Gluten-free Christmas cookies are just as delicious as any typical cookie – and in many cases, even more so. Yet few store-bought gluten-free treats are available. Homemade gluten-free recipes are the answer.
Three million Americans with Celiac disease – and millions of others with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity – follow a gluten-free diet. They can use cookie recipes made without gluten to accommodate their diets.
Celiac disease affects intestinal villi, which increase nutrient absorption. When exposed to gluten, the villi shorten, swell, and function poorly, which prevents nutrient uptake.
In addition, others with gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity have gastrointestinal, neurological, or fatigue issues which are relieved when gluten is removed from their diets.
Gluten is a protein whose components are found naturally in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. All-purpose flour is the most common source of these components. A typical cookie recipe includes all-purpose flour as one of its four basic ingredients (fat, flour, eggs, and sugar.)
Gluten-free Christmas cookies contain no gluten – meaning one of two things.
Wheat flour (and other flours) do not actually contain gluten, but rather two proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which turn into gluten. They are activated when they come into contact with liquid, heat, or are mixed or kneaded.
As these protein molecules are surrounded by water, they form strong, elastic bonds. The process activating gluten adds structure to cookies. The gluten creates a framework to hold pockets of air created by leavening agents (like baking powder or baking soda.) Think of gluten’s role in cookies as the “air holder.”
Kneading helps bonded gluten molecules form into long elastic strands or sheets. That’s why bread dough calls for kneading. Meanwhile, most cookies are best with a crumbly or chewy texture, rather than a doughy texture. Cookie recipe directions often say, “do not over mix.” Over mixing makes dough more elastic – not the favored texture in cookies. Less kneading means less gluten forms in cookies.
In addition, fat coats gluten molecules so they can't stretch as easily. Cookie recipes usually contain proportionately a larger amount of fat (as in shortening, butter, or margarine) when compared with dough breads. Fats contribute to the tenderness in a cookie’s texture.
Sugar further prevents gluten from forming. When butter and sugar are creamed together, the sharp edges of the sugar crystals allow more air pockets to form, fill with carbon dioxide provided by the leavener, and lead to a smoother cookie texture.
These factors, put together, explain how gluten plays a much less significant role in cookies than in other baked goods.
Gluten-free cookie recipes simply find different ways to add structure to cookies, whether by using different dry ingredients than all-purpose flour in order to allow air pockets to form, or by creating a confection with a denser texture where air pockets are not needed.
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