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Holiday baking for gluten-avoiding guests? Here’s your guide

It's the season that celebrates shortbread, sugar cookies and mincemeat pie. But if you're baking for someone who doesn't eat gluten, you might be wondering how to create holiday treats without regular flour.

Understanding which gluten-free flours and binding agents to use requires know-how and experimentation.

Gluten, strong and sticky proteins found in wheat flour (as well as barley and rye), adds structure and texture to baked goods. It helps bread dough rise and maintain its shape while baking.

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If you're entertaining guests with a gluten intolerance – or those who simply prefer to avoid it – you need to scratch regular all-purpose flour from your recipe list and find replacements that offer gluten's baking properties.

For some people, baking with gluten-free flours isn't only about avoiding gluten, if at all. Swapping gluten-free flours for wheat flour can boost the nutritional value of cookies, cakes and muffins.

One half cup of almond flour (made from blanched ground almonds), for instance, has 12 g of protein, 6 g of fibre, 4 mg of iron and 120 mg of calcium, along with vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects cells from free radical damage.

The same amount of refined wheat flour contains half the protein, one-third of the fibre, a fraction of the calcium (9 mg), and no vitamin E.

That said, white wheat flour is enriched to add back some of the nutrients that are lost during refining. It's a source of iron and B vitamins, including folic acid, a B vitamin important for a healthy pregnancy. Gluten-free flours are not enriched with B vitamins and iron; gluten-free baking mixes may be, so check ingredient lists to find out.

Many commercial gluten-free flours are milled from whole grains and, as such, contain the nutrients that the germ, fibre-rich bran and outer endosperm layers have to offer. (Refined flours, on the other hand, are made only from the starchy endosperm.)

Amaranth flour is packed with protein, calcium and lysine, an amino acid that helps the body absorb calcium. Garbanzo bean flour, made from dried chickpeas, adds plenty of folate, calcium, magnesium, potassium and selenium to baked goods.

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If you're a novice to gluten-free baking, there are some things you need to know before plugging in the stand mixer.

Blend flours. Don't expect to replace wheat flour with a gluten-free flour cup for cup and get the same results. For baked goods that need texture, stickiness and rise, a blend of gluten-free flours, each with its own properties, is best. (For many cookie recipes, though, using one flour will work.)

You can experiment on your own, look up tried and true gluten-free flour recipes online, or purchase a commercial mix.

Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour is a blend of chickpea flour, sorghum flour, fava bean flour, tapioca starch and potato starch (starches add thickness). Most store-bought gluten-free flour blends can replace all-purpose flour in a 1:1 ratio.

Consider taste. Use stronger tasting flours, such as bean flours, buckwheat flour and quinoa flour, in smaller quantities, generally one-quarter of the flour mix. Use a higher percentage of these flours in flavourful recipes that include chocolate, nuts or spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

Compensate for dryness. Many gluten-free flours, especially coconut flour, absorb extra moisture from a recipe. Add a little pureed fruit (applesauce, banana, pear), yogurt or extra egg to keep the recipe from getting too dry.

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Add a binder. Two of the most common binders used to add volume and texture to gluten-free baked goods are xanthan gum and guar gum (available in large grocery stores). In most recipes, they can be used interchangeably, one-half to one teaspoon per one cup of flour.

Some commercial gluten-free flour blends have binders added; check the ingredient list.

Other binding agents include chia seeds or ground flax (1 part seed to 2 parts water), which produce a gel to provide binding and structure. Adding extra egg can also do the trick.

Muffin, pancake and cookie recipes may not need the addition of a binder.

Check labels for gluten-free. If you're baking for someone with a gluten intolerance, ensure that the flours you buy don't contain gluten due to cross contamination during processing. If the product is not certified gluten-free, call the manufacturer to find out.

The following gluten-free flours, made by milling whole grains, beans or vegetables and fruit (in the case of potato and coconut flours) add protein, fibre, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and antioxidants to holiday baked goods.

Almond flour

Amaranth flour

Brown rice flour

Buckwheat flour

Chickpea flour

Coconut flour

Corn flour

Lentil flour

Millet flour

Oat flour

Potato flour

Quinoa flour

Sorghum flour

Teff flour

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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