For those chefs in the baking and pastry field, there’s a unique opportunity to affect the first and last courses of any great meal. Bread offers a hint of what’s to come, while dessert leaves a lasting impression sure to entice repeat diners. That point hits home with my students when I begin discussing the art of special-needs baking.

Just like with any menu item, a restaurant will benefit if it can deftly adapt to a customer’s dietary needs. That runs the gamut from gluten-free and sugar-free to vegan, and beyond. Having the skill and foresight to deliver a quality product in the absence of traditional staples—like butter, eggs, sugar, and flour—can be a powerful tool for chefs.

When I first began teaching this topic more than a decade ago, I had to learn as I went along. There wasn’t a lot of information available, and I researched alternatives to the classic ingredients. Over time, however, plenty of recipes and products have emerged, allowing chefs of all levels to be successful. Let’s begin with gluten-free, one of the most common dietary restrictions. The key is to understand how to replace the gluten. For example, an item like a croissant, which relies so heavily on its binding abilities, is probably not a good option. Pancakes, waffles, and many cookies are better choices. A chef can simply use whatever recipe is already on hand and just buy gluten-free flour, which should get a baker close to the desired texture. Since the recipe still calls for sugar, eggs, and butter, the flavor will be there. A cookie might spread out more, but with some practice and recipe engineering, guests will be pleased with the result and most likely won’t be able to notice. 

I also believe there’s been a steady increase in the call for non-dairy and vegan products, and the most challenging ingredient to erase is eggs. Without eggs, the final result is likely to look, feel, and respond differently. Cookies are among the easiest to make vegan. Something like a mousse, which typically has heavy cream, gelatin, and animal-sourced ingredients, is the opposite. 

Picture a chocolate chip cookie instead. A chef can use a vegetable-based fat or oil, such as extra virgin or coconut fat, instead of butter. Typically, refined white granulated sugar is filtered with animal bones or charcoal from animal bones, so that has to go. I’ve also substituted tofu in place of eggs at times. Lastly, organic chocolate or carob chips can be added. 

Sugar-free baking might just be the sleeping giant. It’s important for people trying to manage diabetes as well as for other patrons simply looking to cut sugar out of their diets. I use that term, sugar-free, loosely because it can include everything from common sources of carbohydrates to sweeteners ranging from sugar cane to molasses, honey, and even agave syrup. I generally use either a polyol, also known as sugar alcohol—which has similar sweetness and reactions to how sucrose works—or I will try an “intense” sugar substitute, such as sucralose or Stevia. Making that decision comes down to the volumetric replacement for the volume of sucrose used. Typically, I try to avoid aspartame or saccharin, and sometimes I use a combination of both categories. No matter the challenge, if a chef is willing to experiment and isn’t afraid to make a few mistakes, special-needs baking can be a satisfying endeavor for all parties involved. 

Richard Coppedge Jr. is a professor of baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America. He is the author of Baking for Special Diets (John Wiley & Sons, 2016) and Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America (Adams Media, 2008).
Chef Profiles, Feature, Health & Nutrition