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Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking: My 2 Cents

As a Chef Instructor who teaches cooking classes to many different audiences, I try to stay abreast of current dietary trends and food preferences so I can accommodate the needs of my clients.

Over the past few years, I have noticed an ever-increasing trend towards gluten-free diets. In order to understand why this is happening, I read lots of articles about the issue. In my research, I have come across a number of different theories as to what could be causing an increased sensitivity to gluten, from GMO (genetically modified) wheat that contains more protein (gluten is one of the proteins found in wheat) so that we can attempt to meet the food needs of an ever-increasing global population, to modernized processing of wheat that makes it harder for our bodies to digest the grain. [I had the pleasure of hearing farmer Joel Salatin speak at a university lecture series, and his explanation made a lot of sense to me.]

It would seem that the research is still unclear as to why there is such an increased prevalence of gluten sensitivity lately, but regardless of the reason, as a Chef, it is my job to cater to my customers’ requests, so I do my best to accommodate those needs.

And herein lies my challenge: Throughout history, baked goods have been made with a few basic ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, eggs. Baking is a science…..all of the ingredients perform a very specific function in recipes. When you start substituting ingredients in recipes, it will have a noticeable difference in the finished product because the ingredients will react differently in the science of baking.

In my experience, I have found that you can make baked goods vegan–meaning they do not use any animal products (such as butter, milk, and eggs). You can also make baked goods gluten-free–without any wheat-based flour.

But to try to make baked goods both vegan and gluten-free is virtually impossible, in my opinion. Once you take away the flour, butter, and eggs and try to add in alternate substitutes, such as gluten-free flours, vegan margarine, flax seed in place of eggs, etc., the science of baking has changed so much that the finished product resembles nothing of the original recipe.

As an example, I attempted to make vegan and gluten-free brownies for a friend recently…..when I took the pan out of the oven, the mixture was actually boiling and bubbling like some kind of black volcanic sludge. It looked completely unappetizing, and it tasted as bad, too. If vegan, gluten-free baked goods don’t taste good, then why bother making them?

The only real solution I have is to simply make a recipe that is already by nature both vegan and gluten-free, such as sorbet, rather than trying to substitute alternative ingredients for the original ingredients in the recipe.

That’s my 2 cents on vegan and gluten-free baking. But if anyone out there has had any success with vegan, gluten-free baking, I would sure love to hear about it. I’m still trying to find something that actually works scientifically AND tastes good, too.

In the meantime, I’m going to stick with using good old-fashioned flour, sugar, butter and eggs in my baked goods. The first thing I learned in culinary school is that “fat tastes good.” And for me, nothing can replace the flavor and texture of butter in baked goods. Mmmmmmm!