fig and walnut

gluten-free whole grain muffins

Behold our favorite muffins.

You want to know why? They are are almost entirely whole grain — with good fiber and protein from flours such as quinoa, corn, sorghum, and brown rice — and therefore packed with a punch of nutrition for the morning.

They are slightly sweet, not the blaring sugar fix of the holidays, but a faint sweetness in the mouth, a slow sunrise of a smile. They have a tender crumb, without a touch of the hippy denseness of whole-grain gluten muffins. These muffins sing.

These muffins have apricots and pecans in them, surprises in several bites. Or they have figs and walnuts, on other mornings. Once you learn the backbone of the recipe, you can flesh it out with any spice or dried fruit or crunch you wish. You can make these yours immediately.

We are never using another muffin recipe than this one.

Oh, and did I mention that you can make these gluten-free, dairy-free, and egg-free without sacrificing anything of that tender crumb or crowd-pleasing taste?

You’re going to want to make these muffins too.

I found this muffin recipe because our friend Shuna, who is an extraordinary pastry chef, wrote something on Facebook about missing cranberries when they are out of season because she so loves them in her muffins. When I asked for her recipe, she sent me one a) completely in grams and b) written in pastry-chef shorthand, which made me  happy. I think she adapted them from Martha Stewart, although knowing Shuna, she made them her own. This is what she wrote me:

“this is my standardized recipe for everything. i add cranberries by look– enough :}
i add a lot of orange zest into the melted butter :}
sometimes i use olive oil or olive oil and melted butter :}
would be great with toasted walnuts too.

i don’t know how to make it GF but I will leave that to …you.”

It turns out that making them gluten-free was remarkably easy.

You see, I have been realizing this lately: if you bake by weight in grams and you have a recipe based on the solid ratios that work for the different baked goods, you have a great gluten-free recipe waiting to be made. Simply substitute 140 grams of gluten-free flours for 140 grams of gluten flours, and you have it.

In most cases, it really is that simple.

And better yet, it seems you don’t need xanthan or guar gum to make them work either.

. . .

Last month, after the weeks of cookie baking, and my intestines feeling in a twist, I gave up the gums. For 18 months, off and on, I’ve been having… (how do I say this delicately for a food blog?) digestive issues. Pain, cramping, uncomfortable bathroom experiences, bloating, gas. Okay, that’s enough. You get the idea. Last January, it was bad enough that I went to our doctor and talked out every possibility. I went through a colonoscopy to make sure it wasn’t cancer, since celiac is correlated with colon cancer. Nothing. We ruled out all the possibilities that scared us. We were left with low vitamin D and not enough exercise.

I took care of both. I started taking higher doses of vitamin D (everyone in Seattle has to be on higher doses of vitamin D) and started running. The spring and summer were glorious.

Curious, I also removed foods that are common allergens from my diet, in case I was allergic or intolerant to corn or potatoes or dairy. Nothing seemed to make any difference. I felt just as good with those foods in my system as without. I thought I had this figured out.

And then the fall came. All that wonderful traveling and eating the baked goods made by gluten-free companies who wanted us to try their foods. Eating the baked goods from our cookbook at events. And whenever the weather cools, my heart returns to baking.

My intestines returned to cramping.

By Christmas day, I was in such pain that I could barely enjoy the holiday. Something in me knew this wasn’t vitamin D.

I always wondered about the gums. I mean, they’re odd, right? Xanthan gum “…derives its name from the strain of bacteria used during the fermentation process, Xanthomonas campestris. Xanthomonas campestris is the same bacteria responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower and other leafy vegetables. The bacteria form a slimy substance which acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener. The United States Department of Agriculture ran a number of experiments involving bacteria and various sugars to develop a new thickening agent similar to corn starch or guar gum. When Xanthomonas campestris was combined with corn sugar, the result was a colorless slime called xanthan gum.”


Guar gum is derived from the seed of a guar plant, so it at least sounds closer to nature. However, along with xanthan gum, guar gum in large doses is used as a laxative. According to WebMD, “There is some interest in using guar gum for weight loss because it expands in the intestine, causing a sense of fullness.” Hm. Someone I trust once told me, “Be sure to not use more than 2 teaspoons in a recipe, because that can cause explosive diarrhea.”

Nothing says love like explosive diarrhea.

So I always wondered. Could these strange substances used as thickeners and binders in nearly every single gluten-free baked good and product on the market (along with foods like salad dressings and ice creams) be causing me this much upset? I stopped using them to see.

After a couple of days, I started noticing a difference. I decided to ask on Facebook. Anyone else have an issue with these? As you can see if you read these voluminous comments, I’m not the only one.

I went two weeks without eating anything with either one in it. Almost immediately, every single intestinal upset went away. After two weeks, I felt better than I had in 18 months.

Last week, I tried something with guar gum in it, thinking that it was xanthan that bothered me. Within a couple of hours, I felt bloated and bothered again.

So, no thanks. At least for now.

Now, I want to make this clear. I’m not telling you to stop using xanthan and guar gum. They are gluten-free (I have heard a few rumblings about cross-contamination with xanthan gum, but I haven’t seen substantiation). Not everyone has problems with them. And it’s entirely possible that baking and testing and tweaking baked goods for nearly two years, for both our cookbook and the many, many baked goods we created for this website took its toll on me with all that xanthan and guar gum. Eating some occasionally may not affect me at all. And eating lots of them may not affect you at all.

All I know is that I’m not using them in the baked goods for this website anymore. For the past five years I have used xanthan and guar gum because every gluten-free recipe I had ever seen included them. I believed, from what I read, that they were necessary for binding. But after I started baking by weight and ratios, I started to wonder. And so, in those weeks we took off from blogging, I was baking. I baked these muffins, quick breads, some cookie recipes, biscuits, flatbreads, pizza dough, and a new multi-grain bread. Not only were every one of them free of xanthan and guar gum, but every one of them was better without the gums.

Gluten-free baked goods are better without the gums.

. . .

Think of this. Have you seen a recipe for muffins or cookies or quick breads that ends with “Do not overmix. Stir until just combined and then stop.” Do you know why? That’s because those wonderful recipe writers want you to avoid activating the gluten in regular all-purpose flour. Those recipes need as little gluten as possible.

In fact, I’m convinced that muffins and cookies and quick breads don’t need gluten at all. They’re better with gluten-free flours for the lightness and texture than with gluten flours.

Yes, you heard me right.

Here’s something else I have realized lately.

You know how whole-grain baked goods made with gluten flours can be heavy, dense, an “I should eat this but I really just want white flour and sugar”? Whole-grain gluten-free flours don’t have that problem. Whole wheat flour is a high gluten flour.  Just a touch too much stirring and that muffin turns out dense. Whole-grain gluten-free flours? No gluten. No need to worry about tenderness. That muffin can be nutritious and a pleasure to eat at the same time.

And so, we have been happily baking everything with a new whole-grain flour mix. We’re happy to report that, other than a difference in color, baked goods made with whole-grain flours are fairly identical in texture to the starchy AP mix we used for the cookies. That means the protein of quinoa, the iron of teff, the goodness provided by these different flours? They can show up in everything you bake.

Want to make a whole grain AP mix in your kitchen? Here’s how.

We’re working with 70% whole grains/30% starches. We might someday go to all whole grains for some baked goods, but this blend works well for us now.

If you want to make a big batch for all the baking in your kitchen?

Choose 700 grams of any combination of the following flours:

Brown Rice
Sweet Brown Rice

Almond is not a grain, but it is a whole flour, so I’ve thrown it in there. You might notice that I have not put in garbanzo (I don’t like it) or coconut (I don’t like the way it tastes or the way it sucks all the moisture out of a baked good) or soy (I’m having a hard time finding a good gluten-free one). You might like those. Substitute if you want.

This means that you can make your own blend. If you are allergic to corn, and you know you can’t eat the certified gluten-free oats, blend up 100 grams each of almond, brown rice, buckwheat, corn, millet, sorghum, and teff. (I want to write more about this later, but the flavor you find by blending all these different taste is fascinating. It’s amazing how boring regular AP flour seems after you use this.) Find your own favorite combination.

And then throw in 300 grams of any combination of the following:

Potato Starch
Tapioca Flour
White Rice Flour

We like using 150 grams each of arrowroot and potato starch, at the moment.

Combine the 700 grams of whole-grain flours with the 300 grams of starches in a big container. Shake it all up. You have whole-grain flour mix.

. . .

And now you are ready to start baking.

Make some muffins, everyone.

GLUTEN-FREE WHOLE GRAIN MUFFINS, adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon’s muffin recipe

One of the reasons I love this muffin recipe is that it is endlessly adaptable. As long as you bake by weight (do you have that scale yet?), you can replace any of the following with your favorite new ingredient of the moment: the flours, the sweetener, the milk, the oil, and the figs and walnuts.

We’ve made these muffins for weeks, with a slightly different multi-grain flour blend each time. We have made them with sucanat and coconut sugar instead of dark brown sugar. We have tried soy milk and rice milk instead of buttermilk. We have used olive oil, coconut oil, and melted butter in place of the grapeseed oil. In the latest batch, we used a chia seed slurry (1 teaspoon of ground chia seeds and 3 tablespoons of hot water for every 1 egg) to make these egg-free for a friend. And we have enjoyed apricots, raisins, and apple chunks, along with pecans, pine nuts, and pistachios.

Each muffin has a slightly different flavor for the interesting combinations, which makes eating whole-grain muffins interesting. But the texture has been the same, every time: a tender crumb, a strong structure that yields to the teeth, and gone in only a few moments.

350 grams whole-grain flour mix
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
180 grams deark brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 eggs
300 grams buttermilk
100 grams grapeseed oil
handful dried figs
handful walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350*. Grease a large muffin tin thoroughly.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk them together to combine and aerate.

Whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and grapeseed oil until they are combined well. Add them to the dry ingredients. Use a rubber spatula until the batter is almost fully combined. Throw in the figs and walnuts and continue stirring until all trace of flour is gone.

Fill the muffin tins 3/4 full. Slide the muffins into the oven. Bake until the muffins are browned with a bit of a crunch, the top springs back to the touch, and a knife goes through cleanly, about 25 minutes to 35 minutes.


Makes about 15 muffins.