Keep the Breadbasket, Throw Out the Gluten

Erin McKenna’s gluten-free English muffins Clarke Tolton

I don't require a savory course—the dainty appetizer, some glam entrée. I own a bakery that specializes in pastries free of gluten and dairy products, Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC, and because of my job as a dessert maker, eating a meal entirely of sweets has, for better or often worse, become second nature to me. When I sit down at the dinner table, though, I find it far more difficult to pass by what comes before either of those courses—an early love that, over time and owing to a sensitivity to gluten—I had to abandon long ago: the bread basket. I admit that it is still difficult for me to live without the beautiful things inside that basket.

If you are reading this because you have dietary restrictions of some kind, I am certain you, too, can magically weave a meal out of almost any restaurant menu—find a hidden gluten-free side dish in more polite moments, and in meaner ones add so many aggravating customizations to a main course that the chef packs up her knives and dog, moves to the woods and closes the restaurant forever.

Erin McKenna, founder of BabyCakes NYC and Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC. Clarke Tolton

But there is no escaping that moment when a basket filled high with beautiful, crusty bread is presented. It brings a sudden quiet to the entire table. But instead of reaching in for a piece, we take a sip of water and watch as the others gorge themselves nonchalantly, olive oil splashing everywhere, oblivious to our suffering. We order a vodka and soda.

I need to be cautious about what I eat: I avoid gluten because I hate the intense stomach aches it gives me. (I'm lucky not to have a life-threatening reaction to it.) But no matter what one's reason might be for eliminating it from one's diet, we all want bread. We want the chewy action that gluten gives bread.

So I set out to create some vegan gluten-free recipes to fill the empty bread basket in my heart. A few early successes grew into a book full of recipes. But it was tough going from the start.

One under-caffeinated morning at the bakery, when savory bread was far from my mind, as I was faced with a long baking list of desserts for the day, I forgot to add several key ingredients to a cupcake batter. It wasn't until I placed my ordinarily lovely carrot cupcakes on the rack to cool that I noticed they were dirty-blond and pocked everywhere with huge, wart-like clods. I tasted one anyway.

McKenna set out to create vegan gluten-free recipes to fill the empty bread basket in her heart. Clarke Tolton

The cupcakes I'd made thousands of times were now, against all odds, a pretty terrible rendition of sandwich bread—a savory recipe, my most feared adversary. I brewed a cup of tea and stared at these things for a long while. Twenty-six days of refining later, the accidental savory recipe made its way onto the BabyCakes NYC menu as simple white sandwich bread. Over the next year, other breads followed.

There are reasons breads usually contain gluten-rich flours, and also reasons why nearly every gluten-free bread contains eggs (which are also never included in BabyCakes recipes). Without either, creating chewy, airy, light breads with crunchy crusts was at times an emotionally troubling undertaking. For every success there were hundreds of tear-inducing failures. But I learned something at each turn, and in time, I solved the Gluten-Free Vegan Bread Puzzle.

At the heart of what I do is a pantry full of ingredients you may not know very well (unless, of course, you have my first two books). Here are the basics:

Flours and Other Powders

Garbanzo–fava bean flour: I've used this bean-based blend ever since I opened the doors of BabyCakes NYC in 2005, and to this day I have not found a better, more versatile flour. Bean flour gives an extraordinary amount of lift to gluten-free baked goods, but it is critical not to over-measure as a heavy hand will absolutely result in something that tastes overwhelmingly of beans.

Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Flour: Without this my kitchens would be an absolute disaster, riddled with hundreds of half-used bags left over from lame attempts to re-create what Bob's does for us already. This flour is a blend of garbanzo and fava bean flours, sorghum flour, potato starch and arrowroot. It is a very reliable product.

Teff flour: Teff may be the tiniest grain in the world with the germ and the bran still fully intact. It is definitely among the most nutritious of flours. I find it slightly bitter when used on its own, but it adds a nice tartness to my Brown Bread recipe.

Millet flour: I cherish how light and sweet this flour is, and I turn to it to provide a tender crumb. It pairs extremely well with the more robust oat flour.

Oat flour: It is critical to read your labels and ensure that the oat flour you are purchasing is certified gluten-free, as some purveyors process wheat on the same equipment. I love whole-grain oat flour for the added fiber and because it helped me create Oat Crackies, my Wheat Thins knockoff!

Potato starch: When wheat is removed from the list of ingredients, something beyond a pinch of xanthan gum is needed to give bread elasticity. Potato starch gives recipes bounce and a subtle, tender crumb. I feel self-conscious even saying this, but I will anyway, just to be absolutely clear: Potato starch is not interchangeable with potato flour. You can't do it. Please don't do it.

Arrowroot: Chewiness can be elusive in gluten-free bread, but arrowroot is a welcome ally. I use it less frequently in my recipes than I do potato starch, but only because it is a bit more expensive. When you see arrowroot in my recipes, it is because the alternatives are not cutting it. As with potato starch, arrowroot is extremely potent and tends to have an overpowering flavor when too much is used. Be careful.

Xanthan gum: More than anything else, this finely ground powder adds much-needed viscosity to your cake and bread batters. It is important not to over-measure this, as it will make your baked item extremely gummy.

Chia seeds: I use chia seeds because they add a good amount of omega-3s and add a nice nutty flavor and texture. Plus the word chia is fun to say.

Bread & Butter cover
McKenna's new book, 'Bread & Butter' Davide Luciano


Vegan sugar: You'll find this ingredient at the grocery stores as evaporated cane juice, rapadura, Sucanat, turbinado sugar and raw sugar. It comes straight from the cane and is minimally processed, unlike white sugar, which in many cases, has been processed using animal bones.

Coconut sugar: I like this sugar because it is among the natural sweeteners on the market that have a low glycemic index and is rich in potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and B vitamins. It is made from the sap of the coconut tree, which is dehydrated to create that granular feel we love so much. Some say it tastes like a caramelized brown sugar, and it has a hint of molasses as well. You can experiment with replacing agave nectar and vegan sugar with coconut sugar in most bread recipes.

Agave nectar: This sweetener is lower on the glycemic index than sugar and is made by extracting sap from the blue agave plant. It is sweeter than sugar, so you can use less of it. I love it for its neutral taste and for how readily available it is in most markets.

Chewiness can be elusive in gluten-free bread. Clarke Tolton


Coconut oil: My preferred fat, this is full of medium-chain triglycerides that travel from your digestive tract straight to your liver, where the fat is converted for quick energy. Flavor and texture wise it covers perfectly for absentee butter. Buy it unscented.

Walnut oil: This very costly ingredient pops up in these pages from time to time. It is an indulgence. If you feel like giving it a try, you will find it is sweetly rich and extremely flavorful. Let's all hope it catches on so the price comes down a bit!

Reprinted from Bread & Butter: Gluten-Free Vegan Recipes to Fill Your Bread Basket by Erin McKenna, founder of BabyCakes NYC and Erin McKenna's Bakery NYC.

Keep the Breadbasket, Throw Out the Gluten | Culture