I just released a new Gluten-Free Chocolate Coconut Brownie Cookie Recipe that features whey protein isolate as an ingredient. As such, I have simultaneously posted this blog on using whey protein in your gluten-free diet and Celiac-safe baking strategy.
Using whey protein in gluten-free baking has some serious potential, as I have been busy experimenting and researching how to use this ingredient as a fantastic gluten-alternative in the pursuit of perfect gluten-free foods. After experimenting with it for a few weeks in various recipes, I am nearly ready to declare whey protein the gluten-free baking miracle ingredient, as I am getting some absolutely incredible results with this protein in recipes ranging from pancakes to cookies and more (playing with breads and pastries next - and, I can't wait to see what my wife and I come up with!)
A Quick Science-Lesson Explanation for why I tried Whey Protein
Whey protein got my interest because I needed a safe baking ingredient alternative that could potentially replace the gluten-proteinsin my foods (gluten that is obviously missing now that I have to bake without it). The gluten in "normal" foods (foods with wheat, rye, barley grains and flours and compounds derived thereof) is a mixture of water-insoluble proteins (particularly gliadin and glutenin) that lend elasticity to doughs and chewiness / resiliency to finished bake-goods.
My objective (in the constant pursuit of gluten-free diet perfection) is to simulate, as best as possible, the effect of gluten in foods while not using any. Since gluten is nothing more than a complex protein, I figured a great substitute would be a complex globular protein like Whey Protein. And, I knew I had found what I was looking for when I tried some plain Whey Protein powder - I just put a teaspoon of it in my mouth (nearly flavorless by the way), and noticed how it quickly turned into a chewing-gum like substance as the proteins developed with just the water in my mouth. Plus, whey protein is easily digestible, so it should be well tolerated by many people.
Types of Whey Protein on the Market
When discussing Whey Protein, there are different types available. You will see all sorts of products on the market labeled as Whey Protein and Whey Protein Concentrates, and then there are some that are Whey Protein Isolates. Isolates are processed to remove the fat, and lactose — they are 90%+ protein by weight, and this is what I settled on for my baking strategy (Isolate). Speaking of protein, an ounce of this product has 25-grams of protein (i.e., half the published government "Daily Value" requirement) with only 105 total calories and nearly zero fat/cholesterol.
The first thing you need to do is ensure you find a brand that is definitely gluten-free, and this can be difficult, as most of the commercial Whey Protein products you will find in grocery stores (like Target, CVS, etc) as well as "health stores" (like GNC) have gluten-containing ingredients and flavoring in them. In addition, many of the whey protein products I saw sold at retail were rather expensive. I looked over countless products until finding some good "safe" gluten free varieties to try out, and even longer before I found one at what I considered a reasonable price.
The Whey Protein Isolate I chose to Use
At first I wondered if the addition of gums (guar gum, xanthan gum, etc) in some brands of Whey Protein was making any substantial contribution to the overall texture and consistency of the finished baked-goods I was creating. I wanted a product that would allow for others to duplicate the results I get, knowing exactly what was and what was not of significance in impacting the texture and consistency of the baked items.
So, I searched until I found a completely pure Whey Protein Isolate in a brand called Now Sports Whey Protein Isolate (pictured above). And, as you'll find on their product page, the product:
"Contains no: sugar, salt, starch, yeast, wheat, gluten, corn, egg or preservatives.", and for those interested, they also say:There are definitely no added gums in this product either, and no added flavorings or sweeteners. The only additional ingredient (less than 1%), is some soy lecithin, which is a natural emulsifier and should not even be an issue for anyone worried about soy allergies - since lecithin does not contain any of the soy proteins.
"Voted 2005 Whole Foods Magazine “Best Sports Supplement” (I guess that is a "plus").
Having removed gums and thickeners from the equation, I could experiment knowing that whatever results I obtained were completely attributable to the addition of Whey Protein and not due to other "trace" ingredients.
What it looks like (a Powder)
I included the picture above so you could get a quick feel for what the whey protein isolate powder looks like. It is just an off-white light powder. I just sprinkled a little on a very dark-red plate for that picture.
Where to get the Gluten-Free Whey Protein
Now Sports has a "where to buy" finder tool on their site (to locate retailers in your area - since they don't seem to sell direct on their website), but I decided to go searching the web for the best deal I could find. I located it at a place called Outlet Nutrition, which had the large and economical 5 pound tubs of Now Sports Whey Protein Isolate for only $35.97 (price at the time). The order went smoothly, and the product was delivered quickly and packaged wonderfully (boxed with plenty of bubble-wrap - a "must have" when anyone ships with UPS!).
To give you a feel for how much gluten-free baking you can do with 5 pounds of this stuff: the container calls a "serving size" one scoop, which is 28 grams (i.e., essentially one ounce of whey protein concentrate). Thus, there are bascially 80 servings in 5 pounds. I have determined that their "scoop" is approximately 3/8th Cup (i.e., 6 Tablespoons). As such, a tub of this protein will go a long way -- we only used 1/4 cup in a whole batch of cookies for example, and I use just a Tablespoon or two in my pancakes.
Baking / Recipe Results
The results in my baking experiments have been fantastic. It took a bit of time to get the proportions right, and adjust my bake times, liquid content proportions, fiber proportion, and other ingredients, but the end result is quite encouraging.
One of my long-time pursuits has been what I'll call "Gluten-Free pancake perfection". I love pancakes, and I always have. I mean, gee... the name says it all "pan CAKES" :) A cake has to 1) rise substantially, and 2) have nice resiliency and texture.
The pancakes I have been making lately are huge - I use the full surface of a 10-inch round cast-iron griddle (a favorite pan) - and with the whey protein isolate the results are amazing and meet my criteria for great cakes too. I have created pancakes that are 10" in diameter and a full inch thick, plus with enough sponginess / elasticity that I can grab an edge and shake the pancake without any chance of it crumbling or ripping apart. The interior of the pancakes are well developed and bread/cake-like. It's just wonderful (and even amazing - given that there is no gluten involved).
Those Chocolate Coconut Gluten-Free Cookies I mentioned earlier are also an example of what the whey protein can be used for. Although the whey was used rather sparingly in the cookies, it definitely helped with the binding and texture.
I have found that, in general, when using this Whey Protein Isolate in my gluten-free recipes, I need to play around to get the proportions right. Too much, and you may get something a bit too rubbery. It seems to require more liquid in recipes too (not too surprising, as this powder readily absorbs liquid when mixed). Also, the protein works best when combined with the right amount of fibrous ingredients (I have found pumpkin to be a nice fiber-rich source to use, and there are many other options).
In fact, one of the first gluten-free whey protein products I experimented (which worked as a "miracle additive" in my panckages too) was this brand of Biochem Sports "Raw Foods & Whey" (vanilla flavor - packet pictured below) which includes 3 grams of fiber per ounce by using a combination of Fig, Buckwheat, Millet, Pumpkin, Red Bean, Brown Rice, and Burdock Root in the product. It was quite nice. I got that at Whole Foods Market, and though it was a bit expensive (about $2.00/ounce), it goes a long way (one packet lasted through 4 pan-sized super-pancakes) I'd surely use it again, especially because it removed some of the guesswork regarding what other fiber-containing ingredients I would add.
I will be posting some other gluten-free recipes using whey-protein in the future, so stay tuned. This additive / ingredient could be quite useful in your gluten-free diet.
UPDATE 1 - PRODUCT SOURCE AND PRICE (Oct-2008):
Since I first wrote this, the original place I purchased the NOW brand isolated whey protein from raised their price considerably. I suggest shopping around.
I found it on Amazon.com for $35.97 per 5# tub, and reasonable shipping.
UPDATE 2 - PRODUCT SOURCE AND PRICE (May-2011):
I have written an UPDATE BLOG ENTRY about gluten-free whey-protein and its current price (link); in summary, it is now up to approximately $53.00 (delivered) for a 5# container of isolated whey protein by Now (brand). See that link to my recent blog for more details and link to seller's website.