Gluten-free Bread Making — What I’ve Learned

Eight months ago I bought the T-fal Actibread machine on amazon (mostly because it was cheap, but it also had really good reviews) because I wanted to see if I could make a good Paleo/ Gluten-free bread for my toddler son. I’ve lived mostly without bread for a long time, and didn’t really mind it. We typically follow the 80/20 rule — 80% of what we eat is what I consider “conscious food” meaning it’s organic/ biodynamic, paleo/primal, raised with love, care, kind treatment, and environmental sustainability.

Unfortunately, making a good gluten-free bread that’s NOT full of rice flour has been a gigantic pain. I couldn’t find any recipes that seemed worth the effort, so I’ve spent these last 8 months trying a variety of combinations of flours and liquids to get one that was worth the effort and had reliable results.

If you’re using a bread machine, it’s useful to have one with gluten-free settings. If you don’t have gluten-free settings on your bread machine, you’ll need to adjust the settings. Gluten-based breads go through 2 rises (the dough is kneaded, then sits in a warm place to rise, then is “punched down” or kneaded a second time, then let rise again). Gluten-free dough however, will not survive a second kneading, so you need a setting that only has one rise cycle.

If you don’t have a bread machine, first, turn your oven on to the lowest setting for 1-2 minutes, then turn it off (this provides a warm place for the dough to rise). Knead the dough by hand and shape into a loaf or place in loaf pan. Let it rise for 45 minutes at 80-90 degrees (F). Remove from oven, bring oven temperature to 350 degrees (F). Bake at 350 for 45-75 minutes and check temperature for doneness (internal temp of 205 degrees). Baking time depends on the recipe, so the first time you make it, you’ll need to watch it and start checking the bake times at around 45 minutes.

Since I started working on gluten-/grain-free bread recipes, my mom Diana has been working on her own (wheat-based) bread recipes. It’s been great for me because she was my original culinary inspiration and I always go to either her or my soul sister Colleen for advice about kitchen matters. Since Mom has been working with einkorn wheat, an heirloom wheat (non-GMO) that is denser than “normal” wheat flour, she’s been having similar problems with her baking as I’ve had.

Gluten-/ Grain-free Bread Ingredients

The ingredients that go into bread all have specific purposes. Unfortunately, they don’t interact with gluten-free and grain-free flours the same way they do with wheat flour. (If you use a rice-based gluten-free flour mix you’ll get the closest result to wheat flour, but since we try to avoid grains as much as possible, I wanted another alternative. That said, Pamela’s G-F Bread Mix is easy and great in a pinch if you include grains in your diet.)

Some basic breads can be made simply with water, flour, and salt. From my understanding, in olden times, you’d leave the bread out to rise and wait for naturally occurring yeast to colonize on the dough (or use a sourdough starter from previous breads) and make it rise. The above combination can also be used to make unleavened (flat) breads. Everything else that is added is there to make the bread softer, less dense, tastier, etc..

Here’s what I’ve learned about adding these different ingredients: 

EGGS:  These help bread rise. They’re not necessary, but really helpful in baking breads with alternative flours. One thing to be aware of is that bread makers work best when you start with warm ingredients (approximately 80 degrees Fahrenheit). My favorite way to quickly bring refrigerated eggs to room temperature is: shake them in a shaker cup then place the cup in warm water (see photo).

FLOUR:  I’ve tried store-bought paleo flour blends, combining paleo flours on my own (like almond, coconut, tapioca, arrowroot, etc.), and every recipe that claims to be the “best paleo/keto/primal/ gluten-free” bread recipe out there. To me, for a recipe will be useful, it needs to be as simple as possible while still producing excellent results. That left me with cassava flour.

Despite claims that cassava flour can be substituted 1:1 for wheat flour, I’ve found this to be completely untrue in bread-making. I’ve used cassava flour successfully in my Crowd-Pleasing Apple Struesel Coffee Cake and other baked goods, but my first (several months of) attempts to find or create a good cassava flour recipe were gummy messes. I had decent results with blending flours, but it was more complicated than I wanted and didn’t produce results that were worth the extra effort.

OIL/ BUTTER:  The oil or butter in the recipe adds flavor, makes dough lighter and more moist, and “lubricates” dough. That sounds weird, right? From my reading, that means it coats the protein, inhibiting gluten formation in wheat-based doughs so the rise is more controlled. It also makes the dough easier to handle. If substituting butter or coconut oil for other liquid oils, make sure its melted before you add it.

SALT:  Salt helps your bread in two ways. First, it’s a flavor enhancer, so it brings out the flavors of the other ingredients. Second, it helps stabilize traditional doughs by slowing the rising process, giving the gluten time to strengthen within the dough. Be aware though, this is the accepted wisdom for gluten-containing breads. However, all of the gluten-free recipes I’ve seen call for salt as well, so I’m curious about its chemical effect in gluten-free breads. I’m guessing this is for it’s flavor-enhancing benefits, but I’m not sure. From my reading, it doesn’t slow the rising enough to be problematic (you wouldn’t want to limit the rise since g-f dough rises less anyway).

WATER/ MILK/ CREAM: Obviously, water in a dough is used to wet the flour and turn it into a pliable dough. But what about other liquids (excluding eggs since I discussed those above)?

I originally learned that brioche (a delicious sweet treat disguised as bread) is bread made with additional sugar, egg, and milk. But when my breads were coming out drier than I wanted, my mom suggested adding milk. Milk is one of the things that makes bread softer and keeps it staying soft longer (i.e. so it hopefully doesn’t go stale on day 3). From my reading, it appears this is due to the fat in milk, but I don’t think that is completely right, since nonfat milk powder is used in a lot of bread recipes. It could be something in the milk itself, but I’m just not sure.

I haven’t tried these options, but from my reading you can substitute any full-fat milk substitute (i.e. canned coconut milk, nut milk, oat milk, etc.) 1:1 for milk in a recipe. I also read you can substitute water 1:1 for milk, provided you add 1.5 tsp butter (or coconut oil) to compensate for the missing fat.

As I mentioned above, bread makers work best when you start with warm ingredients (approximately 80 degrees Fahrenheit). You can get warm water out of your tap, but for milk or milk substitutes, you can use the method listed in the eggs section above.

YEAST: According to Sarah Ballantyne, PhD (aka The Paleo Mom), yeast is fine in Paleo diets if you’re allowing gluten-free beer and wine. She explains it all here. Bread making is a science, and yeast is a big part of that. Red Star yeast has a phenomenal amount of resources on their website that has been invaluable in my quest to understand the chemistry of bread making. Check it out if you want to learn more.

The purpose of yeast in bread is to react with the sugar and other ingredients and cause bubbles of carbon dioxide (CO2) that make the bread rise and result in those little air pockets in finished bread.

If you don’t want to use yeast (or don’t have any), you can substitute baking powder in a 1:1 ratio, according to this article from The Spruce Eats. That means if the recipe calls for 2.25 tsp of yeast, use 2.25 tsp of baking powder instead. With baking powder you don’t have to add anything else to the recipe since it combines the acid and the base in one product.

The above article also says you can also substitute baking soda and vinegar (or lemon juice) in a 50:50 ratio for the yeast. For example, if the recipe calls for 2.25 tsp of yeast, you would use 1.125 (1 and an eighth) tsp of baking soda and 1.125 tsp of vinegar. This won’t give results that are as good as yeast, so personally, I’d round up for convenience and do 1.25 tsp each. Basically the combination of the alkaline baking soda and acidic vinegar (or lemon juice) creates the same chemical reaction that produces CO2 and causes the bread to rise that yeast does.

NOTE: It’s important not to confuse baking powder with baking soda. If you look at the ingredients, you’ll see that baking powder consists of baking soda (alkaline) and cream of tartar (acidic). Baking soda should just contain itself.

Homemade Bread Storage:

Homemade bread goes stale much faster than store-bought due to the lack of preservatives. Therefore, it’s not worth it to make more bread than you will use. I know you can freeze regular bread dough (here’s how), but I don’t know how well it would work for gluten-/grain-free dough. Since we make ours in the bread machine, it’s never seemed worth it to me to try.

DO NOT store bread in the refrigerator. It will go stale FAST (within 12-24 hours).

Here’s the best way to keep it:

  • in a room temperature breadbox, possibly wrapped in a flour sack towel.

You CAN store bread in the freezer, but make sure you slice it first, so you don’t have to defrost a whole loaf when you want more. Personally, I don’t think it’s great this way, but it’s better than wasting what you’re not going to eat.

My favorite option (which I can’t believe I didn’t think of sooner) is to cut it into cubes and freeze them for the holidays when you want some gluten-free stuffing mix. This way, you KNOW your stuffing won’t be made of fillers, preservatives, or other unsavory ingredients.

I’m also thinking about making a gluten- and grain-free french toast casserole and I think these would be perfect for that too!

The other bonus with freezing the stale bits is that you can pull it out next time you get a hankering for (yes, I just said that) fried chicken, homemade chicken nuggets, or something else covered in breading. Just pull out however much you need, pulse it in the food processor and voila! Bread crumbs.

Troubleshooting Homemade Bread:

GUMMY BREAD (i.e. undercooked): Gluten-free bread is not always fully cooked when the breadmaker says it should be. The best way to learn if your bread is done is to test the internal bread temperature. Finished bread should be at least 205 degrees Fahrenheit and when you pull the thermometer out of the bread it should come out clean (like the traditional toothpick test).

TASTE/ AFTERTASTE: Cassava has a slightly different aftertaste than wheat flour. If you don’t like it, adding herbs (like my rosemary olive oil bread, my “imposter rye bread” with caraway seeds, or my garlic bread recipes) easily covers up the cassava flavor.

Left loaf has 2.5 cups flour; Right loaf has 3.5 cups.

TOO DENSE: When homemade bread is too dense, it can mean there’s too much flour in the recipe. You can tell it’s dense when the holes in the finished bread (caused by the CO2 that escapes when the yeast eats the sugar) are oblong or squished-looking rather than round. (See photo at right.) It’s difficult to adjust the amount of flour though when using cassava because it absorbs water differently than wheat flour and the balance is a delicate one.

NOT SOFT: The softness of the bread is different from its density. When my bread was a good density but still tasted kind of dry, that’s when my mom suggested adding milk. See ingredient notes above regarding milk.

An intriguing option that doesn’t require any additional ingredients is to make a roux and add that to your wet ingredients. I haven’t tried this yet with the cassava flour, since it frequently comes out gummy, but it’s an interesting idea that comes from Asian baking techniques (called a tangzhong roux). Basically, you take 1/2 cup of water and 3 tbsp flour from your original recipe measurements, mix them together so there are no lumps, and heat them until they combine into a gelatinous goo. Then you add this to the wet ingredients and continue the recipe as normal.

STICKS TO BEATER PIN: If your finished bread sticks to the little metal pin that the beater attaches to, pour the oil in first, coating the beater pin before you place the beater in the pan. Normally the beaters have a nonstick coating, but if you like to pull out the beater so the hole in the bottom of the loaf is smaller (like I do), the beater pin typically holds onto the bread and still leaves a rough hole. Coating it with the oil that’s already called for in the recipe lubricates the pin so it doesn’t stick as much.

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