Everyone loves chocolate chip cookies. Sadly, however, if you can’t tolerate gluten, chocolate chip cookies do not usually love you back – while squidgy brownies and many other deliciously squidgy cakes don’t really suffer for a lack of this natural glue, it’s harder to keep a biscuit together without it. Harder, yes, but not impossible. (Incidentally, today’s recipe is dedicated to my godson, who is currently awaiting the results of a test for coeliac disease and relieved to find that, whatever happens, there are still cookies in his future.)
Let’s not beat around the bush: this recipe doesn’t stand or fall on the type of sugar used, or on how many chocolate chips go in – all these things are irrelevant compared with your choice of flour. The easiest thing to do is to buy a gluten-free flour mix, which tend to be based on rice flour. It’s this that’s responsible for the gritty texture that is lovely in moderation in shortbread, but all too often spoils gluten-free baking. I try a recipe from the Doves Farm website, using their plain flour blend, which contains rice, potato (a good binder), maize (which helps with crispness) and earthy buckwheat flours, and it works well if you like a cakey cookie, though all my testers agree that they have a bit of a powdery finish.
Elizabeth Barbone’s recipe for Serious Eats also goes big on rice flour, using both ordinary white and glutinous rice flour (sometimes sold as “sweet”, though it isn’t sweet and doesn’t contain any gluten), which, because of its sticky consistency, works well as a binding ingredient, plus cornflour for the aforementioned crispness. They are indeed both crunchy around the edge and pleasingly soft in the middle, but also, undeniably, a bit sandy.
Buckwheat flour alone, as in the recipe from Berkson Bakes of Brighton, gives a great texture – none of the grittiness of rice flour, and minimal starchiness – but it cannot be denied that the smoky, faintly bitter flavour of this grass is not for everyone. I love it, but it divides opinion, and this recipe has to be a crowd-pleaser.
More popular is the almond flour version from Erin Jeanne McDowell in the New York Times, which utilises finely ground nuts to produce a rich, sweet, almost sticky cookie that’s delicious in its own right, but unmistakably, well, nutty, rather than biscuity, with a texture somewhere between a cookie and a macaroon.
Kate, who began writing the Gluten Free Alchemist blog when her daughter was diagnosed with coeliac disease at the age of six, provides a wealth of information about the qualities of different flours, and recommends a blend of white and brown rice, potato, corn and tapioca for this recipe – the last, she says, adds a little softness. If you’re looking for a flatter, crunchier style of cookie, these are for you; they really are great.
The winner for most of us, however, is the blend of glutinous rice, oat and tapioca flour used by pastry chef and author Alanna Taylor-Tobin on her Bojon Gourmet blog – the subtle but distinctive nubbliness of the oats makes a pleasant change from the sandiness of standard rice flours, and the elastic tapioca gives them a slightly chewy texture. Best of all, they work brilliantly without the addition of xanthan gum, which is commonly utilised as a binder in gluten-free and vegan baking, but which some people react badly to.
I’m dismayed, therefore, to discover from a coeliac friend that oats “are very divisive” and that some coeliacs “won’t touch them” (though by no means all: more info here). Back to the drawing board, then – though, if you can tolerate them, Taylor-Tobin’s version is worth checking out. I decide to replace them with almond flour, because this, like the oats, helps distract from the powdery feel of the rice, and to swap the tapioca for cornflour to give the cookies a crisper edge.
As I prefer my cookies slightly thinner and crunchier than Taylor-Tobin’s, I’m also going to add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, which, according to Serious Eats, “raises the dough’s pH, slow[ing] protein coagulation, which gives the dough more time to spread before the eggs set. This promotes a uniform thickness from edge to centre, helping the cookies bake more evenly”.
The type of sugar you use has an effect on the texture, as well as on the taste of the finished cookie. White sugar, as used by Doves Farm, will give a crisp, straightforwardly sweet result, because it absorbs moisture and melts in the heat of the oven, so encouraging the dough to spread. It’s a bit boring, though, which is why most recipes prefer to use it in combination with soft brown sugars, which have a higher water content and, thanks to the molasses they contain, a more pronounced flavour. Some recipes use just brown sugar – dark in Taylor-Tobin’s case, light in Berkson Bakes’ recipe, but I miss the crispness of the white stuff, so, like the Gluten Free Alchemist and McDowell, I’m going for a combination of standard granulated and soft light brown sugar, which has a milder, caramel flavour than the more intense, treacly, dark brown variety.
If you’re dairy-free, you could replace the butter with oil, as in the Doves Farm recipe, but otherwise I wouldn’t advise it, because, without butter, the cookies are rather blandly sweet. To make the most of the flavour, brown the butter first, as Taylor-Tobin and Barbone recommend – the caramel notes are gorgeous with the brown sugar.
I’ll leave this up to you – milk, dark, white, whatever – and whether you prefer puddles of molten chocolate (in which case, chop some up for the purpose) or the neater pockets you get from bake-stable chocolate chips. I also like to add some chopped nuts (Taylor-Tobin’s pecans or Berkson Bakes’ walnuts) for texture, but you can replace those with more chocolate, if you prefer.
Many of the recipes I try instruct the baker to rest the dough, which “allows the flours to hydrate evenly and the dough to chill to a level which supports shape more robustly”, as the Gluten Free Alchemist puts it. This will not only reduce the possibility of grittiness, because the flours absorb the liquid, but it will also stop them from spreading too thinly in the heat of the oven. (Note that the balls of dough also freeze brilliantly, so it’s worth making the whole batch as below, even if you’re not going to eat them all immediately, and freezing the excess in one layer before decanting them into a freezer bag. Bake straight from frozen, but add another couple of minutes to the cooking time.)
Check that all ingredients are certified as gluten-free before serving them to someone with coeliac disease or with gluten intolerance, because even naturally gluten-free grains may be subject to potential contamination during processing.
Prep 20 min
Chill 2 hr+
Cook 12-18 min
70g glutinous or sweet rice flour
70g almond flour
15g corn flour
¼ tsp fine salt
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
50g nuts of your choice (optional)
50g soft light brown sugar
50g granulated white sugar
1 egg, beaten with ½ tsp vanilla extract
75g chocolate of your choice, chopped, if necessary
Flaky salt, to finish (optional)
Melt the butter in a small pan over a medium heat.
When it starts to foam, keep an eye on it, and the moment the foam turns a pale reddish brown, take it off the heat, tip into a large bowl and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, sift or whisk the flours, salt and bicarbonate of soda, and toast the nuts, if using, in a dry pan, then cool and roughly chop.
Stir the sugars into the cooled butter, then beat in the egg until well combined.
Stir in the dry ingredients and beat for about 45 seconds, until the mixture stiffens up.
Stir in the chocolate and nuts, if using, then shape into large, walnut-sized balls.
Put on a lined baking sheet (there’s no need to spread them out at this point), squash slightly and chill for between two and 24 hours.
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Spread the balls out over two lined baking sheets, keeping them well apart, sprinkle with salt, if using, then bake for 12-18 minutes, depending on how soft/crunchy you like them. Remove and leave to cool on the sheets for as long as you can bear – they’ll firm up as they cool – then devour or store in an airtight container.
Gluten-free cookie monsters – what are your top tips for perfection? Are you a nut or a rice flour fan, crisp or chewy … or do you prefer the dough raw from the fridge?!