How to Master Vegan & Gluten-Free Baking (Reward: Chocolate Muffins)

February 11, 2016

For the most part, vegan baking really isn’t too difficult with the help of gluten for binding, rise, and elasticity. And gluten-free baking becomes a lot less scary when you can rely on eggs for light texture and a good crumb.

But egg-free and gluten-free baking? That’s when things get tricky.

And that’s what vegan, gluten-free baking is all about—managing the double whammy of no gluten and no eggs. Much as I love to create gluten-free baked goods (I don’t have celiac disease, but I do avoid gluten for the most part), I generally skip over most gluten-free recipes online and in cookbooks because I know that eggs will be a critical ingredient. This means that I’ve had to learn the delicate art of vegan, gluten-free baking the hard way: through lots of trial and error (and lots of inedible muffins).

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Here’s the first thing to know about vegan and gluten-free baking: You have to follow recipes precisely. Precision is a rule for most baking, but it’s especially important when you’re working to achieve a perfect crumb with a combination of non-glutinous flours and starches. You can’t just swap one flour for another and expect good results, and you can’t assume that a vegan baking recipe with gluten will turn out perfectly if you simply swap in a gluten-free flour mix for regular flour; that’s true some of the time, but not always, and especially not if you’re baking something delicate.

The second thing to know is that a combination of flours and starches that fits your particular recipe will probably give you better results than a gluten-free, all-purpose mix. Again, this isn’t always the case: Some gluten-free, all-purpose flour mixes are really good, and for quick breads and muffins, they’ll probably do the trick. Not all of them are vegan (Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix, for example, contains buttermilk), so check labels before you make a selection. My favorites include Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour and King Arthur Gluten Free Multipurpose Flour.

But when it’s time to bake a vegan, gluten-free birthday cake or a batch of sugar cookies, it’s really best to figure out a combination of flours and starches that will work in place of regular flour yourself. The flours will provide body and density, while the starches will help to create rise and hold things together. (Xanthan gum can also help with binding.)

The best way to start figuring out which combinations might work best for a particular recipe is to read lots of vegan, gluten-free recipes on blogs and in books (Allyson Kramer’s Sweet Eats for All; Cara Reed’s Decadent Gluten-Free Vegan Baking, and Flying Apron’s Gluten-Free & Vegan Baking Book are my favorites) for inspiration and guidance.

Then, start to try different combinations. Sometimes your baked goods will be hard as a rock on the outside and collapse when you pull them out of the oven; sometimes they’ll be gummy; sometimes they’ll be so light and perfect that you’ll feel like a miracle worker. That’s cool, and it’s part of the learning process.

There are tons of different gluten-free flours, and choosing between them can be a daunting task. You’ll generally see them classified as heavy (brown rice flour, almond flour, buckwheat flour, teff flour); medium (chickpea flour, oat flour, millet flour, sorghum flour); or light, which really means starchy (tapioca flour, potato starch). I tend to get the best result with a combination of medium and light flours, or heavy, medium, and light flours.

I’ve developed favorites, as most gluten-free bakers do. I love chickpea flour for its mildly nutty flavor and nice crumb. Sorghum and millet flour are my favorites for replacing traditional, all-purpose flour, because they’re neutral-flavored, if not slightly sweet. I love brown rice flour and oat flour for quick breads, but my brown rice flour of choice is superfine brown rice flour, which can be found from Authentic Foods. It’s less coarse than regular brown rice flour, and it’s given me great results in nearly every type of baked good.

There are lots of ways to create a go-to, homemade gluten-free, all-purpose flour mix, and nearly all will save you money in the long run (in comparison to store-bought mixes): Don’t panic when you first invest in a bunch of different types of flours and find yourself with a crowded pantry. I don’t pretend to be the expert on gluten-free baking mixes, and I know that there are probably more scientific approaches than mine.

But here’s the gluten-free flour mix that typically works for me:

  • 2 parts heavy flour
  • 2 parts medium flour (you can also do 4 parts medium flour and omit a heavy flour)
  • 1 part potato starch
  • 1 part tapioca flour (also sold as tapioca starch)

Mix all ingredients and store in an airtight container until ready to use. You can add a teaspoon or so of xanthan gum to the mix, but it’s not needed in all gluten-free baking, so I tend to add it only to individual recipes on a case-by-case basis.

The mix I use for today’s celestial double chocolate muffin recipie is a combination of brown rice flour, sorghum or millet flour, potato starch, and tapioca flour. I know it’s a lot of ingredients.

I know you’re probably wondering if a gluten-free, all-purpose mix would work instead—and maybe it would (if it does, let us know). But these muffins are so good—so moist, yet light, so perfectly sweet-but-not-too-sweet—that it’s not really worth tampering with the ingredients. Unless you don’t avoid gluten at all, in which case I have great news for you: Using 2 cups of all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour and omitting the xanthan gum will work just fine.

After I whipped these up, I couldn’t help but wonder if the double layer of chocolate ingredients moved these closer to the cupcake side of the muffin-to-cupcake spectrum. But wouldn’t that necessitate frosting? Anyway, they’re a true treat to enjoy for breakfast—and I’ll let you decide what to call them.

What are your favorite sources for vegan, gluten-free, or vegan and gluten-free baking recipes? Tip us off in the comments below!

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Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.