: GF pot stickers (you might want to try other GF flour blends), pot stickers #1, pot stickers #2, rice dumplings #3.

In conclusion, I have a lot of respect for America's Test Kitchens because they exhaustively modify and test to achieve the ultimate as far as their taste and preference dictates, and I love the fact that they have created a gluten free cookbook. There was a lot of interesting science related to gluten free baking, some of which I have read in other places. I'm glad that ATK pulled the best science together in one place. There were also some interesting hints for baking bread. I would classify a number of the recipes "special event dishes" because they are either complex or are richer than what I eat on a day-to-day basis. There are a number of Amazon reviews for this book, and I recommend that you read them, particularly the ones that are not complementary. A number of these have merit. One example that I can think of is the lack of nutritional information. But if the recipes are special event dishes, then nutritional information may not be that important.

All cooking is a matter of taste and preference. You are free (and encouraged) to disagree with me.

* Carol Fenster has a nice discussion of flour blends in an article in Living Without magazine (click). Beth Hillson also has a very nice article as well (click). Both Carol and Beth are experienced and well respected bakers within the gluten free community.

** A member of the ICORS list serve forwarded this link to me (click). Annaliese Roberts, a cookbook author and noted pastry chef in New York, has tested the effect of psyllium husk powder and found that it retards loft in her test recipes.

03/27/2014 - Bagels


This is the second bread experiment from the book Gluten Free on a Shoestring Bakes Bread. In this experiment I baked bagels. Like the blog entry below, the top line is: the bagels worked. If that is all you need to know, stop here and just buy the book.

Good gluten-free bagels are extremely hard to find in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the time of this writing, it is my opinion that there is only one bagel in the Bay Area that is even in the same league, and that is Odd Bagel. All other bagels from the freezer section of Safeway, Whole Foods and Sprouts, plus other local artisan bakers, I'm sad to say, fall far short in taste, texture or both.

More or less following the instructions of the author, I baked a batch of nine bagels. These bagels are properly dense, have a nice structure and a chewy consistency. These are definitely bagels and not round bread. These bagels are authentically boiled. Keeping with the eggless nature of the bagel dough, the eggless glaze I selected for the bagel gives it a nice chewy crunch. As you can see by the photo above, the bagel has a nice fine-grained texture. Bagels should not be overly airy or overly fluffy. To give you an idea, a three inch diameter bagel weighs about 3.5 ounces. The bagels have no added fat except for the minor amount they might pick up from the oiled plastic wrap or the light oil spray that keeps the dough from sticking during the first rising and refrigeration.

Bagels rising

Bagels rising under plastic wrap

Batch of Bagels

Finished batch of bagels

Were the bagels hard to make? Not really. I mixed up the dough, and kneaded it with the dough hook for 5 minutes. The dough proofed for about two hours and then went into the refrigerator for 17 hours. I then formed the bagels and allowed them to rise in a warm oven for an hour. I boiled them, glazed them and baked them. The dough was stiff enough to work with. It was a little like pottery clay.

The flavor of the bagels is on the neutral side with yeasty overtones and a slight sour note from the long rest in the refrigerator. Next time I make them I will substitute some whole grain sorghum and millet flour for some of the brown rice flour. But most people like a neutral tasting bread. I did put in a little corn meal for texture and flavor, and next time I'll add more.

The single most expensive ingredient in the recipe is whey protein isolate. It costs $14.00 per pound bulk, and the recipe called for about $2.50 worth. Is it necessary? The author said effectively yes on page 5 because "we have removed a protein (gluten)". I'm not sure I totally agree, but that is not the point. Research into whey protein on the The Fresh Loaf web site—arguably the most authoritative artisan bread baking source http://www.thefreshloaf.com/—actually advises against adding whey in any form to bread. It makes the bread tough. It occurred to me that the author added whey protein isolate to combat the flabby texture of gluten-free bread which may have protein, but not the stretchy gluten protein (which by the way is entirely indigestible by non-celiacs). Could we substitute something or change the recipe in any way to avoid using it. I think so, but the substitute might not be quite as "hard" as the whey protein isolate. I replaced 60% of the whey protein isolate with something else, and I was happy with the results as was my wife who is not gluten-free and has a bagel daily. I'll work on eliminating 100%.

The next exotic ingredient is Expandex, and I feel that it, or another form of modified tapioca starch, is essential without going to a lot difficult trial and error testing. Although I haven't fully optimized my own recipes for Expandex, I would have used only about half of the amount the author uses. I won't get into the technicalities here, but I believe Expandex can be reduced through the addition of other stretchy ingredients. Just to note Odd Bagel uses none of the exotic ingredients and makes a great bagel. Since Expandex is hard to get, I've substituted as described in the Ciabatta write-up below.

The last exotic ingredient, Pomona's pectin, is discussed below as is the amount of xanthan gum the author uses.

Do I have an argument with the author or do I advise against buying the book. Not at all! There is no single one right way to do most things, especially making bread. The author has done an amazing job producing breads that are hard for the gluten-free community to get or are very, very expensive commercially. She has certainly taught me techniques to improve my baking. She has also dispelled a number of myths about the limitations of gluten-free baking. If you bake bread you should try baking some of Nicole Hunn's. You will really be surprised. Should you experiment with your own modifications? You bet! I'm guessing that even Ms. Hunn would agree to that.




This is a new book in our public library. It has the directions for making breads that I used to have before going gluten free. So my wife and I looked through the book to find the right, rare bread to test the cookbook. That turned out to be ciabatta. Ciabatta has to have a subtle crunch and a slightly sour and yeasty character with just the right amount of chewiness. Here is the top line: the ciabatta worked. If that is all you want to know, stop here and buy the book. (No, I'm not in cahoots with the author, and I have never met her.)

Ciabatta proofing under plastic wrap for the last time

Ciabatta loaf right out of the oven - delicious!

Here are things to consider before making your first loaf of bread from the recipe book:

  • The breads in the book take awhile to make. This particular bread dough rested in the refrigerator for 4-1/2 days, but the process was pretty easy.
  • The breads are not intrinsically dairy-free; however, the author does provide a dairy-free alternative using pea protein isolate. This particular bread, like many in the book, is egg-free.
  • Many of the instructions from bread-to-bread are redundant. But, each recipe is complete unto itself.
  • Everything you may need to know is not necessarily in the book. The author's web site delves into important details, and if you are serious about baking delicious bread according to the author's approach, then you need to tour the web site and read the various FAQs: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/ . Here are two other important links: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/about/faqs/ and http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/gluten-free-bread-questions-answered/ (Scroll down below all of the photos.).
  • Gluten-Free on a Shoestring does not mean cheap or inexpensive. The special type of pectin (Pomona's) recommended for the ciabatta sold for $4.50 per box (almost 3 bread recipes) at Sprouts (similar to Whole Foods), and the whey protein isolate sold there cost nearly $2.50 (bulk) per loaf . Expandex, when it is rarely available, is very expensive; however, the author suggests a substitute (Ultratex 3) still costing more than $1.00 per loaf. And the recommended super-fine rice flour has a high shipping price from Authentic Foods or a more moderate shipping price but still over $5.00 per pound from Amazon in lots of 3 pounds each for brown and white rice. But further reading in the book and web site reveals:
    • There is a flour blend recipe that leaves out the special pectin (meaning it is sort of optional although I did use it in the ciabatta)
    • The recommended finely milled rice flours are also sort of optional because the more easily available and more coarsely milled rice flours soften considerably over the course of 4 - 5 days of refrigerator resting
  • I substituted Chebe All Purpose Bread Mix for Expandex. I used 2X the amount and left out the equivalent amount of the base flour blend used in the recipe.
  • The author uses a large amount of Xanthan gum. I researched a lot of other recipes in books and online, and most recipe authors use only half as much. I cut the xanthan gum in half, and the bread is still properly chewy with no hint of crumbling. In fact, I might be inclined to reduce the xanthan gum a little more.
  • The step just before baking is to take the bread dough out of the refrigerator and form loaves. My ciabatta took longer to double in bulk than the two hours the author suggested. The dough was still very cool to the touch even after 3 hours, so I placed it in a warm oven to finish proofing. Our home is cool.
  • When I baked my ciabatta it took longer to reach an internal temperature of 205° F than the author suggested. I wound up baking the bread for an additional 12 minutes. Perhaps if I had a pizza stone the bread would have cooked faster, but I used the author's substitute recommendation of an overturned baking tin. Also, I used the convection setting on the oven (25° F lower) because it makes the baking more even.

The author will take questions. Here is where to go to find out more: http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/contact/ . Do take a look at the FAQs near the bottom of the page.

Take a look at http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/all-purpose-gluten-free-flour-recipes/ Note that this hyperlink discusses flour blends you can make, some of which are very close to expensive blends on the market like Cup-For-Cup which the author likes for pastry but not for bread.

Also take a look at http://glutenfreeonashoestring.com/baking-ingredient-substitutions/ for ingredient substitutions. Actually, I have to admit that I make a substitute for brown rice flour since we don't use it any longer and there is none in our home. Celiacs eat a lot of rice in gluten-free prepared foods like pasta, and brown rice contains a larger amount of arsenic than does white rice. Therefore, I substituted a 50% - 50% mixture of sorghum and millet flours. These grains absorb water differently than does brown rice, so if I were to make the recipe again, I would make a test recipe using brown rice, note the consistency and work for that consistency in substituted grains.

So here is a question you might ask: Will I abandon all of my other bread recipes and bake exclusively out of Gluten Free on a Shoestring? The answer is probably not. Nicole Hunn has a particular style of baking, and while it is very good, there are other styles that are also very good and very satisfying. Many of these alternatives are quicker, easier and less costly. But her techniques are useful, and I will incorporate some of her style into my bread baking.

Will I make other breads from the recipe book? Of course! They look both beautiful and delicious.

Will I follow the author's directions exactly? Probably not. I've been baking bread long enough that if I know a recipe isn't coming together right, I feel very comfortable changing it on the fly to texture, etc that I know will work.

Happy baking.