I perused the ingredient labels of gluten free bread at my local health food store and Whole Foods, and noticed that rice flour was often one of the main ingredients. That was a plus. Then I reread the Bob’s Red Mill information on their website and the label for their all-purpose baking flour. The company said that you can use the flour blend of garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, white sorghum flour, and fava bean flour – along with some xantham gum for good slimy measure to replicate the texture of wheat flour gluten. Another plus. The commercial gluten free breads I’d studied also contained xantham gum (a natural carbohydrate derived from bacteria). Seemed like a theme here.
So yesterday, I went at it, using rice flour (purchased froma healthfood store, not an Asian market) and xantham gum for one batch, and Bob’s Red Mill all-purpose baking flour and xantham gum for the another batch. All I did was use those flours as a substitute for the regular all-purpose flour in the Basic Yeasted Dough (famian, page 92 in Asian Dumplings). As expected, the dough had little resiliency like you’d normally expect with wheat flour dough. That is, press your finger into gluten free bao dough and the indentation remains. Plus the dough tend to be on the dry, very firm side with some cracks in it. Here’s a look at dough from Bob’s Red Mill (top) and rice flour (bottom):
Even though the dough did not rise during their cozy warm rest, I held on to my optimism and let them sit for 10 minutes before steaming. They did expand ever so slightly. Then into the steamer they went. I watched through the glass lid and the buns rose – or was that me looking through the wet glass which distorted everything? After 15 minutes, not much had changed and I turned off the steamer, detaching the steamer tray to let the bao cool. They actually deflated to look more-or-less like their raw state. I took a bite and they were super heavy, not good tasting. I could barely swallow. My husband refused to even try them. They went into the trash.
I won’t leave you in suspense much longer. Here’s a photo of the raw (top) and cooked gluten-free bao (bottom):
Not very exciting, huh? The lessons here are that steamed heat is tricky work with when it comes to yeasted dough. Just because you can bake gluten free bread doesn’t mean you can steam yeast bao dough. Additionally, there are many time-honored, gluten free classics in the Asian dumpling repertoire, such as those made with sticky rice and rice rolls made from steamed rice sheets (see the "Transformations of Rice" chapter in Asian Dumplings). Bao are an ancient food and if there was a gluten-free steamed bao, the Chinese would have figured it out a very long time ago.
Nevertheless, I had to try it out for myself. Sometimes you lose some, sometimes you win some. If you have any insights (maybe a different flour?), do weigh in. Maybe we can come up with a gluten free bao. I have not given up -- yet.