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Amherst business owners find gluten-free baking a delectable challenge

It wasn’t easy for Nancy and Joe Mangano to crack the code of gluten-free baking, but the owners of Vin-Chet Gluten-Free Bakery worked to overcome the challenge during the last eight years.

The hard work started in their Hamburg kitchen.

"I believe we’re so successful in the gluten-free business because of his education,” Nancy said of her husband, a graduate of Oklahoma State University and, more importantly, the American Institute of Baking. “He knows about the science of baking. Gluten-free is difficult unless you know what you’re doing and he has such knowledge to perfect the recipes. He can trouble-shoot.”

Nancy met her husband when she was a teenager working at her husband’s family bakery, Mangano’s, in South Buffalo.

The couple – featured in this weekend’s In the Field story in WNY Refresh – bought Vin-Chet, at 2178 Kensington Ave. in Amherst, in 1998 and ran it for almost a decade as a traditional bakery until they tried to make gluten-free baked goods at the request of a customer.

The process involved lots of trial, error and late nights on weekends trying to perfect a few recipes for  customers who suffered from celiac disease and other inflammatory bowel issues. The effort became so successful that all they’ve baked professionally for the last three years are breads, rolls, pizzas and desserts for those who once thought they’d have to abandon them once they learned they had a sensitivity to wheat. There’s also the matter of customers who believe gluten free is just a cleaner, healthier way to eat.

During an interview this week, Joe told me that baking is “very, very similar” to making beer and wine.

“You’re talking about fermentation processes and trapping gas, and enzymes,” he said. “All three take time and everything is controlled by weather and temperature.”

Gluten-free baking is hard, he said, and more costly, because there’s no natural structure like there is in regular baking.

“Gluten is the structure and strength of flour. When you mix it with water and yeast and sugar, the enzymes entrap the gases to make the product grow and to have stability and texture. You don’t get that when you have a gluten-free product. We use different gums and ancient grains to mix together to get the stability. You don’t get that enzymatic action, so the flavor is much different. It’s tough to emulate the wheat flavor. It tastes good, but it’s different. It’s heartier, coarser.”

With beer, wine and baked goods made by hand, the old-fashioned way, giving the yeast time during the fermenting process can make or break the taste.

Processed food – where automation, bulk production and speed mean money – has stripped some of the traditional flavor and texture of those products.

A growing number of authors – including cardiologist Dr. William Davis, author of “The Wheat Belly” – have begun to openly question whether such streamlining has wreaked havoc on digestive tracts and overall health of millions of Americans.

The Manganos have looked to equalize things: Joe and his son, Anthony, by making gluten-free breads and rolls; Nancy and employee Kaitlin Gould, by crafting gluten-free desserts.

Kaitlin Gould helps Vin-Chet Gluten-Free Bakery owner Nancy Mangano make desserts at the Amherst business.

Kaitlin Gould helps Vin-Chet Gluten-Free Bakery owner Nancy Mangano make desserts at the Amherst business.

Gluten adds stability to baking, Joe explained.

Blending sorghum and ancient grains makes for a gluten-free product that’s less stable than working with gluten, he said, “so that’s why we have to be more careful with the timing. And what makes it unique is you can’t produce it on conventional bakery equipment because the dough doesn’t have the elasticity which is developed through the gluten process. If it goes through vacuums or pressure, it breaks the dough down too much.”

“That’s why,” said his wife, “everything we do is made by hand in small batches.”

This helps explain why muffins, breads and other baked goods tend to cost more than conventional baked goods, she said.

“Large manufacturers making gluten-free try to adapt the recipes to go through conventional equipment,” Joe said. “By doing that, you change the characteristics. The bread is dry. The bread doesn’t look good. The bread doesn’t taste good. Whereas we try to make it as traditional as possible.”

Does baking gluten free take more time?

“It’s the same in actual production but no matter what more time we’d give it, we’re not developing more flavor,” he said. “What happens is when I make a regular product, it’s based on time and temperature. You’re building gases which are used by the yeast and the sugar. It’s actually pure alcohol. Once the gases are developed, the gluten builds up the strength so the gases are entrapped and they’re not released from the product. ... If you go too far, the bread or the dough is no good.

“In a traditional environment, you would have a fermentation process before makeup. You would mix the dough and let it set for, let’s say, an hour. After it grows and develops all those gases, you start to make it up.

“With gluten-free, the yeast doesn’t react and trap the gases, so when we mix it, we make it up right away. There’s no fermentation, period. We get the secondary fermentation. Prior to going in the oven, it goes into a proof box to rise and then it goes into the oven, but the first phase of fermentation we don’t do. It’s not going to do anything. It would just sit there."

Vin-Chet makes all of its own flour blends.

“We take ancient grains, some startches and we blend that, and that’s our base. It’s what flour would be to a regular baker,” Joe said.

They’ve noticed over time that, while their products have similar calorie counts to traditional baked goods, people tend to eat less of them because of their greater density. “You’re not going to eat the whole box of cookies or whole bag of chips,” Nancy said of the gluten-free variety, adding, “I think all of us need to rethink how we eat.”


Twitter: @BNrefresh; @ScottBScanlon

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