Tips for Baking Healthy, Gluten-Free, and Dairy-Free With Links to Substitute Ingredients

Please share:

I finally figured out what I have been doing wrong all these years. I love to take classic dessert recipes and convert them into healthy gluten-free and dairy-free options. (That means GMO-free too.) But, it was not until more recently that I figured out a few secrets that took my creations to a new level.

Growing up, I was the baker in the family. Being the only girl in a family of seven, I did not have much competition, so it was often me who made the deserts and birthday cakes. Back then, to make a recipe healthier meant using whole wheat flour instead of white flour and replacing sugar with honey. I loved it.

My Experiments

Since going gluten-free and dairy-free about seven years ago, my baking wonders have not always been so wonderful. Replacing dairy ingredients with coconut versions was not that difficult, especially with all the new options that have come out the last few years. However, replacing the flour has been a little more challenging, especially when using natural sweeteners.

I have experimented will all sorts of flours. In the past, I strictly used rice flour (which is inherently gluten-free) and replaced all the required flour in a recipe with rice flour. However, the resulting treat was always too crumbly. I also tried other gluten-free flours like garbanzo bean flour and quinoa flakes without much difference.

The newest trend in gluten-free baking is to add xantham gum, which acts very much like the gluten in wheat and binds the ingredients together, but I am not a big fan of xantham gum. First of all, it is usually derived from corn or soy, both genetically modified (GMO) crops that are grown with the Bt toxin. (We avoid corn and soy in our family. You can read more about GMOs here.)

Xantham gum is also made by a bacterial fermentation process. I have found it to be a common stomach irritant. (It should also not be given to babies whose digestive systems are not fully developed.) Why chance it?

For a while we went grain free so I tried baking with coconut flour. Although this is a good option if eating grain-free, coconut flour is nothing like grain flours. It soaks up so much liquid that you have to totally rethink a recipe.

Nut flours were not as difficult to bake with, but still resulted in a more crumbly version of the original. Over time, I also came to realize that we were eating way too many nuts. In my family, we eat soaked and dehydrated nuts on a daily basis. If I baked with them as well, that was too much.  And, I started to question how healthy ground nuts were after being cooked in the oven, since heat can make the oil in the nuts rancid. (Nuts are also high in oxalates, especially almonds.)

My Discoveries

So, back to my recent discoveries. I had two big epiphanies: one is a good, simple flour combination and the other is modifying the temperature on the oven. I discuss these and a few other tips below.

Flour: I have found that if I combine rice flour with tapioca flour, the tapioca helps hold the baked good together better. Whenever a recipe calls for flour, replace that quantity proportionally with two-thirds rice flour and one-third tapioca flour. I have tried this combination in multiple recipes during the Christmas holidays and several recent birthdays and it has worked every time.

If you want to vary your flours, other common gluten-free flours include: amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff. However, some of these have a distinctive taste that everyone may not appreciate. Notice that I did not include corn in this list. Although corn is inherently gluten-free, even organic brands are often tainted with GMOs. (Corn crops are easily cross pollinated plus a high pesticide and moldy crop.)

I also did not include oats on this list, because it too has gluten. Actually, all grains have different types of gluten, but I have found that oat gluten is too close to wheat gluten, so I typically recommend avoiding it if you are gluten-free. If you do use oats, be sure to purchase one that is guaranteed gluten-free since they are often processed in facilities that process wheat. It should also be organic since standard oats are typically sprayed with the pesticide glyphosate right before harvesting

Although not a huge success for me, if you want to try using coconut flour, the typical rule is that 1/4 cup of coconut flour equals a full cup of all purpose flour. Any more than that and things will be really dry, unless you include additional liquid and/or eggs. You should also let your batter set for 15 or 20 minutes so that the coconut absorbs the liquid before you put it into the oven.

Sweetener: I used to bake with honey, but I could tell that I personally needed to change to a different sweetener. For some reason, when baked, the honey gave me too much of a sugar “rush.” My newest favorite sweetener is coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar (like this one). Both are actually known to have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar. Another favorite is rapidura sugar.

These sweeteners are darker sugars, so, if you are not careful, they tend to make baked goods much darker, burn easier, and be more dry to the taste. My fix for this is to bake the recipe at a lower temperature than suggested, typically 25 degrees lower. If the recipe calls for 350F degrees, for example, I use 325F degrees and cook about the same amount of time. (Depending on the recipe, you may need a few minutes longer than what is suggested, so keep a good watch at the end to make sure it does not get too dark.)

Dairy: If a recipe calls for milk-type products, there are plenty of coconut product options. We stay away from soy milks because of the GMOs and the additives. I also limit our nut milks (and oat milk) for the same reasons I mentioned above. See below for my coconut milk substitutes.

My Favorite Substitutes

Below is a list of what I typically use in baked good recipes. The key is to start replacing the items in your pantry one item at a time. Begin with the items you use most often and use organic whenever possible.

Sugar = Coconut sugar or rapidura sugar
(Date sugar is another good one since it is full of minerals but it is harder to find. I still use honey or maple syrup once in a while, but then you have to modify the liquids and/or dry ingredients to accommodate the liquid sweetener. If you use cane sugar be sure it is organic, because most cane crops are sprayed with the pesticide glyphosate right before harvesting.)

Flour = Combination rice flour and tapioca flour (3:1 ratio, see above)
(I try to use sprouted rice flour whenever I can because that is easier to digest than regular rice flour. I also sometimes use sprouted garbanzo bean flour, instead of tapioca, especially when making pancakes. I alternate between using organic brown rice and white rice flour.)

Milk = Coconut milk
(I use this one since it is one of the few brands that does not line its can with plastic and it contains only one other ingredient: guar gum. There is a “simple” version without the guar gum but it may not be creamy enough for some recipes.)

Buttermilk = Coconut milk with lemon juice added
(Use one to two teaspoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice with every cup of coconut milk.)

Evaporated Milk = Condensed coconut milk
(Yes, they actually make this, as shown here.)

Heavy Cream = Coconut Cream
(Another great find. Can even whip it up to make whip cream.)

Butter = Gee (clarified butter, I like this brand.)
(You can also use oil or coconut shortening instead of butter, see below. Applesauce in a 1:1 ratio is another option if you want to avoid the fat. Stay away from margarine since most are made with hydrogenated oils and/or GMO soy. (Also know that some people who are sensitive to dairy can still handle good quality butter.)

Oil = Coconut oil or avocado oil
(Find out more about healthy oils and which ones to stay away from here. Don’t use typical vegetable oils. Don’t bake with olive oil since it has a low temperature smoke point.)

Shortening = Coconut-based shortening, like this one
(Stay away from commercial brands like Crisco which are made with hydrogenated oils.)

If you happen to be sensitive to eggs, there are several egg substitutes explained here. For more ideas on healthy gluten-free, dairy-free, and GMO-free baking products and brands, you can go to “My Pantry” on my website. (You can find baking powder and baking soda brands there.)

Eating healthy does not need to be boring. And, you can make many of your favorites by changing out bad ingredients for good, healthy ones. In this German chocolate cake recipe, I show you how I did it using an old Kraft recipe. You can find recipes for other treats on my website.

As good as these look (and taste!), I would still caution you not to go overboard. Even healthy homemade treats and deserts should be limited, only eaten after getting in your daily fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-dense foods.


This article was written by Sharon K. Harmon, PhD, founder of Life Design for Health. As a “Health Designer” and an advocate for EMF safety she has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health by looking at the body from a unique perspective. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website, including a healing foods and pantry list and recipes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and GMO-free.


Please share: