'Test Kitchen': Have Your (Gluten-Free) Cake, And Love Eating It Too
It took hundreds of batches of muffins, cakes and cookies before Jack Bishop and Julia Collin Davison — of the public TV series America's Test Kitchen — figured out the best ways to make delicious baked goods without gluten. They also conducted taste tests of packaged gluten-free breads and pasta.
Collin Davison tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the show's normal testing procedures "really worked to help us get at the heart of what makes gluten-free things taste just as good as traditional baked goods."
Bishop and Collin Davison edited The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook. They join Fresh Air to share tips, secrets and favorite recipes for gluten-free baking.
On what gluten is and does
Bishop: There are two proteins in wheat — glutenin and gliadin — and they are basically wrapped around starch molecules, and they're basically inert. But when you add water or another liquid, you are bringing those proteins back to life, and they unwind from the starch molecules and attach to each other, and the more you knead or mix the dough or the batter, the more they will attach to each other, and they form this elastic network that is called gluten.
The gluten is really what traps the bubbles, the carbon dioxide, that is either coming from yeast, from baking soda, from baking powder; and it's what gives bread, cookies, cake their structure. It helps turn them from doughs and batters into beautiful, risen baked goods.
On common problems with gluten-free foods
Collin Davison: Gluten is kind of magical, and so when you take it out of the equation, you're left with flours that can't absorb liquid as well, they can't absorb fat as well, and they can't trap those air bubbles that are really crucial for baked goods. So you wind up with things that are ... very dense and squat; they're often greasy and they crumble apart. They don't have the binding structure of gluten.
On the best store-bought gluten-free flour
Collin Davison: The one that we found worked best universally — and that means in cookies, in bread dough, in biscuits, in muffins — was King Arthur Flour gluten-free blend. And it is very much like, actually, our recipe for gluten-free flour blend in that it uses two types of rice flours — white and brown — and it also uses two types of starches, which is potato and tapioca. And those four ingredients, we found, were really the magic key to finding a blend that worked almost as good as a wheat flour.
On the best gluten-free pasta
Collin Davison: We tested every brand of gluten-free pasta we could get our hands on. We tested it plain, we tested it with sauce, and one brand really rose to the top, again, in terms of its texture and flavor, and that brand is Jovial. ...
A lot of the brands came out really mushy; they didn't have enough texture. Of course, you'll never get gluten-free pasta that's al dente, but the Jovial came as close to al dente as you can get. Also, it didn't have any "off flavors," which is a bonus in this world of gluten-free products. And ... it actually tasted more like traditional wheat pasta than any of the other brands we tried. ...
Bishop: You could tell what the pasta was going to taste like by looking at the water in the pot. The real problem with any gluten-free pasta — whether it's made of corn, quinoa or brown rice, which is what the Jovial is made of — there isn't enough structure to contain the starches that are in the pasta. ...
The Jovial has more protein and more fiber. And basically what that does is it prevents the starch molecules from bursting. During the cooking process, the starch is hydrating and swelling, which is a good thing, so that it goes from its dry state to something that you can actually eat. But in a lot of the other gluten-free pasta brands that we tested, the starches kept on swelling and eventually they exploded, and you could look in the pot and see the starches because the pasta water was now cloudy — it basically looked like milk.
On foods that are impossible to make gluten-free
Collin Davison: I'll never say never because I always like a good challenge. ... Gluten-free phyllo dough — not something I think we can do — and a gluten-free puff pastry. That one — big question mark ...
Bishop: I think a croissant would be pretty hard to make gluten-free ... in large part because of the butter issue, which is the flour has so much trouble absorbing fat and you really don't want a low-fat croissant.
On the trick to making gluten-free sugar cookies
Collin Davison: You're dealing with the maximum amount of butter and sugar, and that's what gives a traditional sugar cookie its flavor. So [in the gluten-free version], you can't use all that butter because it just leeches out and what you wind up with is fried cookies on the baking sheet, which are pretty disgusting. The other issue is that ... they'll just spread as much as they want, as much as they're allowed. ... When you're dealing with gluten-free batter or gluten-free cookie dough that doesn't have a lot of binders, it will just spread and spread. ...
The solution ... was when you take out the sugar and you take out the butter and you take out all that flavor, you need to replace it with a different kind of flavor and fat that will stay in the cookie and the fat won't leech out during baking — and that turned out to be almonds. When you think about almonds, it has a lot of natural fat in it, and those almonds will hold onto their fat and their flavor in the oven. ... So almonds, or almond flour, was the key to the sugar cookie, along with xanthan gum [as a binder].
Why This Recipe Works
The ultimate chocolate cupcakes are moist and tender with rich chocolate flavor. Taking a cue from the success of our moist and tender Chocolate Layer Cake, we scaled the recipe to fit in a standard 12-cup muffin tin and simply adjusted the baking time. The combination of rich chocolate flavor and light, fluffy crumb once again fooled tasters into thinking these cupcakes couldn't possibly be gluten-free. Once frosted, serve the cupcakes within a few hours.
Makes 12 cupcakes.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 ounce (1/3 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
3 1/2 ounces (3/4 cup) ATK Gluten-Free Flour Blend
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup) sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
2 cups frosting
1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners.
2. Microwave oil, chocolate, and cocoa together in bowl at 50 percent power, stirring occasionally, until melted, about 2 minutes. Whisk mixture until smooth, then set aside to cool slightly. In separate bowl, whisk flour blend, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, and salt together.
3. In large bowl, whisk eggs and vanilla together. Whisk in sugar until well combined. Whisk in cooled chocolate mixture and milk until combined. Whisk in flour blend mixture until batter is thoroughly combined and smooth.
4. Using ice cream scoop or large spoon, portion batter evenly into prepared muffin tin. Bake until toothpick inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean, 16 to 18 minutes, rotating muffin tin halfway through baking. Let cupcakes cool in muffin tin on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from tin and let cool completely, about 1 hour. (Unfrosted cupcakes can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day.)
5. Spread or pipe frosting over top of cupcakes and serve.
Excerpted from The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook. Excerpted by permission of America's Test Kitchen.
Why This Recipe Works
We started our testing by swapping in our flour blend for the all-purpose flour in a standard Toll House cookie recipe. It was no surprise that these cookies had problems: They were flat, sandy, and greasy. We'd discovered during our baked goods testing that gluten-free flour blends simply can't absorb as much fat as all-purpose flour can, so cutting back on the butter helped to minimize greasiness. Less butter, along with some xanthan gum, also helped alleviate the spread issue, so the cookies didn't bake up so flat. As for the sandiness, we knew from our gluten-free muffin testing (see Chapter 1) that fixing this problem required a two-step approach. The starches in our blend needed more liquid as well as more time to hydrate and soften, so we added a couple tablespoons of milk and let the dough rest for 30 minutes. This resting time also had a secondary benefit: It gave the sugar time to dissolve, which led to faster caramelization in the oven. And that meant a cookie not just with deeper flavor, but also with a chewier center and crisper edges. Finally, we wanted our cookies to be less cakey and more chewy. We realized creaming the butter, as the original Toll House recipe directs, was aerating the butter too much. Melting the butter instead, and changing the ratio of brown sugar to granulated sugar, gave our cookies the right chewy texture. The extra brown sugar also gave our cookies a more complex, toffee-like flavor. Bite for bite, this was a chocolate chip cookie that could rival the best versions of the classic. Not all brands of chocolate chips are processed in a gluten-free facility, so read labels carefully.
Makes about 24 cookies.
8 ounces (13/4 cups) ATK Gluten-Free Flour Blend
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 1/4 ounces (3/4 cup packed) light brown sugar
2 1/3 ounces (1/3 cup) granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
7 1/2 ounces (11/4 cups) semisweet chocolate chips
1. Whisk flour blend, baking soda, xanthan gum, and salt together in medium bowl; set aside. Whisk melted butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together in large bowl until well combined and smooth. Whisk in egg, milk, and vanilla and continue to whisk until smooth. Stir in flour mixture with rubber spatula and mix until soft, homogeneous dough forms. Fold in chocolate chips. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 30 minutes. (Dough will be sticky and soft.)
2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using 2 soup spoons and working with about 11/2 tablespoons of dough at a time, portion dough and space 2 inches apart on prepared sheets. Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until golden brown and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 11 to 13 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through baking.
3. Let cookies cool on sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Cookies are best eaten on day they are baked, but they can be cooled and placed immediately in airtight container and stored at room temperature for up to 1 day.)
Excerpted from The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook. Excerpted by permission of America's Test Kitchen.
Makes 42 ounces (About 9 1/3 cups)
Be sure to use potato starch, not potato flour. Tapioca starch is also sold as tapioca flour; they are interchangeable.
24 ounces (4 1/2 cups plus 1/3 cup) white rice flour
7 1/2 ounces (1 2/3 cups) brown rice flour
7 ounces (1 1/3 cups) potato starch
3 ounces (3/4 cup) tapioca starch
3/4 ounce (3 tablespoons) nonfat milk powder
Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl until well combined. Transfer to airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 months.
Excerpted from The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook. Excerpted by permission of America's Test Kitchen.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Gluten-free food has become so popular, it even made it into the recent Seth Rogen film comedy "This is the End." At the beginning of the film, Rogen, playing himself, tells his friend that he's on a gluten-free diet, to which his friend, played by Jay Baruchel, replies:
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THIS IS THE END"]
JAY BARUCHEL: (As Himself) You don't even know what gluten is.
SETH ROGEN: (As Himself) I know what (bleep).
BARUCHEL: (As Himself) No, you have no idea what gluten is.
ROGEN: (As Himself) I do know what gluten is. Gluten's a vague term. It's something that's used to categorize things that are bad. You know, calories, that's a gluten. Fat, that's a gluten.
BARUCHEL: (As Himself) Somebody just told you you probably shouldn't eat gluten, and you're like oh, I guess I shouldn't eat gluten.
ROGEN: (As Himself) Gluten means bad (bleep) man, and I'm not eating it.
GROSS: My guests do know what gluten is, and they have figured out how to make delicious food without it, including the most challenging gluten-free foods like breads, cakes and cookies. Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davison are editors of the new "How Can It Be Gluten-Free" cookbook and are contributors to America's Test Kitchen TV and radio. America's Test Kitchen is a 2,500 square foot kitchen that is home to Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines, as well as radio and TV shows.
Bishop and Davison are going to tell us how they reinvented recipes and used new techniques to bake, cook and fry without wheat. They also conducted taste tests of packaged gluten-free breads and pasta. We'll find out the results. Jack Bishop, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Julia Collin-Davison, thank you for coming, and nice to meet you.
So why did you decide to do a gluten-free cookbook?
JACK BISHOP: This is the number one thing that fans of America's Test Kitchen have asked for. Emails, every public event, somebody would raise their hand and say please, please, please can you create gluten-free recipes for us.
GROSS: And was your reaction oh, it's a fad, but we'll do it anyways, or glad they asked because we really want to know more?
BISHOP: The first two years, that was the reaction, but at some point you do need to listen to the chorus of requests. And the thing that's most interesting about this is that it actually allowed us to do what it is that we like to do, which is to go in and understand how things work in the kitchen. And it's really complicated. You know, there are a lot of fads that aren't terribly interesting or very scientific. There's - this is an interesting one, and we really had to, you know, step back and think about all the things that we had done for 20 years in the test kitchen in recipes that contain wheat, and then if you take the wheat out, what happens to them.
So it was surprisingly challenging and intellectually stimulating.
GROSS: So before we get to some of the gluten-free recipes that you have, what is gluten?
BISHOP: So there are two proteins in wheat, glutenin and gliadin. And they are basically wrapped around starch molecules, and they're basically inert. But when you add water or another liquid, you are bringing those proteins back to life. And they unwind from the starch molecules and attach to each other. And the more you knead or mix the dough or the batter, the more they will attach to each other, and they form this elastic network that is called gluten.
And the gluten is really what traps the bubbles, the carbon dioxide that is either coming from yeast, from baking soda, from baking powder and is what gives bread, cookies, cake their structure. It helps turn them from doughs and batters into beautiful, risen baked goods.
GROSS: So when you're using flour that doesn't have gluten, what are some of the obvious problems you run into?
JULIA COLLIN DAVISON: Yeah, well, gluten is kind of magical. And so when you take it out of the equation, you are left with flours that can't absorb liquid as well, they can't absorb fat as well, and they can't trap those air bubbles that are really crucial for baked goods. So you wind up with things that are either very dense and squat, they're often greasy, and they crumble apart. They don't have the binding structure of gluten.
So, you know, baked goods just are a big old mess.
GROSS: So yeah, my experience is that a lot of, like, the breads, for instance, that you buy in the store are either too much like cake, or they have like a lot of, like, nuts and seeds, and they're really dense, and it's almost to, I feel like, to distract you.
DAVISON: Yes, I agree. I think it is there to distract you.
GROSS: So before we get to some of your gluten-free recipes, a lot of people won't be making their own bread, but if they want gluten-free bread, is there a brand that you recommend? Because in your book, you have your selections of some of your favorite brands for breads and pastas.
DAVISON: Yeah, you know, we tested lots of brands of sandwich bread, and of course many of them can be found in the freezer. And that's because gluten-free baked goods stale much more quickly than traditional baked goods. And so to preserve them, very often you store them in the freezer. And some didn't taste so good. But one really rose to the top in terms of making toast and sandwiches and breadcrumbs, and that was Udi's, U-D-I-apostrophe-S.
It really was head and shoulders above the other brands we tried.
GROSS: So you made your own gluten-free flour. It's a combination of flours. So again, for the people who aren't going to go to that effort, is there a store-bought gluten-free flour that you'd recommend for baking?
DAVISON: Yeah, you know, we tested all the flour blends we could get our hands on. Most were in grocery stores, but we also went online and ordered some specialty ones just because I feel this topic of gluten-free is pretty new, and a lot of stuff is just coming out. So going online can be a real valuable source here when you're trying to find gluten-free products.
And the one that we found worked best universally, and that means in cookies, in bread dough, in biscuits, in muffins, was King Arthur Flour gluten-free blend. It - and it is very much like, actually, our recipe for gluten-free flour blend in that it uses two types of rice flours, white and brown, and it also uses two types of starches, which is potato and tapioca.
And that, those four ingredients, we found, were really the magic key to finding a blend that worked almost as good as a wheat flour.
GROSS: OK, so let's get to the flour that you use out of those ingredients. What makes it work?
DAVISON: So in our blend, the majority of the blend is made up with white rice flour, which has a really mild, pleasant flavor. It doesn't taste too gritty, and it makes up for most of the bulk of the flour. We add in a little bit of brown rice flour, which has a real hardy flavor to it and almost if you think of it like the whole wheat flour of the rice flour world. And so it adds a nice earthy flavor, but it can tend to be a little gritty.
So we don't use as much of that as the white rice flour. And really it's a ratio of three to one, white rice to brown rice. And then we mix in some starches. And starches are important for texture but also their binding properties. And we found a combination of potato starch and tapioca starch are pretty crucial. They both do their own things.
Potato starch presides two in elasticity, where tapioca starch adds tenderness and a binding quality. But the real novel ingredient that we put in, the secret ingredient we were calling it, is a little bit of milk powder. And the milk powder, we found, added what was missing from the blend in terms of flavor. It has a rich, buttery flavor that really makes this flour blend taste like regular, all-purpose flour.
GROSS: Now you use psyllium in your bread, too, right?
DAVISON: Yeah, yeah, so...
GROSS: Now people might know psyllium, like that's the ingredient in, like, Metamucil, things that you're supposed to take with - for like regularity. So what is it doing in your bread?
DAVISON: It is. Well, in the yeast breads particularly, the psyllium is not only a binder, but it added a really important elasticity to the dough so that the dough could really trap the yeast air bubbles. And that was really hard when you get to a yeast bread, where trapping those bubbles is crucial for its texture. And more than the other binders, and the other binders commonly used are guar and xanthan gum, but over those two binders, the psyllium husk really had a strong sort of bready flavor, and again it had that chew, that bready chew.
All of our yeast baked goods, as well as our biscuits, and biscuits was a long recipe development, we developed that recipe almost over the entire course of the book, we couldn't get it right. And in fact we threw the recipe out halfway through and though this book's not going to have a biscuit recipe because we couldn't get it right, until we landed on psyllium. And then we brought the biscuit recipe back from the depths of the garbage and made it taste good.
It had the right combination of chew and buttery flavor.
GROSS: So how do you get the bread to rise when there's no gluten? What combination of yeast and, you know, other - and baking soda or baking powder? Like what do you use to get it to rise?
BISHOP: Well, the real problem is the lack of protein. So wheat flour basically has about twice as much protein, no matter what type of protein but just protein in general, than rice flour. And so the psyllium is in the bread recipes to fortify the proteins, but it's not enough. We increase the protein level by adding extra eggs, by adding milk powder, and then we add extra leavener.
We tried to use more yeast, and at some point you get kind of a boozy, beer-like flavor if you add too much yeast, and so we found...
GROSS: Yes, I've tasted bread like that.
BISHOP: Yes, that means somebody put too much yeast in. And we found that we used baking powder and yeast in all of our yeast breads. You know, traditionally if you're making cake or a cookie, you use baking powder or baking soda or commonly referred to as chemical leaveners. They work very quickly. And when you make yeast breads, you are using yeast.
But we found like we just couldn't get enough lift from the amount of yeast that the dough could tolerate, and so we added baking powder to every single bread recipe, along with the yeast, so that you got the kind of lift that you would get if you were using wheat flour.
GROSS: And do you taste the baking soda or baking powder?
BISHOP: No, as long as you don't go overboard with the baking powder or the baking soda, you're not going to taste it, and it really just creates more air bubbles, more carbon dioxide, so that you have a better chance of getting lift. The other thing we did is we way upped the amount of water that any water or milk converts to steam in the oven. And that helps bread rise.
And that's why, you know, you begin with dough that might be almost at the rim of a loaf pan, and then it will rise up above the rim in the oven. And that's largely because of the steam. And so we put a lot more water in, which of course meant we had to extend the baking time because if we did normal baking times, the loaves were very, very gummy. And so we put more water in up front and then increased the baking time.
We have one bread recipe that we bake for two hours in order to basically cook off the extra moisture after it's created enough steam to provide lift. It's done its job, and now we've got to get rid of the water, and you just keep baking the loaf.
GROSS: This really is scientific.
GROSS: So I've got another question for you, an obvious one. When you're baking wheat bread, you knead the bread. And you have to, you know, knead it for exactly the right amount. And you're doing that because, as Jack you explained, it combines those two proteins that together form gluten and give the bread the elasticity.
BISHOP: That's correct.
GROSS: But if you're using four that doesn't have gluten, is there any reason to knead the dough?
BISHOP: Yes, and it's a different reason. As you said, usually you are kneading dough in order to develop gluten. In this case, you want to really combine the ingredients well to hydrate the flour. One of the challenges when you're making a gluten-free bread or any baked good is that the flour has less protein and more starch. And that starch can give the final baked good, whether it's a bread or a cake or a cookie, a kind of starchy, gritty texture.
And we found that by fully hydrating the flour, and we did that by beating the flour the way we normally would, we were helping those starches get hydrated before they went into the oven. And in fact professional bakers will know that you want to knead yeast breads, but when you're making quickbreads, you know, something like a muffin, you want to do the opposite.
And a traditional recipe will always say to leave streaks of flour in the batter because you don't want to overdevelop the gluten when you're using wheat flour in something like a cake or a muffin or a cookie because it will turn out tough. We realized we were doing the same thing when we were doing gluten-free baking, and then we were like, OK, what are we worried about because we're not developing any gluten.
And we found that in fact beating all doughs, whether it's muffins, cakes, breads, more helped hydrate the flour, got the starches to be less gritty and was a good thing whether you're making bread or cake.
GROSS: So can I ask a stupid question? When you're saying beating, do you mean kneading, or do you mean beating?
BISHOP: Any kind of mechanical motion. I mean, in some recipes it's simply just with a spoon. In some it's with an electric mixer, and in others it's kneading either with a dough hook in a stand mixer, which because of the high water content in most of these bread recipes you really don't want to be doing it by hand, it's a sticky mess, and so we really suggest that you're using a stand mixer and that dough hook.
You could do it by hand, but it's going to be kind of messy. But any sort of motion is generally developing gluten when you're working with wheat flour. When you're working with gluten-free flour, what you're really doing is hydrating the flour so it's not going to be so starchy and gritty.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davison, editors of the new "How Can It Be Gluten-Free" cookbook. They are both contributors to America's Test Kitchen TV and Radio. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about gluten-free cooking, and my guests are Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davison, the editors of the "How Can It Be Gluten-Free" cookbook. They are contributors to America's Test Kitchen TV and Radio.
I'm going to move on to pasta. I'm not going to run through the entire recipe because I think it's a little complicated to work through the whole thing. But let's move on to pasta because I think if you're gluten-free, you absolutely have to have a pasta that you enjoy, like you have to have a bread, you have to have a pasta, and so...
DAVISON: Yeah, you definitely need a good brand of pasta in your pantry when you're gluten-free. And again, like we do with most ingredients we use in the test kitchen, we tested every brand of gluten-free pasta we could get our hands on. We tested it plain; we tested it with sauce. And one brand really rose to the top again in terms of its texture and flavor, and that brand is Jovial.
GROSS: So what did you like about that brand?
DAVISON: Well you know what? A lot of the brands came out really mushy. They didn't have enough texture. And of course you'll never get gluten-free pasta that's al dente, but the Jovial came as close to al dente as you can get. And also it didn't have any off flavors, which is a bonus in this world of gluten-free products, and to the benefit, it actually tasted more like traditional wheat pasta than any of the other brands we tried.
GROSS: Why can't you get most gluten-free pastas to be al dente?
BISHOP: It's the starches. I thought this test was really fascinating, Terry, because you could tell what the pasta was going to taste like by looking at the water in the pot. The real problem with any gluten-free pasta, whether it's made of corn, quinoa or brown rice, which is what the Jovial is made of, is that there isn't enough structure to contain the starches that are in the pasta.
So pasta is mostly starch and protein. And the Jovial has more protein and more fiber, and basically what that does is it prevents the starch molecules from bursting. You know, during the cooking process, the starch is hydrating and swelling, which is a good thing so that it goes from its, you know, dry state to something that you can actually eat.
But in a lot of the other gluten-free pasta brands that we tested, the starches kept on swelling. And eventually they exploded, and you could look in the pot and see the starches because the pasta water was now cloudy. It was like basically looked like milk when we were done.
And when you're usually making regular Italian pasta or the Jovial, which was much better than the other gluten-free brands, the pasta water was still basically clear, meaning that those starches hadn't burst. And if the starches burst, it's just soft and mushy and starchy, and it is not going to have a great texture. And so it was interesting that it's more protein and more fiber in that particular brand, which is keeping those starches from basically over-expanding and over-hydrating, that's giving it a texture that approximates what you would expect from al dente Italian pasta.
GROSS: Now you are the experts, and I am just an eater.
GROSS: But I have to take issue with you on one thing with store-bought gluten-free pasta. I know you're critical of the corn-quinoa pastas, and you don't really like the pastas with cornmeal in it, but I think that some of the corn-quinoa pasta is actually really delicious, that it cooks well, it maintains a good texture, even if it's a little overcooked, and it holds a sauce nicely, and it has - it has a texture very similar, I think, to a wheat pasta. It's nice and chewy without being, like, limp and soggy.
BISHOP: Well, this is the interesting thing. Whenever you do a taste test, you do not get uniform opinions. And when we do any taste test in our test kitchen, we usually have between 20 and 25 people. And so the results of any taste test are the composite scores that those people have given the brands. And, you know, even when we do a tasting in the test kitchen, there will be outliers. I don't know if that's how I'm describing you, Terry, as an outlier, but people who disagree with the consensus.
And that's fine because taste is very personal. I know with the corn and quinoa pastas, they do have a kind of nice, buttery flavor. I think for most of our tasters, they were less convinced about the texture than you sound, that they felt like they were not as firm as they wanted them to be.
GROSS: Of course I've been trying the rotelli, so maybe they're using the spaghetti or something, and there's - with all these pastas, too, it's different from, you know, style to style how it's going to taste and how it's going to hold up.
BISHOP: Yeah, that's very true. And we did do additional work with penne, lasagna. We did spaghetti because that seems like the base. And we did see somewhat consistent results from style to style. But again, there's a large component of personal preference in these. And, you know, we don't expect everyone to agree with us, just most people.
GROSS: All right then. Is there anything that you think you just can't do gluten-free, just like give up, it's not going to happen?
DAVISON: Two things come to mind, although I'll never say never because I always like a good challenge. And these have been requests I've gotten from people who've loved the book, read the book, have been cooking from the book. But they want gluten-free phyllo dough, not something I think we can do, and gluten-free puff pastry. And that one, big question mark. I bet we could tackle that one, and it would be interesting to see how that would turn out.
But I think gluten-free phyllo would be the one I'd point to as a no go.
GROSS: What about like gluten-free French bread, where it's like a soft, you know, a soft dough on the inside and a nice crunch on the outside?
DAVISON: You know, based on the success of some of the breads we did in this book, I would say we could probably tackle that.
GROSS: Jack, anything that you decided like just give up, it's not going to be gluten-free?
BISHOP: I think a croissant would be pretty hard to make gluten-free.
BISHOP: In large parts because of the...
GROSS: Because of the flakiness.
BISHOP: Yeah, and the butter issue, which is that, you know, the flours have so much trouble absorbing fat, and it's like you really don't want a low-fat croissant. You know, croissant is related to puff pastry. They're in the same family. And I think those recipes seem like they would be really challenging to get to work properly.
GROSS: Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davison will be back in the second half of the show. They edited the new "How Can It Be Gluten-Free" cookbook, which is part of the America's Test Kitchen series of books. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about gluten-free cooking, baking and frying with Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davison, editors of the new "How Can It Be Gluten-Free" cookbook. They're contributors to "America's Test Kitchen" TV and radio. They've reinvented recipes and come up with new techniques for cooking without wheat.
Let's move on to desserts. I have had some gluten-free cake that feels like cinderblock with sugar. And...
GROSS: Yeah. Exactly. It's like it didn't taste bad when I was eating actually, but like you minutes afterwards, I felt like I had a real burden in my body.
GROSS: And then I've also tasted some cakes and cupcakes and some cookies that have had so much sugar in it I felt like, what are you hiding? I felt like this is so compensatory, like you're either covering something up like a bad taste that you don't want me to taste, or you're compensating for the lack of something that I'm not tasting, so you're just giving me a lot of sugar instead. Is that your experience with packaged cookies and cakes that are gluten-free?
BISHOP: Yeah. They're really pretty low quality.
GROSS: I mean not all of them. I don't - but some of them. And some bakeries too, I have to say.
BISHOP: It's really hard. I mean first of all, one of the things that wheat flour does that the gluten-free flours can't is it improves shelf life instability. And so I think for packaged cakes and cookies - or even ones you buy at the bakery - you know, we found that the quality went down much faster than it would in a traditional recipe. So I think that's a real disadvantage. And, you know, again, it's the nature of wheat flour versus all of the gluten-free flours like rice flour, and that's really hard to overcome. And one reason why you should be baking things yourself, they're going to taste better and you can make them fresh.
The other real issue is that fat behaves very unusually in gluten-free baked goods. Wheat flour does a much better job of absorbing butter and oil than the gluten-free flour blends. And so you get some greasiness, you get people taking out the fat. But then, what are you going to put in because if you take out the butter in a cake, what are you left with? So put in more sugar, then maybe people won't notice that there's not enough butter in it. We took a lot of time trying to figure out how to make a decent cake or a decent cookie. I mean I can't tell you the hundreds and hundreds of really bad cookies that we ate in order to get a good one.
GROSS: Well, let's take a look at cookies. Let's look at sugar cookies because I know you made a lot of different sugar cookies...
DAVISON: Yes, we did.
GROSS: ...and it was kind of like your template for cookies. So you've told us some of the problems you had to overcome. What's one of the things you did to overcome the problems?
DAVISON: Yeah. The greasiness problem - as Jack mentioned - when you're dealing with sugar cookies you're dealing with the maximum amount of butter and sugar, and that's what gives traditional sugar cookie its flavor. So you take, you know, you use all that butter because it just leaches out and what you wind up with is like fried cookies on a baking sheet, which are pretty disgusting. And the other issue is that the - unless you're baking in some sort of tin or pan - like a cake or a muffin tin that has sides that helps control the shape of the baked good. But when you're dealing with cookies, they'll just spread as much as they want as much, as they're allowed. And when you're dealing with gluten-free batter or gluten-free cookie dough that doesn't have a lot of binders, it'll just spread and spread and spread. So, I can't tell you how many batches of cookies we'll pulled out where it was actually one big cookie on the sheet. You know, they just, they all ran together. So the first hurdles were really structural; how do you get the cookies to maintain their shape as a cookie on the baking sheet not run into another. And then when you get into the - and that's not even thinking about the flavor. But then when you turn to the flavor, they were very gritty. And again, when you took out the butter and you took down the sugar, and, off course, you take down the sugar in almost all of these sweet baked goods because the gluten-free flour blend, tends to taste a little sweeter than regular all-purpose flour. So you actually have to take down some of the sugar so that things don't taste too sweet. And then what you're left with is kind of a hollow tasting crackery cookie. So we found we really had to put some...
DAVISON: I know. Yum. I can't tell you how many of those we ate. In fact, if I really remember these tests, we used the sugar cookie throughout all of our blend testing and we did close to 85 - 90 different tests of ratios of flours and starches. We also used this cookie when we tested all the store-bought blends on the market, as well as all other recipes we could find in other gluten-free books. So when all said and done, I probably tasted between 150 and 200 batches of these sugar cookies. But the solution was when you take out the sugar and you take out the butter and you take out all that flavor, you need to replace it with a different kind of flavor and fat that will stay in the cookie that won't - and the fat won't leach out during baking. And that turned out to be almonds. So when we think about almonds, it has a lot of natural fat in it and those almonds will hold on to their fat and their flavor in the oven. And then...
GROSS: Almonds or almond flour or almond milk?
Almonds or almond - yeah, almond flour. Of course, you can make your own almond flour just by grinding up almonds in your food processor. So, or you can buy it. So, yeah, almonds or almond flour was the key to the sugar cookie, along with xantham gum. And xantham gum is the binder, of course. And we use it throughout the cakes and muffins and other quick breads because it helps add some structure. And again, when you're dealing with a muffin tin or a cake pan, that structure can be a little less important. But when you're dealing with a free-form cookie, you really need that xanthan gum to prevent the cookie from melting all over the sheet pan.
I buy a lot of things that have xanthan gum listed as an ingredient and I never know like, oh, is this one of like the chemicals that I'm supposed to stay away from or is it from the xanthan gum flower? I mean...
GROSS: You know, like the xanthan gum tree. Like I have no idea what it is. What is it?
BISHOP: I wish I had a happy story for you, Terry.
BISHOP: So there are three main binders - psyllium, which comes from a seed, guar, which also comes from a seed, and xanthan. And xanthan is actually made in food labs. They usually begin with corn sugar and they add some bacteria to ferment it to create xanthan. And xanthan is used in everything from bottled salad dressings to help thicken it. You know, if you have a blue cheese dressing and you want it to really coat the lettuce well, the manufacturer will add a little bit of xanthan. It's also a preservative, so it helps with shelf life, so it's in a lot of traditional baked good with - wheat flour contains xanthan. In our recipes he used it because they thought it was a really effective binder and really, you know, Julia was saying, kept those cookies from spreading all over the cookie sheet.
That said, we provide formulas for people who don't want to use xanthan and want to use something more natural, you can use guar or psyllium. We felt like xanthan was better in the cookies but cookies can be made with the psyllium. You'll get a little bit about earthy, weedy flavor, which is really nice in a bread. A little odd like in shortbread, for instance or in a sugar cookie, to get those weedy notes, but the psyllium will work. The ratios change. We provide sort of a complex formula that will explain to people how to make those substitutions. But unfortunately, xanthan is not a natural product.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about gluten-free food. And my guests are the authors of the "How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook." And my guests are Jack Bishop and Julia Collin Davidson. They're the editors of the "How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook" and they're contributors to "America's Test Kitchen" TV and radio.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about gluten-free cooking. And my guests are Jack Bishop and Julia Collin Davidson, the editors of the "How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook, which comes from "America's Test Kitchen" and they are both contributors to the "America's Test Kitchen" TV and radio shows.
Let's get to something gluten-free and simple. At least I think it's simple, and that is fried chicken. Usually you would battered the chicken with, you know, wheat flour, but if you're staying away from gluten, what are you going to use?
DAVISON: Yeah. Well, that turned out to be not such a hard discovery for us because of something called Korean fried chicken that swaps cornstarch for flour. And that works pretty well in making a very thin, crisp crust. But that's more like Korean style. So to take, we took that Korean fried chicken, where you swap cornstarch for the flour, and we started to work with it. And what we found is that you roll, you know, when you make fried chicken you pretty much roll it in flour and then very often dunk it in buttermilk, you know, and then re-roll it in flour and that's how you get a nice thick crust. So using that method, we did the cornstarch and then buttermilk and then cornstarch and that worked OK. But what we found is you could put a little bit of corn meal into that last batch of cornstarch and that added some really important flavor and texture. And into the buttermilk in the middle, you act on the chemical leaveners. You add a little baking powder and baking soda and that makes the buttermilk foam up. And so what it does is makes the breading go from sort of leaven and dense to really fluffy and crunchy. So again, the method is cornstarch and then this buttermilk mixture that has some seasonings but also baking powder and baking soda and then into a mixture of corn starch mixed with corn meal and then you deep fry it. And I have to say, it is really good fried chicken. And in fact, you won't really notice that it's not gluten-free. It's just really good.
GROSS: OK. So let's move on to some grains, like brown rice. I mean everybody knows how to make brown rice, I suppose. But you have a completely different...
GROSS: ...approach to making it. You have some tasty looking brown rice recipes. So you recommend cooking the brown rice in the oven and not on a stove. Would you explain why?
BISHOP: Sure, Terry. The main problem with brown rice is because it takes so long to cook, you know, white rice needs maybe 15 or 20 minutes on the stovetop - brown rice needs at least 45 minutes - is that you often get scorching at the bottom of the pot. You know, if you're on the stovetop all the heat is coming from the bottom and is basically overcooking the bottom half of what's in the pot and undercooking what's in the top half. And so rather than sort of worrying about that problem or trying to compensate by adding more water - which is what a lot of recipes do, they prevent the scorching by just putting too much water in and you end up with it's not scorched but it's now soggy and blown out. We said let's move the whole operation to a Dutch oven with a lid that we can then throw into the oven. And you get heating coming from all directions so that the rice that's at the top of the pot is cooking at the same rate as the rice at the bottom. There's really no risk of scorching and it's perfectly fluffy because you don't need to put in too much water to prevent the scorching. If you look at a lot of recipes, they call for way more water when cooking brown rice than white rice. And in fact, you really don't need a lot more water, you need a lot more time when you're cooking brown rice and doing it in the oven allows you to do other things. It takes an hour so it does take a little bit longer than it does on the stovetop, but it absolutely foolproof and you can do lots of other thing while the brown rice is cooking.
GROSS: Do you put other things in with the rice as it's baking in the oven?
BISHOP: Sure. If you want to add onions, garlic, spices, you just cook those in the pot before you put the rice and the water in. So you might saute an onion, saute the garlic; add some spices, whatever ingredients. And then if you've got vegetables that you want to add, you could stir those in perhaps when you're doing the fluffing. So you might add a little fresh basil, a grated lemon zest to sort of, you know, adjust the seasonings before you serve it. So it basically anything that can withstand an hour in the oven. You put them before the rice. And for things like basil that are not going to be in very good shape after an hour in the oven, you just wait and put those fresh herbs right before you serve it.
GROSS: Did you do any blindfold tests in "America's Test Kitchen," giving people the gluten-free and the gluten versions of a food and seeing which they preferred?
DAVISON: Oh, yeah. Especially when we thought after so many batches of the, say muffins or whatever it was we were eating, you know, we worried that we were losing a little bit of context with what was good and what was OK and what was great. So we'd take other people from other teams in the test kitchen. And then in the test kitchen there were three teams. There's the Cook's Illustrated Team, the Cook's Country Team and then there are those of us that work on the cookbooks, so we all work side-by-side. And so we grabbed someone from other teams and we'd give them two muffins and say can you tell, can you tell which one is which? And we did this very often with sort of key recipes throughout the book. And, of course, we would bring them up to Chris Kimball's office and make him take them to see if he could tell.
GROSS: And he is the head of the whole operation.
DAVISON: He is. He is. And that was really our goal. Could you tell? And if you couldn't tell then we really had mastered how to make something that was gluten-free but just, you know, just tasted good, didn't taste like you were missing anything.
GROSS: And when you are finished with the recipes, could he tell the difference with most of it, or did you, you...
DAVISON: No, he couldn't.
DAVISON: And everybody - he was pretty sure that, you know, we'd do a good job and we make some good recipe but you'd to be able to tell. And so he was pleasantly shocked when, you know, muffin after cookie after piece of cake, he really couldn't tell the difference. So, yeah. And if you can fool Chris, you're good.
BISHOP: Well, that's really I think the problem with gluten-free baking and cooking in general which is that generally, you're cooking for an audience that includes people who are gluten-free and those who are not. And, you know, the last thing you really want to do is have the people who are not on a gluten-free diet complaining about having to eat these, you know, subpar baked goods. And so that's really the standard, was we felt like people don't want to make two batches of cookies - one with wheat flour and one with gluten-free flour. They want to make there's somebody in their household or somebody is coming to dinner who is, who can't eat wheat, they want to make one batch of whatever it is that's going to be good enough for everybody and, you know, isn't going to be a question of one person who's satisfied in everyone else's suffering in silence. It needed to be good enough that everyone would be happy.
GROSS: So Jack, you said earlier that you were a little skeptical at initially of the gluten-free craze but finally enough people wanted gluten-free foods, you decided it was really time to do a gluten-free cookbook. But Julia, I'm wondering if you were also skeptical of people wanting gluten-free food or if you eat a lot of gluten-free food yourself.
DAVISON: Yeah. Up until we started working on this book I really hadn't eaten a lot of gluten-free food and I was quite frankly scared because I knew this was going to be hard and I knew that, you know, a lot of the things that I tried were pretty lousy. So luckily two people on our team are gluten-free and they do have a lot of experience.
And you know, in combination with their experience and, you know, just how we do things and how we make a hundred batches of muffins without blinking an eye to really get down to the business of what gluten is and how do you swap it out and what works and what doesn't. So we really - I was able to just fall back onto our normal testing procedures and they really worked to help us get at the heart of, you know, what makes gluten-free things taste just as good as traditional baked goods.
And you know, we sent things to labs. We got protein contents. We really used all the resources at our fingertips to figure out what worked and what didn't.
GROSS: So has doing the gluten-free cookbook changed how either of you eat now?
BISHOP: I think I'm much more adventurous with grains. You know, I think like a lot of people who cook, I sometimes fall into ruts. I'm willing to admit that. And I think for me that was a real revelation, to see what we could do with grains that I really hadn't made very often. And so millet, oat berries. I actually had never cooked an oat berry before.
And it's kind of the equivalent of a wheat berry in the sense that it's the whole grain version and has that texture but obviously it's from oats, not from wheat, and so it's gluten-free. So I think that part was really kind of fun for me to see what we did with all of these interesting grains.
DAVISON: Yeah. And for me, I've worked on other baking books, and a view into my day - I eat a lot of things all day. I'm an eater. And so when you eat baked goods all day you wind up not feeling so great. So I've done other baking books and I have to say at the end of this book I felt a lot better than I usually do. And so I realized maybe there's something about gluten and how it affects me.
And I really have started to cut down gluten in my own diet. And just because it was an interesting wakeup call not to have it for so many weeks in a row, that, you know, there's something to it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for a lot of interesting insights into how to cook gluten-free. Thank you.
DAVISON: Thank you.
BISHOP: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jack Bishop and Julia Collin-Davidson are the editors of the new "How Can it Be Gluten Free?" cookbook. On our website you'll find their recipes for gluten-free chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cupcakes as well as the recipe for their gluten-free flour blend. That's at freshair.npr.org. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by country singer Sara Evans. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.