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I saw many questions regarding converting baking recipes towards gluten-free, and it seems it's not an easy process. But none of the questions I came across helped me understanding what gluten actually "does" in baking.

The background of this question is that I've got friends visiting in October, one of them is a celiac, and there's a few baking recipes I'd like to try while they're here. Knowing what gluten actually "does" would help me to evaluate if it's even worth trying to convert the recipes ...

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up vote 22 down vote accepted

I went into some detail with this in my answer to What are the factors that affect the chewiness, softness, moisture of bread based desserts like cinnamon rolls?

To summarize my points there and add some more (simplified) detail on the chemistry:

  • Gluten is responsible for elasticity of dough, which is perceived as chewiness. The difference between bread, quickbread (muffins/scones), and cake is largely due to the difference in gluten formation, with cake having the lowest amount and bread having the highest.

  • It does not directly cause rising - the leavening agent (yeast, baking powder, etc.) is responsible for that. What it does do is form a protein network by cross-linking, which not only results in the elasticity above but also traps gas and prevents it from escaping during the baking process. The "rising" in baked goods is essentially just stretching of the gluten network. This is why hydrocolloids such as xanthan and guar gum can mimic some of the effects in gluten-free recipes; although the mechanism is completely different - in essence, they're creating a very thin gel.

  • Gluten is also exceptionally good at both absorbing and retaining moisture; it can absorb up to 150% (1.5 times its own weight) in water. One thing you'll notice about typical wheat products vs. their gluten-free equivalents is that latter don't last too long and have to be frozen or consumed quickly. Part of this is due to preservatives in commercial baked goods, but much of it is also simply due to the gluten retarding moisture loss. You can think of it as a kind of natural preservative.

  • It's activated by water and heat and is (relatively) slow-acting, which gives it a high tolerance with respect to time and temperature. This is why many people will tell you that bread is "forgiving" while cake and other low-gluten/gluten-free products are not. When baking without gluten, you will have to be very precise about all of your measurements.

  • Its coagulation action is actually very similar to that of egg whites, and pure gluten (AKA vital wheat gluten) is sometimes actually used as a replacement for egg whites. A meringue is just heavily aerated egg whites and specifically protein; gluten is basically doing the same thing inside of whatever you're baking.

  • Finally, it provides nutritive protein when eaten. Wheat gluten is about 75% protein and all-purpose flour is about 10% gluten. That means 7.5% of the flour you consume is actually protein. Of course that's nowhere near what you get from meat, but it's still a significant contribution to one's diet.

In short: Gluten does a lot of things. Keep in mind when doing gluten-free baking that a lot of the substitutes only replicate one or two of the effects.

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+1 Thanks for your comprehensive answer. I missed the other post you linked to when searching for this stuff, probably because it didn't have the tags I looked out for. –  takrl Aug 29 '11 at 8:23
    
You're absolutely right regarding the chewiness ... I've recently taken up baking bread rolls, and on the current batch I must have overdone the kneading ... I've never had rolls that chewy before ;-) –  takrl Feb 4 '13 at 8:16

Gluten is a protein and binding agent that can be found in wheat and other grains like barley or rye. It helps dough to have an elastic type texture, and will help the dough rise and give a chewy texture. When substituting for gluten when cooking with gluten free flour, you add an ingredient called xanthan gum (there are other stabilizers, but this is my personal favorite as I think it turns out the best results). The xanthan gum will replace the gluten and does not affect people with celiac disease. Xanthan gum will add volume to your recipes and make sure that the product doesn't come out crumbly.

People with Celiac disease have a stomach lining that when exposed to the gluten toxin, affects their intestinal villi (villi are fingerlike projections that protrude from the intestinal lining that increase absorption). When exposed to gluten, the villi will shorten, swell and poorly function thus leading to malabsorption in this population.

I would also ask your friends how sensitive they are. Some people, even having a little wheat in the house can upset their lining. If you do decide to try to the new recipes (which I think is a great idea and fun!), make sure that you keep the gluten free flour away from any wheat products.

personal experience that has helped me convert my recipes to gluten free I do not have Celiac, but I have switched over to a gluten free diet, and I will say that it has been great. I do have more energy, and I just feel better overall. If you have the right recipe, gluten free meals/snacks/desserts, can be just as tasty if not tastier than gluten products.

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This site is intended for culinary topics, not health, nutrition, or dietary issues. Please avoid off-topic discussion which does not directly answer the question. If you have questions about this policy, please feel free to start a discussion on our meta site. Please do not continue this discussion in comments; comments are intended for clarifications and corrections on questions and answers, not for extended discussion. –  Aaronut Aug 28 '11 at 22:35
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+1 Thanks for this, there's some interesting points I definetly need to take into account. –  takrl Aug 29 '11 at 8:24
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@takrl, I am SO glad that you found it useful! I have Celiac friends and I know how much they appreciate the little things. And as an ER nurse, health is so improtant to me, and it is so deeply woven into my cooking style which is why I wanted to give you extra information to help you decide about what to do when your friends get there. –  AtlasRN Aug 29 '11 at 12:27

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