KANSAS CITY — While no longer at early pandemic levels, bread sales remain strong, thanks in part to increased consumer demand for specialty offerings.

Center-store dollar sales of specialty bread rose 2% to $27.6 million, according to IRI for the 52 weeks ending April 17, 2022. Sales of panini, ciabatta and focaccia bread jumped 23.1% to $24.7 million. Shoppers are prioritizing indulgence when it comes to their baked goods, and inflation has driven many to opt for their favorite premium brands instead of eating out.

At the same time, increasingly health-conscious buyers have driven sales of better-for-you (BFY) breads, including gluten-free offerings, and bakeries that specialize in these products are taking advantage.

Canyon Bakehouse, Johnstown, Colo., for example, recently launched a gluten-free brioche dinner roll in addition to its line of whole grain, gluten-free products. And tortilla makers like Mission Foods, Irving, Texas, and Siete Family Foods, Austin, Texas, offer gluten-free tortillas made from almond, cauliflower, chickpea and cassava flour.

It’s clear that products that marry consumer demand for premium and gluten-free baked goods can find success. But reformulating these offerings can be challenging for bakers, requiring them to do their homework on their desired product qualities and the best combination of gluten-free solutions to get the job done.

Replacing the irreplaceable

Baked goods rely on gluten to provide the expected texture, volume and more in consumers’ favorite baked goods. And that’s no different with specialty breads.

“When it comes to gluten, I think we’ve got to be fair that you’re replacing an incredible ingredient,” said Steve Gumeny, regional product manager at Beneo. “Consumers expect certain textures from different types of bread, and really those classic textures are rooted in the tradition of working with wheat flour. The elasticity and structure provided by gluten, it’s naturally unique, and it’s very hard to replace in the bakery.”

This elasticity allows bakers to easily form dough into what will become a premium roll, loaf or flatbread. Gluten also provides volume during baking, an essential function often lost when gluten is removed.

“The most challenging thing for gluten-free bread is we often get the big holes inside a loaf,” explained Yanling Yin, PhD, director, bakery application, Corbion. “It’s because it doesn’t have gluten that provides visco-elasticity and can retain air bubbles without collapsing when the loaf is done expanding in the oven during baking.”

Removing gluten can be especially difficult in premium products, Mr. Gumeny noted, because there’s more variance in the bubble formation and crumb structure, which significantly impacts texture. Understanding this expected texture is critical for bakers.

“In a specialty product, the challenge is first to think about what that desired texture will be,” he said. “Is your tortilla going to be flexible or is it going to be crisp? Does your flatbread need crunch or chewiness, or both? And what’s your desired crust structure; are you going for a more rustic, bread-like crumb, or do you want the finer, cake-like features?”

Once bakers decide on texture, they can then understand what may happen to it if gluten is removed.

“For example, gluten-free flatbread is prone to tearing because of limited strength or elasticity, and it may have a powdery mouthfeel compared to traditional flatbreads,” explained Hannah Santoro, senior bakery scientist at ADM. “Freeze-thaw instability can affect textures of gluten-free pizza crusts or focaccia breads. Additionally, ancient grains might present a bitter aftertaste or aromatic off notes.”

Replacing gluten is a difficult task in any premium product, but it may be easier in applications like tortillas that are less reliant on gluten for structure, noted McKenna Mills, senior technical services specialist for bakery, Cargill.

“Formulating a gluten-free tortilla may be a little easier — you won’t need gluten’s strength to hold the product up. Still, you’ll face texture and mouthfeel challenges,” she said. “Gluten provides a chewiness and resiliency that is hard to replicate with other ingredients. Remove the gluten, and you’ll encounter negative attributes like gumminess, which can be difficult to eliminate.”

Gluten also provides the moisture that is essential for achieving the proper texture of tortillas and flatbreads.

“[Gluten-free] is a challenge in the flatter breads — the tortillas and flatbreads — because you don’t want these products to dry out, and if they do, they just become crackers,” Mr. Gumeny said. “So keeping that moisture without having all that great dough structure inside to trap the moisture, that becomes important.”

Starch support

In gluten-free formulations, starch is a go-to for bakers to hold onto that moisture, as well as maintain other key functionalities.

“For structure, we typically rely on starches, which can serve as the backbone of the dough,” Ms. Mills said.

Rice starches, for example, can mimic the structural and moisture-retaining capabilities of gluten in many applications. This includes waxy rice starch, which is made almost entirely of amylopectin, a compound that provides a unique branching structure that helps prevent gluten-free products from degrading.

“This starch swells as soon as it’s mixed with the wet ingredients, which really improves your dough handling up front, and it’s also trapping in the moisture and keeping it where it belongs: in the bread during the baking process and also throughout the shelf life,” Mr. Gumeny explained. “That waxy instant starch is a great one for gluten-free products, pretty much all of them, and that same starch can be used to reduce breakage even in hard-baked goods like crackers and shortbreads as well.”

Another key ingredient is starch or flour made from indica rice. This rice is high in the compound amylose, which aids in the crumb structure and formation of bubbles in the bread during baking. Bakers that use these waxy and indica rice solutions in conjunction can get the moisture retention and dough workability needed in baked goods.

Beneo’s Remyline includes a finely ground, instant starch made from waxy rice. The company also offers a coarse, native indica rice starch and wet-milled micronized rice, both of which can be used together with instant waxy starch.

The use of rice ingredients can also help specialty products achieve a clean label, which is increasingly popular with consumers.

Cargill released its SimPure soluble rice flour earlier this year as a label-friendly alternative to maltodextrin, a processed ingredient derived from starch used to provide bulk, viscosity and taste to baked goods.

“With our soluble rice flour solution, product developers finally have an alternative that behaves very similarly to maltodextrin in terms of functional attributes, and at the same time, it aligns with today’s consumer trend toward familiar ingredients,” Ms. Mills explained.

Other starches and flour sources can serve as the backbone of specialty gluten-free formulations as well, including potato, tapioca, almond and cauliflower. Cargill’s SimPure potato and tapioca starches can fill the functional role of gluten while also satisfying consumers’ label expectations.

Sorghum and oat flours are also commonly used due to their more neutral flavor profile compared to other alternative grains available, explained Vanessa Brovelli, research and development director at Bay State Milling.

“In addition, their whole-grain nutritional contributions can boost fiber and protein, which is typically lacking in gluten-free baked goods made with mostly starches or white rice,” she added.

Bay State Milling’s SowNaked Oats contain 40% more protein and half the carbon footprint of traditional oats, making them an ideal gluten-free option for specialty bakers looking to add additional nutritional and environmental benefits to their products.

Regardless of the options bakers go for, Mr. Gumeny noted it’s important they nail down the right combination and quantity of each ingredient for their specific premium application, as well how the solution will interact with the other ingredients in the formulation.

For example, cauliflower flour, a popular gluten-free substitute in pizza crusts and tortillas, often has a higher moisture content than conventional flour.

“What that means is you either need to adjust how much moisture you add to your dough and be aware that these ingredients like starches, which are going to be trapping that moisture, are going to interact with that additional water activity as well,” Mr. Gumeny said. “So keeping in mind when adding a cauliflower, for example, that it’s not going to be a one-to-one with bread flour in terms of moisture.”

Tortillas and flatbreads also typically have a much higher fat content than traditional breads, and this ingredient will affect how quickly starch absorbs moisture.

“You need to be aware of that and possibly adjust your starch level up or down depending on the overall water activity of your product, based on the amount of shortening that you’re using,” he added.

To eliminate some of the formulating complexity, Corbion offers gluten-free bread and tortilla bases.

“Bases mean customers just add water and some yeast. Bakeries don’t have to batch in all those minor functional ingredients,” Dr. Yin explained. “The bases improve bakery production efficiency by reducing batching errors. It’s one of the popular solutions for bakeries.”

Maintaining shelf life is another vital component when choosing the right ingredients. For example, gluten-free baked goods headed for the freezer aisle may benefit from more waxy starch that’s designed to resist retrogradation.

“If you make sure there’s waxy rice in a frozen baked good, you’re actually going to get some good freeze-thaw stability on that, which means less ice crystals and ultimately a better product for longer,” Mr. Gumeny said.

Makers of gluten-free flatbreads or pizza crusts also need to consider how the process affects gluten-free ingredients.

“If you’re trying to sheet out thin pizza crust compared to rising a loaf of bread, some things are different,” he noted. “You’re still going to want good dough spring, you’re still going to want good structure, but you’ve got to be aware of again how your process interacts with the ingredients, namely in our case the starch, because anytime you have other ingredients that are competing for moisture, or you have a process that could potentially be damaging some starch, you could see differences.”

Gums, emulsifiers and more

While starches are a go-to for structure and moisture retention in gluten-free applications, bakers often include other ingredients to further replicate gluten’s functionality. This includes gums, which are often used as gelling agents to impart the proper texture of specialty breads.

“Some starches can help with gel strength, but we’ll often turn to hydrocolloids like xanthan gum, guar gum and/or locust bean gum to deliver the full functionality needed,” Ms. Mills said. “These ingredients help provide proper batter viscosity, air entrapment, crumb elasticity and stability.”

Setting agents can also assist with shelf life by extending crumb softening and preventing starch retrogradation, she added.

Bean and pulse powders, including fava, pea, chickpea, navy beans and red lentils, can fill this role in gluten-free products while providing an additional source of protein, Ms. Santoro noted. Emulsifiers will often be added as well to help maintain softness.

“Release agents like our soy, sunflower or canola lecithins are key for machinability,” Ms. Mills said. “Without any flour to hold onto the water, most gluten-free doughs are extremely sticky. Release agents improve the processability of gluten-free doughs.”

Another common issue with gluten-free products is a dry texture, which can be solved with humectants that improve moisture retention over the product’s shelf life, as well as freeze-thaw stability, Ms. Santoro added.

“Sweetening solutions are another solve,” she said. “Products like our reduced sugar glucose syrup aid in moisture retention while reducing total sugars in the formulation. Additionally, allulose syrup reduces sugars as well as total carbohydrates to help gluten-free bakery achieve lower carb claims.”

Bakers can also extend the shelf life of gluten-free premium products through enzymes. Corbion offers its Ultrafresh line of enzymes for breads, buns, bagels, tortillas and flatbreads, as well as natural mold inhibitors.

Growing consumer demand for BFY and premium offerings present an opportunity for bakers looking to make gluten-free specialty breads, but formulating these products remains a steep order. There’s no single drop-in option to replace the functionality of gluten, and bakers should work closely with suppliers to find the right ingredients for their desired product.