Corn has a unique role to play in formulating consumer-pleasing gluten-free foods. Todd Giesfeldt, R&D mill product manager, Didion Milling, Johnson Creek, WI, examines what it takes to be successful. Mr. Giesfeldt is a former baker and brings practical insight into this new category.

Baking & Snack: The presence of gluten enables proper kneading, gas retention, finished texture and keeping quality. So, how does the formulator compensate for these functions without using gluten?

Mr. Giesfeldt: Wheat gluten is a protein. You have to make up for that protein (which is the gluten) with a combination of things that give you a film-forming and gas-holding capacity. A combination of cereal grains, gums, pectin and/or bran can compensate for the lack of the wheat protein(s).

Examples of cereal grains that work in a gluten-free recipe are rice, sorghum, millet, amaranth, corn — wherever you can find polysaccharides in a cereal grain without the presence of gluten. There are a dozen different cereal grains, beans and seeds that can be used. Examples of gums include xanthan gum, guar gum, locus, CMC, pectin.

When you bring in the right amount of protein, carbs and starch such as corn or tapioca and additives such as gums or pectin, you come up with something similar to what you get with wheat gluten. You can use different types of bran such as corn bran or rice bran to help manage water. Grind ingredients on the fine side (100 mesh, or else you start to pick up a mouthfeel for bran at 80 mesh and under).

The challenge is finding substitutes for the glutenin and gliadin that combine with water to give wheat protein its elasticity and film-forming capability.

Among Didion Milling’s ingredients, which ones do you recommend for gluten-free baked foods? Why?

Corn is naturally gluten-free. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all corn products on the market are gluten-free. Some are processed in the same facility that handles gluten materials. The material, manufacturing and handling affect whether a product is gluten-free. All of our corn products — from coarse meal through fine flour — are all gluten-free. Overall, corn is more label friendly and cost effective than other gluten alternatives.

Corn flours are a great candidate for gluten-free recipes. Corn flour brings protein and starch to the recipe, making it a great ingredient for pasta applications. Viscosity-controlled corn flour provides a more uniform product in kneading machines and automated dough processing equipment. Our pregels — corn flour that’s been heat and moisture treated to give it specific properties — have great binding properties and provide more stability over time. It all depends on the formula you're putting together.

Corn bran binds water more efficiently compared with carbohydrates and brings fiber to the label. It also keeps starch from leaching out during boiling.

What aspect of gluten-free formulating do users of your ingredients find the most difficult to navigate? Why?

It depends on product and use, but in general, but the biggest challenge will be the flavor corn brings.

Corn flour can be found in a number of products that don’t traditionally have corn flour in them such as tortillas, pancakes, cakes, muffin mixes, pie, etc. to make recipes gluten-free. However, you have to be careful that the taste attributes fit what you are looking for. You don’t want the corn flavor to be too strong in the blend. It works well to use multiple grains so the corn brings sweetness and a nutty flavor without being overpowering. It's something that consumers won't necessarily see as too “corny” like a corn dog or corn muffin.

Corn has a short texture. If all you're using is corn flour in a recipe, the results will be crumbly because of the protein form. It will act more like a corn muffin or corn bread. When you formulate with corn, you'll have a lower protein level than with wheat. Make sure the protein level is balanced correctly. It works well to mix corn with grains that have higher protein.

What advice do you have for someone attempting their first gluten-free version of a baked food or snack already in their company’s product line?

My general feeling is that the consumer wants the same flavor and texture profile as a gluten-containing product, so make sure the new formulation doesn't change the flavor or texture. Be sensitive to not just functionality but also good taste. It has to taste good! There's no point in going forward with a recipe if it doesn't taste good. Those with celiac disease have fewer options. But individuals who are not celiac patients yet are eating gluten-free for health reasons and the families of celiac patients will be more particular about the taste.

To help move from bench to bakery, what do formulators need to know about processing gluten-free doughs made with your ingredients?

Our material at 100% replacement for wheat in a recipe will sheet entirely differently than a wheat ingredient. However, when put into a proper formula with a few other cereal grains, starches and gums, it will yield a pretty good look-alike, but it won't sheet exactly like you're used to. It’ll leave a shorter texture, and the machine set up will not be the same. A lot of that goes back to the short texture. These doughs just won't stretch as far or as fast.

Corn has its place in gluten-free formulas beyond general corn-based products, as long as it’s formulated correctly. It brings a flavor and texture that the consumer will find pleasing. Corn is also a great gluten-free ingredient because it is label friendly and available at a good value-added price compared with fancier additives that will always be higher priced.