Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chia, Flax, and Psyllium as Binders in Gluten-free Bread Making

Xanthan gum and guar gum have been the default binders for gluten-free baking in the United States for years.  However, these substances have their limitations.  They have no nutrient value, for starters.  Then there's the fact that they don't give you much in the way of flexibility or strength in your final baked good.  Did you ever make a gluten-free cupcake that tasted like cardboard and crumbled apart in your hand as you tried to eat it?  Even though you put twice as much liquid into the recipe than you would have for "regular"flour?  You can blame xanthan gum for that.

The best binders out there for your gluten-free baking may not be what you thought they were.  Chia, flax, and psyllium are the "it" girls of gluten-free bread baking right now.   I'll tell you why and how.

Chia Seed 

Origin: Mexico and Central America

Remember the Chia Pet?  The same seeds that you might have used to coat a clay doll to grow green "hair" is now the superfood darling of the moment.  They are chock-full of omega-3s and antioxidants, among a slew of other nutrients.  They are also extremely high in fiber.  As it turns out, chia seed may be more than a fad for gluten-free bakers.

Used as a binder, ground chia seed lends a lot of flexibility to gluten-free dough.  However, it doesn't add as much strength as other binders and is almost always used together with another binder.  What this means is that chia can give your final bread a lot of softness and flexibility but by itself it doesn't lend the raw dough enough strength to hold up the bread as it rises.  In addition to flexibility, chia seed helps gluten-free bread retain moisture and stay fresh longer.

I use ground chia seed as 25% or less of my binder for best results.  Finely ground, I either whisk it into the liquids or mix it with the flour.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.

Flax Seed

Origin: Probably the Middle East or the Mediterranean

The flax plant has been used by humans for as long as 30,000 years.  The fibers of the leaf are used to make linen, and other natural products such as linoleum.  Ancient Romans used to snack on flax seeds like nuts.  Flax seeds have many of the nutrients that chia seeds do, and they are also high in fiber, though some people find them more difficult to digest.

Flax seed provides moderate strength and flexibility to doughs as a gluten substitute.  While it is effective enough to be used alone in breads baked in a pan, it gives you the best texture when combined with other binders such as chia seed or psyllium husk.

I use ground flax seed as 15-75% of my binder for best results.  Finely ground, I either whisk it into the liquids or mix it with the flour.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.  For 450 grams of flour, use about 60 grams of binder that is primarily flax seed.

Psyllium Husk

Origin: Europe, Russia, and India

Psyllium is the strongest binder I have found for gluten-free baking.  It provides great strength and flexibility to gluten-free dough.  If you are looking to bake a free-form loaf like a boule, batard, or baguette, psyllium should be your binder of choice.

I use psyllium as 75-100% or of my binder for best results.  Whisk the binder into the liquids or the dry ingredients before combining all your ingredients.  Some bakers claim that grinding psyllium improves its strength, and you should use 1/2 the amount of ground psyllium by weight.  I haven't verified this.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.  For 450 grams of flour, use about 25-30 grams of binder that is primarily whole psyllium husk.

Edit: Psyllium husk is also full of fiber!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gluten-free Chocolate Cupcakes

I like this recipe because it doesn't rely too heavily on the flour.  Any recipe that has as much chocolate and butter as it does flour is okay by my.  This method of making cake batter results in a spectacular spongy structure.  If you would like to make this with regular gluten-ful flour, simply substitute it out by volume and omit the chia seed if desired.

I adapted both of these recipes from the Joy of Cooking, which I use constantly for recipe inspiration.

Chocolate Cupcakes Recipe

Makes 9 large or 12 small cupcakes

Have all ingredients at room temperature.  Heat the oven to 350 F.

Whisk together in a medium mixing bowl, then set aside:

1/2 cup gluten-free cake flour, pastry flour, or fine gluten-free flour
1/2 cup dutch processed cocoa
1/4 tsp salt + a pinch
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp chia seed, very finely ground

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream with the paddle attachment for 30 seconds:

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

With the mixer running on medium, slowly add:

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar

When the sugar is incorporated into the butter, set the mixer to high and whip the butter and sugar together until lightened in color and very fluffy, about 5 minutes.  It's ready when the butter feels light and fluffy on the tongue and the sugar is mostly dissolved.  Add one at a time and mix in on medium speed:

3 eggs

Slowly add the flour mixture and mix until it's just incorporated.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and re-mix as necessary.

Divide the batter between 9-12 cupcake liners.  Bake at 350 for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean.  Let cool before frosting (see below for a delicious dark chocolate frosting recipe).

Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze or Frosting

Heat on low, stirring constantly until it's melted:

3 oz dark chocolate
3 Tablespoons water

Take the mixture off the heat and stir in:

3 Tablespoons butter

Stir the butter into the chocolate until very smooth.  Stir occasionally as it cools.  Use at 90 degrees for a glaze or at room temperature for a frosting.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

DIY Rhubarb Infused Vodka

Making your own DIY rhubarb-infused vodka isn't tricky at all.  All you need is two ingredients: rhubarb and vodka.  The only hard part is waiting the five days until it's ready before drinking it.


1. Have handy a large mason jar or sealable glass container large enough to accommodate the amount of vodka you have.  Chop rhubarb in 3/4-inch pieces to almost fill it, leaving about an inch or two free at the top of the container.
2. Pour the vodka over the rhubarb in the jar and fill to the top.
3. Seal the jar tightly.
4. Shake it.
5. Place the jar in a dark spot in your cupboard for five days.  Shake the jar occasionally to get everything stirred up.
6. When the rhubarb has infused the vodka sufficiently, the color of the liquid will be pink.  Taste the infusion to see if it's to your liking.  Leaving it for a few more days will make it stronger.
My jar lost a little volume during the tasting process.

7. Strain the vodka through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl or jug.  Strain it again through cheese cloth if you want it to be very clear and not cloudy.  I strained mine into a vodka bottle with a cheesecloth-lined funnel.
8. Enjoy your rhubarb-infused vodka on the rocks or in a cocktail.