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I wish I could go to a supermarket and buy a bag of gluten-free flour mix that’s really a no-fail, no-compromise alternative to wheat flour. I try to have an open mind, but truth be told, I haven’t found one that really does what I expect a product named “gluten-free cup-for-cup all purpose flour” or “gluten-free all-purpose 1-to-1 flour” to do (see two of my previous tests on Thomas Keller’s Cup-4-Cup and Nameste Perfect Flour Blend).
What do I expect?
I’d like to be able to pick up a bag of gluten-free “all-purpose cup-for-cup” flour at a grocery store, any grocery store, and successfully use it to bake a tried and true wheat recipe (i.e. a recipe that I know works well) without having to make it several times in order to get it to look, taste and feel like it should. If the bag says that it’s a cup for cup blend, I want it to work the first time in a recipe that I know already works well.
And when people who don’t normally bake gluten-free ask me what they can easily buy and use because a gluten-free friend or relative is coming to visit and they want to be able to make something special for them, I want to be able to give the name of a product I believe in – without going through a list of what they have to do to make it work well.
(And in the back of mind, I’m also thinking to myself: If I were away on vacation in a place with a kitchen, and I decided that I wanted to make some muffins, I’d like to be able to go to a local store and buy a “cup for cup” blend and bake up a really good muffin – the first time – no do-overs to get it right.)
In other words, I want the claim on the package of “cup for cup” or “1 for 1″ to be true. I want it not only for myself, but also for all the unsuspecting new-to-gluten-free bakers out there who buy these products and then, when they’ve produced a dense or sunken or gummy, soggy baked good, think that this is as good as it can get for gluten-free.
With that thought in mind, I ventured out to my local grocery store to purchase the (relatively) new all-purpose, cup for cup gluten-free flour blends from two companies I like and respect: Pamela’s All-Purpose Gluten-Free Artisan Blend and Bob Red Mill’s Gluten-Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour (I’ll discuss the test on Bob’s next week).
Inside scoop: I had high hopes for the Pamela’s All-Purpose Gluten-Free Artisan Blend mix. Why? I think she makes dependable products. In fact, I think her Baking and Pancake Mix is really good. It’s the only one I recommend to people who want a good tasting, no-fail gluten-free mix to make pancake and waffles. And I buy it myself when I don’t feel like using my recipe (made with my own flour mix). And her Bread Mix is the only packaged mix I recommend to people for making sandwich breads (it is not good for artisan breads however).
The goal of my cupcake test is very clear and simple. I want to see what happens when I use a purportedly “cup for cup” gluten-free flour blend in a classic wheat recipe that I know works well and tastes good. It has to be a recipe that I’ve been able to successfully convert to gluten-free using my Brown Rice Flour Mix in such a way that it is indistinguishable from the wheat version. My mix is made with very finely ground brown rice flour (I like Authentic Foods), potato starch, and tapioca starch. It is not a cup for cup blend. (Authentic Foods also makes a product called GF Classics Blend that is my Brown Rice Flour Mix already mixed up in a bag).
Why my vanilla cupcake recipe? Because the original wheat recipe doesn’t contain a lot of ingredients and it needs very few changes to make it gluten-free (1/2 teaspoon of xanthan gum and 3/8 teaspoon increase in baking powder). Also important – both the wheat and gluten-free versions of this recipe make a delicious, light and tender cupcake. So the idea here is that I already have a gluten-free flour mix that works well in the original wheat recipe. In order for the new “cup for cup” blend to pass the test, it would have to work as well or better.
IMPRESSIONS AND FINDINGS
The Pamela’s Artisan Blend contains a lot of ingredients. And I mean a lot. The list includes: Brown Rice Flour, Tapioca Starch, White Rice Flour, Potato Starch, Sorghum Flour, Arrowroot Starch, Guar Gum, Sweet Rice Flour, Rice Bran. Why so many? And in particular, why does it need six different starches (tapioca, potato, arrowroot, white rice flour, and sweet rice flour)? Two of them really jumped out at me: The first, arrowroot, can leave some baked goods with a damper than normal texture. And the second, sweet rice flour, which can help to make baked goods tender when used in the correct amount, also contributes to moisture retention – but it can make baked goods damp when too much is used. Why have both? Pamela’s seemed to have doubled down on the moist (read: wet) factor.
My guess is that in their good-intentioned attempt to banish the dry and gritty reputation of gluten-free baked goods, they went large on the wetter, moisture-giving flours. Based on my experience, I was worried they might have over-compensated. But I didn’t want to adjust the wheat recipe for the first round because I wanted to see if their product worked as described on the package- as a “cup for cup” replacement for wheat flour.
The Pamela’s blend didn’t feel particularly gritty when I rubbed it between my fingers. In fact, it felt pretty much like the Authentic Foods GF Classic Bend in a side-by-side comparison. It smelled fresh and mild; there was no weird bean flour smell or stale rice flour smell (in spite of the rice bran which can go rancid very quickly).
Next, I mixed it up in the cupcake batter. It was a little more “liquidy” than I was expecting (you might remember the Thomas Keller Cup4Cup mixed up gooey and thick and the Nameste Perfect Flour blend mixed up in a way that was very similar to my blend).
The cupcake rose pretty well in the oven and only pulled back a little as it cooled, but it was not as high as the cupcake made with my Brown Rice Flour Mix. The color of each cupcake was similar, although the texture of the top of the Pamela’s was less smooth.
The inside of the Pamela’s cupcake was denser and it had noticeably smaller air pockets. The flavor was good; there was no huge difference between the two cupcakes. There was also no real conspicuous grit (either Pamela’s heard the sirin call for less gritty flour, or there was so much starch in their mix that the grittiness of the rice and sorghum flours didn’t stand out).
The real problem came with the texture. It was the tiniest bit damp on the tongue, and it wasn’t tender. In fact, it was one chewy cupcake, almost a little tough.
So what do I think?
I think something is weighing down this mix and making it tough and chewy in a cake recipe that is usually light and tender.
Perhaps the mix was developed more for cookies – and not for cakes – even though the package says it’s an all-purpose cup for cup replacement for wheat? (Many of the recipes using this mix on Pamela’s website are for cookies.)
Perhaps, there is way too much xanthan gum in the mix? (chewy, tough)
Perhaps the combination of the sweet rice flour and the arrowroot makes up too large a percentage of the mix? (wet and some chew)
Perhaps there are simply too many starches in the mix? (wet)
Perhaps the “rice bran” listed last among the ingredients is actually one of those “clean label” ingredients – and they put too much of it in the mix (and/or this particular clean label “rice bran” works better in some kinds of recipes than others, like those cookies I just mentioned above). (wet and chew)
But I didn’t want to give up on the flour mix just yet.
So what happened when I tweaked the cupcake recipe to see if I could make Pamela’s All-Purpose Gluten-Free Artisan Blend work better in my recipe? I took out 1 tablespoon milk and 1 tablespoon canola oil, and I increased the baking powder to the same amount as I use in the gluten-free version with my flour mix.
The cupcake rose beautifully, just as well as the cupcake made with my blend – but it was still too chewy. The good thing was, it was good enough eat when it wasn’t so dense. Taking out 2 tablespoons (combined) of the liquid and fat also got rid of the dampness. It wasn’t perfect. And I wouldn’t make it for company- as long as I had my flour mix in the house. But it was good enough for me spread on some homemade coconut frosting and serve to my family for dessert (usually bad the test cupcakes go in the garbage because no one in my house wants to waste the calories).
As it is currently, I don’t think Pamela’s Artisan Flour Blend should be called a “cup for cup” all-purpose blend – because it’s not. Chances are most recipes will need tweaking so that they are not overly chewy, tough and wet. My guess is that they will need less liquid and fat and more leavening to make a decent gluten-free version. And I really think Pamela’s should give suggestions for how to tweak a recipe within recipe categories on their website for people who want to use this mix (I’d also like to see a bit of instruction, on the package).
But I do think this product has promise. Even though I’d like to see them significantly reduce that chew factor, I’m going to test it a little more to see how much liquid and/or fat I have to take out to make several other kinds of recipes, including a tart shell, pie crust and muffins (the kinds of things I might want to make at the last minute in a beach or lake house on vacation). I’ll let you know how I do in later posts. And please, let me know what, if anything, you’ve done to do to make a recipe work as well as the wheat version when you use Pamela’s Blend.
And if Pamela’s asks me, I’d be happy to test any new renditions they try.