Let them eat cake: Gluten-free baking

Eggs are a magic ingredient for keen bakers who are also gluten-intolerant.
Eggs are a magic ingredient for keen bakers who are also gluten-intolerant. Photo: Eddie Jim
  • Gluten-free recipes here.

Have you ever tried making a bread loaf that turned into a doorstop? Or a cake dough that transformed into cement mix? Compound the experience many times and you have the dilemma of the home cook who decides to go gluten free. Sadly, there's no protein quite like gluten protein.

Gluten protein contains unique elastic properties. Known as the "muscles of flour", it's gluten that allows the grain to have a supple movement and flexibility, so that when it's kneaded or mixed it produces soft and tender pastry, and fluffy, chewy bread loaves.

Gluten is a type of protein that is found mainly in certain grains, such as wheat, barley, rye, triticale and oats. It can cause an immune reaction in people with coeliac disease, which causes damage to the small intestine and impairs normal digestive processes.

To follow a gluten-free diet, it is necessary to use ingredients that can, when combined, imitate the work that gluten normally does. In my experience, most gluten-free flours are fairly fibrous and crumbly and difficult to work with. However, I've found that if combined with a complementary binding agent (see list below), it can be kept together and develop a delicious and workable elastic texture.

Gluten-free food products are currently the fastest growing food sector in health foods. It is estimated that between 5-10 per cent of people have a gluten sensitivity in some form, while coeliac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 Australians (Source: Coeliac Society of Australia) and these figures are expected to rise.

Last time I checked, there was a whole section of the health aisle at the supermarket dedicated exclusively to gluten-free food.

The downside to all these novel gluten-free products is that many of these products aren't really healthy. Despite the fact that they are gluten-free, if you read the label you'll see ample food additives, preservatives and a host of unfamiliar looking e-numbers listed on many.

So what's the alternative?


Some foods naturally have great elastic and binding properties, without containing gluten. For example, why do you think peanut butter sticks so well on the top of your mouth when you eat it in sandwiches? Or bananas appear to glue together on your car upholstery when your kids have them in the back of the car? These foods are naturally sticky and work beautifully well in recipes that require the binding properties of gluten.

So if you're going gluten free, I suggest that you revisit the traditional binders and thickeners – that's right, good old-fashioned foods like bananas, peanut butter and mashed potato.

Here too are some gluten-free flours that are great to cook with, plus some easy-to-use binders that you've probably already got in your kitchen cupboards.


Nut flours

Nut flours can be sweet, nutty and delicious. They form the basis of traditional gluten free sweets such as marzipan, nougat and macaroons and can be used as a base for curries and spicy foods.

Nut flour is best made fresh - it can be ground in a food processor using whole raw nuts so that it becomes a fine meal. It is also best stored in a fridge or freezer for preservation.

For easier digestion, nuts can be pre-soaked in a salt-water solution and then dehydrated (in an oven on a low setting) so that they become sprouted or activated. After this step, it's very easy to grind them into flour.

Teff flour

This is not commonly found in supermarkets and health food stores, but it can easily be bought online. Teff is considered to be the smallest grain in the world and has been used as a nutritious staple food in Ethiopia for thousands of years. It works brilliantly well for cookies.

Buckwheat flour

Buckwheat flour bears the closest resemblance to a gluten-containing grain as it is a pseudo-cereal grain with several grain-like characteristics. When mixed with eggs and buttermilk it makes delicious European-style blinis and it can also be woven into buckwheat noodles known as soba. You can also purchase buckwheat or grouts, make a delicious base for breakfast cereals.

Coconut flour

Coconut flour is made from ground coconut meat. It is has a high fibre content and a very crumbly texture. For cakes and pastries it is best combined with a starchy flour such as rice flour or potato starch, or some pureed vegetables such as pumpkin, potato or zucchini. This will balance out the crumbly texture and give a nice even balance to cakes and muffins.

Rice flour

Rice flour is an excellent binding flour and thickening agent. It is made from either white or brown rice and can be used in a wide variety of gluten-free dishes. Searching the internet, there appears to be a plethora of gluten-free cakes made with rice flour – sponge cake and tea cake are two popular favourites.

Chickpea flour (also known as besan, gram flour or garbanzo flour)

Chickpea flour is the flour made from ground up chickpeas. It is very crumbly and works better with a binding agent such as eggs, arrowroot powder or potato starch. It is a staple flour used in Indian and Bangladeshi cuisines and can be used for chickpea pancakes, flat-breads and tortes.

Binders (already in your kitchen)


Brilliant for cakes, pancakes and even loaves of bread. Eggs are the go-to binding agent. For cakes and muffins, you can often get a lighter, more aerated result if you separate the eggs and whisk the whites first to stiff peaks before adding the remaining ingredients.

Peanut butter

This is a sticky, delicious-tasting binding agent that works brilliantly for pancakes and slices.


Wonderfully moist and sticky and work as delicious binding agents in pancakes, cakes and muffins.

Mashed potato, pumpkin and zucchini

All excellent blended in 50:50 ratio with a crumbly gluten-free flour such as coconut, teff or buckwheat flour, plus some well-beaten eggs. They can be used to form the base of muffins, cakes and pies. These are usually the most cost-effective gluten-free ingredients to use.

Binders (from supermarket or health food shop)

Arrowroot powder: Obtained from the roots of the tapioca tree, arrowroot is an excellent thickening agent.

Potato starch: An excellent thickening agent, and works well as a binder in gluten-free recipes.

Chia seeds: Sourced from chia plant, they form a sticky chia gel when mixed with warm water. Chia seeds work as excellent binding agents and are a good addition to cake, muffin and bread mixes.

Corn flour: Usually made from corn, but sometimes wheat (you will need to check the ingredients on the packet), it is great for thickening sauces.


Soy flour: This is a popular gluten-free flour used by the food industry. It is made from fresh soybeans, which contain significant levels of phytic acid and phytoestrogens, which can cause problems for your digestive system.


Peanut butter pike lets with jiffy-poached pears

Serves 4

For pears:

2 pears, cut in half, peeled and cored

1-tablespoon honey, plus extra for serving

1 stick cinnamon

1 star anise

For pikelets:

5 eggs, separated

2 generous tablespoons peanut butter

2 large ripe bananas, mashed

1/4 teaspoon gluten-free baking powder (check ingredients as some baking powders include wheat starch.)

1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence

3 drops stevia liquid (optional)

1 teaspoon honey (optional)

coconut oil and butter for frying


1. Place pears in a saucepan, add the honey and spices and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook pears partially covered for 20-30 minutes. They should be soft, but not disintegrated.

2. To make the pikelets - whisk egg whites until stiff peaks form. Add remaining ingredients. Mix well. Place a large fry pan on a medium heat and add equal quantities of butter and coconut oil to the pan. Pour spoonfuls of the mixture onto the pan and flip as each pikelet turns a light brown colour.

3. Serve pikelets immediately topped with poached pears, cream and a drizzle of honey.