Admit it. You’ve been wondering whether Thomas Keller’s new Cup4Cup gluten-free flour is worth the $19.95 (for three pounds) price tag. So was I.
Thomas Keller, the extraordinary culinary talent and restaurateur embraced “gluten-free” in a serious way. First his restaurants, The French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York City, started to serve delicious, imaginative gluten-free bread and pastry to gluten-intolerant diners. And then late last summer, he put his stamp of approval on a gluten-free flour blend developed by one his chefs, Lena Kwak. I read with fascination when wheat eater Florence Fabricant wrote kindly about it in the New York Times saying, “It works very well, though the cake textures were more delicate than usual and I found that the pie crust was best rolled somewhat thicker for ease of handling”. I read Kelly Courson’s (Celiac Chicks) glowing account of the gluten-free tea that Keller held at Per Se last November to launch his flour venture. I sat tight and let Keller and his team work out any of the kinks. But finally, curiosity got the best of me and I could wait no longer, especially since I’d been receiving questions about it from people who use my cookbooks. So this weekend I drove to my local William Sonoma and paid for my very own bag of Keller’s very expensive gluten-free flour.
I have tested every all-purpose gluten-free flour blend on the market and all the rice flours available in the New York metro area. I use the exact same recipe whenever I test new flour – I make my vanilla cupcakes from Gluten-Free Baking Classics. It’s simple, basic and it doesn’t have a lot of ingredients. Any problems show up right away because there is nothing to hide behind.
I actually go out of my way to illustrate my flour testing mythology in my basic baking classes. I pass out samples of two vanilla cupcakes made with my brown rice flour mix, but each is made with a different brown rice flour: the first with Authentic Foods (my first choice rice flour) and the second with Bob’s Red Mill (my second choice rice flour). The cupcake made with the Bob’s Red Mill has a slightly tighter texture and is slightly smaller than the Authentic Foods one. It doesn’t rise as well, contracts more after baking and is very slightly gritty (but far less gritty than cupcakes made with other brands).
I also pass around two paper cups filled with plain brown rice flour for the class to feel: one has Authentic Foods (it is powdery like wheat flour) and the other has Bob’s (which has a slightly gritty feel). I often pass around two cups with those same two brown rice flours mixed up into my flour mix to show the class that potato and tapioca starch doesn’t actually cover up the grit, if it’s there.
I employed my standard vanilla cupcake testing methodology to test Cup4Cup gluten-free flour. The blend contains cornstarch, white rice flour, brown rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour potato starch, and xanthan gum. The package says it can be used to replace wheat in equal amounts in “most recipes”. It also said there were tips for use on the website, but I didn’t’ find any. However, since the package said the flour was “especially fantastic” in things like quick breads and muffins, I figured I’d be safe with cake. I dug out the original wheat version of my cupcake recipe (which I’d used for more than a decade before being diagnosed with celiac) and got started. The only difference between the recipes is that the wheat version uses 1 1/8 teaspoon baking powder instead of the 1 1/2 teaspoons used in the gluten-free version (and my GF version has xanthan as an added ingredient).
First I made gluten-free vanilla cupcakes with my brown rice flour mix (which uses Authentic Floods brown rice flour). Actually, I used Authentic Foods GF Classic Blend ($11.50 for a three pound bag) which is my brown rice flour mix already made up (I do not get paid by Authentic Foods; I just think they have great flour). Although I have a double oven, I waited to use the same one to bake the Cup4Cup cupcakes in order to be consistent.
I opened the Cup4Cup bag and felt the flour. I thought it had a bit of a gritty feel so I did a side by side with the Authentic Foods GF Classic Blend to be sure. There was, indeed a difference in grit. Next, I compared it to some of my brown flour mix made with Bob’s Red Mill brown rice flour (I use it for pizza crust). It felt similar. Ok, so Cup4Cup has a tiny bit of grit.
Next, I mixed it up in the cupcake batter and saw a huge difference. The batter was glue-like and gooey and didn’t flow into the cupcake cups like the Authentic Foods batter. I actually had to push it out of the spoon to get it into the cup. I realized that it must have a relatively huge amount of xanthan gum in it, at least compared to what I would use for a cake or muffin or sweet bread. And as all of you who use my recipes know, I do not believe in one-size fits all gluten-free flour blends that include xanthan gum; I have found that the amount needs to be calibrated based on what you are trying to make and the other ingredients in the recipe.
The baking proved interesting. As I periodically peered thought the glass in my oven door, I thought at first that the cupcakes would never rise. But then they suddenly started moving and rose spectacularly, as high as the Authentic Foods cupcakes. When they were finished baking (interesting, they took exactly the same amount of time), they were a bit pale. As they cooled, they shrunk just as spectacularly as they rose. The large amount of xanthan gum in the blend pulled those cupcakes in and made them smaller than the Authentic Foods version. Ok, so the Cup4Cup cupcakes were slightly paler and slightly smaller. But the truth is in the tasting.
Blind taste tasters stood by waiting for bites of the cooled, unfrosted cupcakes (thank you friends and family!). My first question is can you tell the difference between the two? Everyone could tell the difference between the two cupcakes. My second question is what do you taste and feel in your mouth? The Cup4Cup cupcake was called “rubbery” and “gummy” in texture and “grit” was detected. The Authentic Foods was said to be “like a real one”, “tender”, and no grit was felt on the tongue. The vanilla shined though in both. There was no after taste in either.
I would really like to see Thomas Keller and his team make this flour blend better. On the Cup4Cup package it says, “Gluten-free Flour But You’d Never Know It”. I guess that might be true for some people, especially those who had been using another gluten-free mix that was grittier and had just as much xanthan gum as the Cup4Cup. But the wheat eaters in my group certainly could tell. Bad wheat cupcakes tend to be either dry and flavorless, or have an off-taste from artificial flavors, but they rarely tend toward “rubbery”. In addition, the often well-intentioned addition of potato flour and/or sweet rice flour in other gluten-free blends can contribute to a smaller, tighter texture, and sometimes, to a gummier baked good, so perhaps gluten-free bakers who use blends with those flours might not notice the less-than-perfect texture of the Cup4Cup cupcakes. But for me, $19.95 is a lot to pay for a flour that doesn’t do as good a job as the (less expensive) Authentic Foods flour I use now. I’m happily staying with what I have.