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Monday, January 4, 2010

The Cookie Buffet: Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

I decided to include a gluten-free selection in my shower’s cookie buffet, for one of my best friends and bridesmaids, Rachel, whose dietary needs necessitate gluten-free living. Now, I wasn’t sure how to go about making gluten-free cookies, but luckily my main man, Alton Brown, came to the rescue with this gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe. I can not say enough good things about Alton Brown in general, or this recipe in particular. Believe it or not, these cookies taste pretty much like any other chocolate chip cookie, no mean feat considering that there is not a smidgen of wheat anywhere in sight.

Alton’s secret, so I am told, is through his choice of alternate flours and their proportions. His recipe calls for a combination of brown rice four, tapioca flour, corn starch, and xanthan gum, which comes as close to recapitulating the taste and texture of wheat flour as you can get…without actually using wheat flour.

And now for a brief scientific interlude (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if the science of baking doesn’t interest you)…According to Alton, a lot of volume in wheat flour is starch, which isn’t hard to replace with the starch from another type of flour, but getting the texture right calls for a mixture. Brown rice flour provides the bulk of the starch, and taste, as it blends well with brown sugar. Unfortunately it is slightly gritty, which is where the smoother corn starch comes in. Tapioca flour contributes to the rise and texture because the starch in tapioca flour gelatinizes at a lower temperature than the starches in either rice flour or corn starch. The binding action of gluten is filled by the xanthan gum (interesting little story on the discovery and background of xanthan gum here, as a microbiologist, I couldn’t resist). Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide that can be used to stabilize emulsions, adding both volume and structure to baked goods.

I thought these ingredients would be hard to find, but they were at my local Wegman’s. Now that I know what to look for, I also notice that my local Shop Rite is increasingly carrying gluten-free flours in multiple varieties, so these components shouldn’t be too difficult to get a hold of. All of the flours I used were Bob’s Red Mill, and look something like this:

Those little red circles with the check marks at the bottom by the UPC code means that they are certified “gluten-free.” They also have gluten-free baking blends, which are supposed to be able to substitute for flour in any baking recipe, but for this particular recipe at least, I’d stick to what Alton says. The special flours aren’t terribly expensive, but they aren’t cheap either, as a fair warning. These cookies are definitely more expensive to make than ordinary chocolate chippers, but it is worth it to make special treats for people you care about! There really is nothing like homemade baked goods.

The Chewy Gluten-Free
from Alton Brown, Food Network (“Sub Standards” S11E4)

  • 8 oz butter
  • 11 oz brown rice flour, approx. 2 cups
  • 1 1/4 oz cornstarch, approx. 1/4 cup
  • 1/2 oz tapioca flour, approx. 2 T
  • 1 tsp xanthan gum
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 oz sugar, approx. 1/4 cup
  • 10 oz light brown sugar, approx. 1 1/4 cups
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 T whole milk
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 12 oz semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 C bittersweet chocolate chips (optional)
  • 1C nuts (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Once melted, pour into the bowl of a stand mixer.
  3. In a medium bowl, sift together the rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
  4. Add both of the sugars to the bowl with the butter and using the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the whole egg, egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Add the chocolate chips and stir to combine.
  5. Chill the dough in the refrigerator until firm, approximately 1 hour. Shape the dough into 1 ½-inch balls (using a #40 cookie scoop) and place on greased or parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them a couple inches apart. Bake for 14 ½ minutes.
  6. Remove from the oven and cool the cookies on the pans for 2 minutes. Move the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Store cooked cookies in an airtight container. Makes about 3 ½ dozen cookies.

The only real difference between assembling this dough and a typical chocolate chip cookie dough is that you melt the butter before creaming it with the sugar. This is usually a cookie-making no-no, because melted butter makes cookies spread too much, and brown too fast. And I found it unusual because this particular batter has to be refrigerated to prevent excess spreading already (which isn’t unheard of, but not something I normally do for a simple chocolate chip cookie). Melting the butter sounds a bit like courting disaster, and Alton gives no explanation (I re-watched the segment of the episode just to make sure I didn’t miss it), but it works perfectly. Maybe it has something to do with the xanthan gum or the other flour components. It bothers me a little to not know why something works, but gluten-free baking is an art form, so I just go with it.

I adjusted the oven temp and cooking time based on reviews, as well as the vanilla amount, but you can view Alton’s original recipe via the link above. I also added in bittersweet chips to give the cookies a little more depth of flavor. Next time, I will add a cup of walnuts as well, and potentially milk chocolate chips (I have a triple chocolate chip cookie coming up as the next recipe, in fact).

Don't these look great?!

If someone has other dietary needs in addition to gluten-free, such as a casein intolerance necessitating dairy-free (which occurs in about 50% of people with Celiac’s so I’ve read), coconut or rice milk can be substituted in for the milk in the batter, and dairy-free chocolate chips can also be used. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve read that there are several butter substitutes that hold up decently well to baking cookies (which has more of a butter requirement than something like cakes), including Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, Smart Balance Light or Spectrum Organic Shortening. Coconut oil (which is solid at room temperature) can also substitute for butter in cookies, but beware of the increased saturated fat content if you go that route. There is a nice blog with additional info on butter substitutions here.

As a side note, if you are planning on making this recipe for someone because they have a gluten allergy, particularly a severe one, it really is best if you use equipment that is dedicated to being gluten-free all the time.

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