6 Steps to Being a Master Gluten-Free Baker

In our new Yahoo how-to series, we’re tracking down experts in their fields to get the tips and tricks behind their success. Today we talk to baker Erin McKenna, whose NYC bakeshop specializes in gluten-free treats.


Gluten-free baking pioneer Erin McKenna. (Photo courtesy of Aloha)

If there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about healthy baking, it’s Erin McKenna. The baker behind Erin McKenna’s Bakery (formally Babycakes) has built a loyal fan base across the country since her bakery opened its doors 10 years ago. At her locations in New York City, Los Angeles, and Disney World in Florida, McKenna has set the standard for how delicious healthier takes on beloved baked goods really can be.

Though her bakery serves familiar treats — plump chocolate chip cookies, iconic cupcakes topped with swirls of pastel frosting, soft and seasonal donuts — her menu is entirely vegan, gluten-free, wheat-free, soy-free, dairy-free, egg-free, and kosher (given its location in a historically Jewish neighborhood). McKenna’s inspiration to open her allergen-friendly enterprise came after she was diagnosed with allergies to gluten and soy and discovered she was intolerant to dairy and sugar. So she set out on a mission to create the kind of baked goods she thought she’d never be able to eat again. “Nothing like this existed. I could find something that was vegan, but not gluten-free. Or it was vegan and gluten-free, but nasty,” McKenna says.

More: Erin McKenna’s Bakery Celebrates a Decade of Success

A decade and three cookbooks later, McKenna has not only set herself apart as a trailblazer in the gluten-free baking movement but is more excited than ever to share how baking can be healthy, delicious, and nutritious with the world. Now you can bake better, too, with the help of these simple tips and tricks.

1. Coconut oil is your friend

When it comes to baking, oil can’t be avoided. However, the type of oil used can vastly alter the healthfulness of a recipe. Though McKenna does occasionally use non-GMO canola oil at her bakery for those with coconut allergies, her primary oil of choice is coconut. “I would use coconut oil always if I could,” McKenna says of the ingredient, which is packed with healthy fats. How can you avoid giving your goods too much of a coconut taste? “We use unscented coconut oil so you don’t get that tropical, suntan lotion flavor,” McKenna says.

More: Your Guide to Everything Coconut Oil

2. A little banana — or applesauce — can go a long way

As an egg-free baker, McKenna must turn to other sources for the moisture and texture that an egg provides. As an egg replacement, mashed banana works wonders to provide a soft, supple dough and a subtly sweet taste. “Apple sauce, mashed pear, baby food, sweet potato, and many kinds of pureed sauce will also do,” McKenna says. However, when replacing eggs, “you also need to add more leavener to allow it to rise,” such as baking powder or baking soda.

3. Find your flour balance

With all of the gluten-free flour alternatives on the market, it’s important to find the right flour for you and your baked goods, McKenna says. Various kinds of flour mixtures react differently to other ingredients, so it’s a good idea to play around with your combinations until you find the perfect fit for you — whether that be rice flour, chickpea flour, or chestnut flour. For her own vanilla cake mix, McKenna uses “a mixture of garbanzo fava bean flour and arrowroot starch.”

More: Gluten-Free Pancakes So Good You Won’t Miss the Gluten

4. Just add water

Gluten-free baked goods have gotten a bad rap for being dry and lumpy, but McKenna has the solution for that. The secret to smooth dough is simple: Just add water (whether or not your recipe calls for it). “If you don’t add a couple of tablespoons of hot water to your gluten-free baked goods, they’ll usually end up very lumpy,” McKenna says. “The water provides the little extra moisture it needs to be great.”

5. Go natural with your sweeteners

Though sugar is gluten-free, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. That’s why Erin McKenna’s bakery only “sparingly” uses natural sweeteners — agave nectar and evaporated cane juice — to sweeten its goods. As a mom, Erin McKenna says she knows the importance of giving her kids and the kids who eat her baked goods, healthy, all-natural sources of sweetness rather than unhealthy added refined sugar. In addition to agave, McKenna also recommends natural maple syrup as a way to add a sweet taste to your baked goods without the junk.

6. Add an extra boost

McKenna recently partnered with the healthy lifestyle brand, Aloha, to create protein-packed superfood recipes and baking kits that combine the taste of McKenna’s baked goods with the health boost of Aloha’s protein-enhanced ingredients. Part of what inspired McKenna’s partnership with the brand was her desire to “reinvent your typical protein bar, which can be really unhealthy with the wrong ingredients,” she says.

“It’s important to change the mindset of what healthy eating is — for so many people, they’re used to sacrificing taste, flavor, and texture in order to get nutrition in their lives. Once people see what’s possible in a fun and delicious way, it’s easy,” McKenna says. To make Erin McKenna and Aloha’s Protein-Infused Banana Donuts yourself, get the recipe below.


McKenna’s vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free banana donut. (Photo: Gillie Houston for Yahoo Food)

Protein-Infused Banana Donuts

1 box Erin McKenna Vanilla Cake Mix
3 packets Aloha Vanilla Protein
½ cup coconut oil
½ cup agave nectar* (maple syrup)
½ cup mashed banana
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
½ cup hot water
1 Aloha Original Dark Chocolate Bar

Preheat oven to 325 F. Brush two donut tins (6 molds each) with oil and set aside.

Empty dry ingredients from box and Aloha Vanilla Protein into a medium bowl and whisk until blended. Add oil, agave nectar, mashed banana, vanilla, and hot water, and continue to mix until batter is smooth.

Scoop ½ cup of batter into each baking cup and bake for 20 minutes, rotate, and continue to bake until donuts are done (a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean).

Cool for about 2 hours. Melt Aloha Original Dark Chocolate and drizzle it on top of donuts. Makes 12 donuts.

More gluten-free goodness:

Avoid These Gluten-Free Baking Mistakes

How to Eat Gluten-Free at Most Major Fast Food Chains

Gluten-Free Baking? Try Chestnut Flour