Thursday, March 29, 2007


One of the things that I had to confront when I started baking gluten free was the issue of starch. Almost every recipe calls for at least one starch, sometimes more than one. All starches are not created equal, or are they? What makes potato starch good for one recipe when this other recipe calls for tapioca? What is the author trying to accomplish when they use all three? These are questions that I had to have answers for.

First, a note on the difference between starch and flour. Flour is what you get when you take a seed and grind it up. It has all the parts of the seed, each torn into little pieces. Starch is only the carbohydrate component. Starches are long chains of sugars linked together in a way that humans can digest them, unlike cellulose, which is sugars hooked together in a way that some bacteria can digest. The difference has to do with the orientation of the linking bond in relation to the sugar ring, and I'll leave it at that for now.

There are two main ways a polymer chain can be put together: branched (amylopectin) and unbranched (amylose). Amylose is the starch that causes things to go stale. As a baked item cools, the starches settle down into a solid or semi-solid form. This is why you should wait for your bread to cool before you eat it, so you can cut it without mashing the hot starches that are still somewhat liquid. Because it doesn't have the branches on the polymer chain, amylose gets REALLY solid, and actually forms crystals with water sequestered in the middle. This causes bread to feel dry, and crumble apart when you try to eat it. This also explains how you can un-stale bread in the microwave. Re-heating causes the water to shake its way out of the amylose crystals, and turns things soft again.

One way in which starches differ is the percentage of stale-inducing amylose. Wheat starch has 26-31 %. I assume that it depends on the strain you are using. Among the big three GF starches, corn is highest (28%), then potato (23%), and tapioca last (17%). Since I switched to tapioca starch, I have had much less problem with things going stale.

Starches also differ in the temperature they start to gel or go soft, how much they swell when they absorb water, and how much water they absorb. I was only able to find a comparison on water absorption between wheat starch and potato starch. Wheat binds 89.1% its weight in water, and potato starch binds 102% its own weight. I don't know about corn starch or tapioca, but I assume they are much less, based on baking results. When I went through a phase when I baked everything with potato starch, everything I made was really moist.

Starches also have varying levels of purity. In the Bette Hagman Library, Tapioca Starch is listed as 99% carbohydrate, with corn and potato much lower. I don't have the numbers with me. Less purity will lead to more flavor, which you may or may not want.

That is starch in general, as I understand it. Specifically, there are a few more things to say about each starch.

Potato Starch -- Potato retains the most moisture after baking. I have found that I have to use less of it compared to other starches and reduce the amount of xanthan gum I use by half. Otherwise, things end up soggy. 3:1 sorghum/potato starch instead of 2:1 as with corn or tapioca. Potato starch also seems to be the most flavourful, which may be what you are looking for in some cases. It makes things a little more savoury, I shall say.

Corn Starch -- I'll give it this - it is widely available and cheap. Other than that, I haven't found anything to recommend its use. It causes things to stale the fastest. It has what Riley calls "that corn starch flavor". It is sometimes included on lists of common allergens. It often gets left off also, so I don't know about that; I'm not an allergist. But, it does give my son a rash on his bum. My personal feeling is that we only use corn starch out of habit. It is left over from the days when rice flour and corn starch were the only things available for gluten free baking.

Tapioca Starch -- Ah, the king of starch. With the lowest percentage amylose, and the highest percentage carbohydrate content, tapioca wins on both the severity of staling, and the clarity of flavour. It is also the cheapest, thanks the Chang's Oriental Market. Unless I am looking for a baked good that reminds me a little of stew, tapioca is the starch of choise. I typically use it in a sorghum/tapioca ratio of 2:1.

I guess this is the point at which I should clear up a nomenclature issue I am sometimes asked. Tapioca starch and Tapioca flour are really the same thing. It comes from Cassava root, from which the starch is extracted. The starch solution can be dripped onto a hot plate to give tapioca pearls, or processed to give a fine powder. Since it isn't a ground seed, calling it flour is really a misnomer.

So, that is what I have learned about starch in the last year, and that is where I will leave it. If anyone knows something I have over looked, please let me know. And can no one come to the defence of corn starch with a rational explanation of its benefits over tapioca or potato, even in limited situations? I invite you to refute me.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Casein Free on a Budget

In a follow-up to the last post, here are my tips for eliminating dairy. A much shorter list, I know...

1. I don't go for purified Ghee, or 1005 pure hydrogenated vegetable oil. I use Fleishmann's Unsalted Margarine. Higher supply means lower cost.

2. Most importantly, I don't use milk. I don't substitute with soy milk, or rice milk, or Ensure powder. It seems like every recipe I see calls for milk of some kind. I just use water, and everything turns out fine.

That's it. Margarine from the Grocery Store, and Water.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Gluten Free on a Budget

In the past year, I've had to do a lot of thinking about how to bake gluten-free on a budget. Cooking gluten-free is one thing. You make a lot of vegetables and soups, and you use starch to thinken sauces instead of flour. With meat, you can be careful about what you sprinkle on and marinate with. But baking? There is really no way to avoid spending money on things you wouldn't otherwise buy. Some of the gluten-free flours can be pretty expensive, too. Then there are the recipes that call for four flours and three starches, plus some kind of binding agent. It can get complicated and expensive pretty fast if you aren't careful.

So here are the best tips I have come up with in the past year.

1. Pay your taxes. The cheapest way I know of to keep costs down when going gluten-free is to make enough money to pay taxes. Buying gluten-free flours and Pamela's Ultimate Baking mix can actually help you get your tax money back! The thing is, when you have a medical condition that requires you to spend money, that money is tax deductible, at least in the United States. (I assume there is a similar deal in Canada, but I guess I'll find that out next year.) All you need is a note from your Doctor and a list of what you bought. Then you compare the cost of what you are using to the cost of wheat flour, and you have your tax deduction. So, for brown rice flour that costs $3.49/lb when wheat flour is $0.79/lb, you get a $2.70/lb tax deduction. This works out well for people who pay taxes. Those of us in the starving student income bracket already get all our tax money back and no additional deduction is going to change how much money we have to spend on food. What else can we do to keep baking costs down?

2. Check your sources. I try to avoid natural foods stores whenever I can. The natural foods section in the grocery store near me charges more than $4/lb for tapioca starch. The Asian Grocery downtown charges $0.79/lb. They also sell white rice and sweet rice flour at the same price. They are all coming from Thailand where they don't process much wheat, so they are celiac-safe, even for really sensitive people. Check your cultural groceries to see if they have ingredients you could be getting cheaper. The Thai sources have been safe for us, but the Jowar flour from the Indian store had some cross-contamination.

3. Make good choices. Once you are getting the best price you can find, usually by going to an asian or Indian Grocery, you have to decide what flours you are going to bake with. I recently learned how to use brown rice flour to my advantage and I was consistently pleased with the results. Unfortunately, I can't consistently spend $3.49/lb on flour and bake enough muffins to keep the Maestro in snacks for pre-school. I had to make a compromise and switch to white rice flour. I'm not as happy with either the nutritional content or the texture of the muffins I end up with, but I'm not going as far into debt to bake them. I typically use a sorghum/tapioca mix, or a sorghum/tapioca/white rice mix in my baking. I'm pretty satisfied with the cost of the tapioca and sorghum, but I wish I had a cheaper source of brown rice flour.

4. Stick with the tried and true. There are lots of recipes that call for a wide variety of ingredients. I just don't make them. If there is a recipe that calls for Amaranth flour, potato starch, chick-pea flour, or something else I don't have, I just make something else. I can't afford to tie up capital in 15 different ingredients. Sometimes this requires more experimentation to come up with a version I am happy with, but I have felt pretty successful with the flour mixes I have settled on. If you want to settle on a pototo starch/chick-pea mix, be my guest. Just settle on it, and don't stray from that if you want to keep your costs down. Otherwise you'll end up with 3/4 of a bag of Millet flour (or something, or several somethings) you never use for anything else.

5. Decide what is worth spending more money on. Of the binding agents I have seen, xanthan gum is the most expensive. Guar gum seems to run about half the price, but you have to use four times as much because it isn't as effective. Kuzu Starch also works well and is less expensive than either xanthan or guar gum. It is not nearly as convenient to use, however. What is that worth to you? You have to decide.

6. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Brown rice is $0.99/lb where we live. If we had a grinder, we could make our own brown rice flour for much less that Arrowhead Mills sells it. At $2.50/lb savings, it would only take 40 lbs of flour to pay off a $100 mill. Luckily for me, the government has been saving some of my money for me (see item 1). When they give it back to me, one of the things we plan to do is get a good mill. Any suggestions on what model we should get? I know some of you have mills already.

There were a couple of posts about the economics of being gluten-free, and cooking in general, recently. Mike, at the Gluten Free Blog had this to say about budgets. Shauna had this to say about the economics of food.

Does anyone else have any good strategies for keeping costs down?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

GF Day

Today is the one year anniversary of the Maestro's blood test for Celiac Disease.  One year ago today, we fed him purposely fed him gluten for the last time, before taking him in for the test.  It later turned out to be negative, which gives us hope that someday he can have gluten again, but no time soon.
The reason for all of this is something called Sensory Integration Disfunction.  I've talked about this before here and here, and I won't go into it again today.  Sometimes I have felt like going Gluten and Casein free has completely "cured" him, but this past weekend seems to show otherwise.  Having me gone for a week and a half, then coming home, his pre-school teacher missing two days last week so that he had to combine with a class of strangers, the missed sleep arising from the switch to Daylight Savings Time, these things are possible factors that led to the Maestro having a TERRIBLE weekend.  Whatever it was, it wasn't pretty.  Biting, yelling, shoving, it was a real mess.  He hasn't been eating anything new that we know about.  I asked him if he had been sharing food at school and he told me that whenever anyone offers him food, he tells them that he doesn't eat wheat.
I started this blog as a vehicle to help myself figure out how to bake.  I think I have done that now.  What is this blog for, now?  How many people who read this come here looking for recipes?  Not too many, I think.  When my family loses my muffin recipe they come back to find it again, but other than that, you can find recipes for gluten free Rissoto easier on other gluten free foodie blogs, of which there are many.
So this is where I want to go from here.  Rather than recipes, which I'm not very good at anyway, I want to talk about processes.  I want to talk about ingredients.  I want to talk about how to bake, rather than what to bake.  What do you think?  Is that what you want to read here?  Any topics you want to read about, particularly?

Monday, March 19, 2007

I'm Back (Urd Und Himmel Pie)

I recently returned from a long bout of job interviews. I am pleased to report two things: First, that I successfully ate restaurant food for 11 days without getting a major dose of gluten. I did get halfway through a prime rib sandwich (without bread) before starting to suspect that it might have a thin layer of gravy. I ended up with a headache that afternoon, which is my primary response to eating gluten, so I should have asked about "sauce". Live and learn, I guess. I came home sick of omelets, and five pound heavier than when I left, but without major problems.

Second and most important, a few days after getting back I got a phone call from the Chemistry department head at Home Town College, the last place I visited. They have offered me a faculty position, to start in August. This job is almost a perfect match with what I was looking for, and I get to move close to family for the first time in almost ten years. The Maestro is excited to live close to cousins, and Riley is now is major moving mode. Everything we own gets the scrutiny of "Do we want this thing enough to pay to move it accross the continent?" Of course we like having the things we have, but if we have to pay for them a second time, which is essentially what moving is, do we still want them? Hildr is just happy to have her Dad back.

Of course, now I need to finish the thesis, so the Boss will let me go, and HTC will give me the job they want to. Time to get to work!

The day after I got home, Riley and the kids all took multi-hour naps while I made dinner for them and Hildegard. You'd think they hadn't slept well without me, or something.

After all the omelets for Breakfast, and Hamburgers with no bun that I was forced to eat in the 7 airports I visited, I had a craving for an Urd und Himmel Pie, Sausage with Apples (Himmel) and Potatoes (Urd). I couldn't find any potatoes, so I went with a saute of three apples, a pound of turkey sausage and large onion. I whisked up two eggs with a splash or two of Tabasco and garlic to hold it together.

For the crust, I doubled the basic recipe I had at Pumpkin Fest, except that I tried the sorghum/tapioca/rice mix that I use for muffins instead of the sorghum/tapioca. Then I pre-mixed the xanthan gum with the water, and cut it into the flour mix before adding the shortening. Weird I know, but I was able to transfer it onto the pie without breaking it this time. I rolled it out between sheets of wax paper, and basically picked it up like a frisbee when I was done. I don't know if it was the rice flour, or the xantham glop (boy does that turn to glue) but it didn't crack. In the picture, you can see the threads of xanthan-water complex marbelling the unbaked crust. Next time I need to try the flour mix with rice, and adding the xanthan gum as a solid to see which change made the difference this time. (Either that, or I rolled it out thicker this time.)

Oh, I just had a delicious thought. HTC is in prime Rhubarb growing country. Oh the pies we can have!