How to Convert Your Favorite Recipes to Gluten Free/Dairy Free

By Dr. Leslie Carter (503) 807-7413

My family converted to mostly gluten free dairy free cooking about 8 years ago when my son was diagnosed with a celiac like gastric condition.  Later, my husband was diagnosed with a similar condition.  It took quite a while to learn to bake gluten free.  I found Bette Hagman’s cookbooks The Gluten Free Gourmet and Lisa Lewis’ cookbooks Special Diets for Special Kids invaluable.  Having been a “from scratch” cook most of my life I eventually missed my favorite recipes from childhood which I could not find good matches for in gluten free cookbooks.   So I worked out a method that is usually successful in converting many of my favorite quick bread or baking powder/baking soda based recipes to GF/CF. 

Let’s take a minute to understand gluten free flour.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour and other grains which helps wheat flour rise and stick together nicely.  Without gluten cookies and muffins are crumbly, dry, and fall apart.  Unfortunately, there is no single flour which completely copies what wheat does so easily.  While there are many gluten free flour recipes available I have discovered two favorites both from Bette Hagman.  One is a pastry flour mix which is rice flour based.  It is sweet and light in flavor.  I use it for cookies and cakes or projects where children want to eat the dough.  The other flour mix is garbanzo bean based.  It has a hearty nutty flavor and adds protein.  This flour, however, tends to taste bitter until cooked.  So batter or dough tasting is an acquired taste when using a bean flour mix.  These mixes are as follows:

Bette Hagman’s Gluten Free Featherlight Rice Flour Mix (Pastry Flour):

1 Cup Rice Flour, 1 Cup Tapioca Flour, 1 Cup Corn Starch, 1 teaspoon per cup potato flour.  (Sometimes I can’t find potato flour.  I find leaving it out works ok.) 

Bette Hagman’s Gluten Free Four Flour Bean Flour Mix:

2/3 Cup Garbanzo bean flour or combined Garbanzo/Fava Bean flour, 1/3 Cup Sorghum Flour, 1 Cup Corn Starch, 1 Cup Tapioca Flour.   

Bob’s Red Mill sells a Gluten Free Baking Flour Mix which is very similar to the bean flour listed above. 

Gluten Free recipes don’t rise as well as wheat based recipes.  So I usually double the baking powder the wheat based recipe calls for when cooking gluten free.  If a recipe calls for baking soda that is not complimented with vinegar in the same recipe then I change it to baking powder.  For example, some chocolate chip cookie recipes call for both baking soda and baking powder.  I have had little success using baking soda in gluten free baking. 

Because gluten free baking needs help to stick together and not get crumbly Xanthan gum is commonly used.  It helps the cookies or muffins rise as well as stick together.  Add ¼ teaspoon Xanthan gum for each cup of flour your recipe calls for.  The average cookie recipe calls for about 2 cups of flour so adding ½ teaspoon Xanthan gum should be about right.  Gluten free cookies, muffins, and cakes can easilybecome tough and rubbery.  My experience has been that this problem is usually caused by over mixing after the Xanthan Gum is added.  It is, after all, a gum.  Once Xanthan gum or any other gum is added very little stiring is recommended after that.  As a result I hold the gum until all mixing is done and sprinkle it on top of the dough or batter.  Gently mix it to the dough or batter using 5-10 strong stiring strokes then prepare my project for baking as needed. 

Converting a recipe to dairy free is relatively easy with all the new products available these days.  I use a dairy free margarine in place of butter or dairy based margarine.  I like Earthbalance stick margarine for baking.  It is soy based.  Tub margarines often have a lower melting temperature and therefore do not work as well for baking as stick margarine.   Earthbalance and other companies also have dairy free shortening substitutes as well.  Replace milk with the dairy free drink of your choice.  Almond, soy, coconut, or rice milks all work fine.  If your recipe calls for sour milk use a 1-2 teaspoons of rice vinegar to sour the milk substitute you choose.   There are also several companies that offer chocolate chips and cocoa powders these days that are dairy free as well (e.g., Ghiradelli, Dagoba, Woodstock farms).  Regretably, Baker’s Chocolate has not created a dairy free option yet for its baking chocolate squares or its German’s Chocolate yet.  I can always dream. 

Usually pan preparation, baking temperature and time remain the same.  Use a toothpick or knife to check if muffins or cakes are done.  Brownies and cookies that remain soft when they are eaten are the most difficult to decide baking time.  Do not over bake them.  When in doubt bake a shorter period of time and put the project back into the oven if needed.   

So in summary, to convert a recipe to GF/CF perform the following steps:

1)      Double the baking powder

2)      Use a gluten free flour mix

3)      Use dairy free milk and margarine substitutes as needed

4)      Add ¼ teaspoon Xanthan gum per cup flour, but stir in the Xanthan gum last after all other ingredients are already mixed in. 

5)      Bake at the same temp and about the same amount of time.

Remember converting a recipe is tricky.  It may take several trials to get the recipe just right.  We keep a notebook in the kitchen of all the converted recipes or we write the changes into our recipe books.   This method of record keeping allows us to remember what worked last time and make progressive changes if needed.  Be patient.  It will probably be worth the small amount of trial and error needed to get a recipe right.  Allow your taste buds to adjust.  The flavors probably will not be identical, but should be close.  Good Luck!!