Friend or Foe: Fats and Oils in Gluten-Free Baking

 Gluten Free Baking Tips By: Carol Fenster

Fat gets blamed for a lot of things these days. Yet, it can be our friend and a necessary component of a healthy diet. Plus, it plays a VERY important role in making our gluten-free food look good and taste delicious.

What is Fat?
Fats are naturally occurring components of all foods––even watermelon has fat! Fat comes in many different forms, but the two we’re most familiar with in baking are oils and the solid fats like shortening or margarine (also called buttery spreads).

The Many Roles of Fat
Fat is essential for the proper functioning of cells in our bodies and absorption of fat-soluble nutrients in our food. Many books have been written about the role of fat, but let’s focus on baking.

In baking, fat is a tenderizer. Reduce the fat too much and muffins become rough and hard; cakes become coarse and tough. That’s why it’s wise never to reduce the fat in a recipe by more than one-half.

Fat is also a carrier of flavor and this is especially important when we use alternative ingredients. Most of us grew up eating foods made mostly from wheat, milk, eggs, and sugar. Therefore, we learned to expect our food to taste a certain way. When we use an alternative ingredient, the flavor is altered somewhat––but fat helps “carry” or “hold” the seasonings or flavorings. That’s why you rarely see successful gluten-free goods made without fat. It’s possible, but hard to do.

Amazingly, fats also help leaven our baked goods. They help support the little cells of carbon dioxide that grow and expand as our cakes and breads rise.

Finally, fats are thickeners because they act as emulsifiers. Notice how a cooked sauce thickens up when you add a pat of butter just before serving or a salad dressing emulsifies as you slowly drizzle in the olive oil.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fat is classified by its degree of saturation. Those with lower levels include heart-healthy olive and canola oil. Vegetables oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower, peanut, and soy are also relatively unsaturated.

Saturated fats include butter, animal fats such as lard, whole-milk products, and coconut oil. All are usually solid at room temperature. In general, the firmer the fat at room temperature, the more saturated it is. Coconut oil receives much attention these days and is good in baking but can impart a “coconutty” flavor.

Hydrogenation is the process used in the production of margarine and shortening to convert liquid oils into solid fats through the infusion of hydrogen atoms. This makes the fat more shelf-stable and less likely to become rancid. It also helps baked goods hold their shape and not have a greasy feel.

Despite all the good things hydrogenation does for fat, it raises health concerns too numerous to debate here. If you have such concerns, avoid margarines and shortenings with the words “partially hydrogenated” on the label. Avoid products labeled “no trans fats” or “trans-fat free.”

Instead, choose non-hydrogenated margarines/spreads that can be used for spreading on toast or in baking. Buttery spreads made by Earth Balance or Smart Balance are available everywhere. Earth Balance and Spectrum offer a non-hydrogenated shortening that works very well in baking. I also like it for greasing my baking pans.




Which Fat in Gluten-Free Baking?



Which fat to use in which food? Cookies hold their shape during baking if you use shortening or margarine/buttery spreads; they’ll spread more with butter. The high water content of diet margarines or spreads makes them unsuitable for cookies and most other baking.

For baking cakes or muffins, vegetable oils––such as corn, canola, or soy––work well because of their mild flavors and high smoking points (the temperature at which they burn). Olive oil, especially the darker extra-virgin variety, is generally not recommended for baking sweet goods because of its stronger flavor. Light olive oils (light means lighter color and flavor, not fewer calories) are suitable for baking. Interestingly, baking with oil (instead of butter) produces moister baked goods because butter is only 80-percent oil while oil is 100 percent oil. Some people like to use both together in a recipe to get the nice buttery flavor AND the benefits of oil at the same time.

Grapeseed oil can be used in salads or as cooking oil. Flavored oils––such as walnut or truffle––are too intense for baking or frying and best used in salads or drizzled on cooked vegetables. Coconut oil makes wonderfully moist baked goods (but adds a little coconut flavor); follow the directions on the container.

Fat Replacers

You can replace some of the fat in baked goods with pureed prunes or plain applesauce––or even pureed sweet potatoes. Just remember that these substitutes impart flavor (and color) and will probably alter the texture somewhat, depending on the recipe. For better results with applesauce, drain it for a couple of hours before using. Discard the extra liquid. And low-fat gluten-free baked goods are best eaten the same day they are baked; they dry out more quickly when they contain less fat.

Learn more about Carol Fenster, her recipes and cookbooks at Carol Fenster Cooks.

Copyrighted 2011 Carol Fenster. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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