What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, oats, and triticale. Gluten gives many foods their structure and chewy texture. Think about the texture of regular pizza dough—gluten makes those stretchy strands possible and holds the dough together.
What contains gluten?
In addition to its pure form in the grains we just mentioned, gluten is found in foods produced from those grains: cereal, crackers, pasta, bread, beer, and cookies. It’s hidden in items such as oats, salad dressings, soy sauce, malt vinegar, some miso, imitation crab, and seitan. Other foods that may contain gluten can include cream sauces, broths and soups, cookies, flavored snack foods, candy and chocolate, ice cream, and rice mixes. To truly avoid gluten it’s important to become a vigilant label reader. For a very thorough list of gluten-containing ingredients see here.
What is bad about gluten?
One thing we know for sure is that gluten is bad for those with celiac disease (a genetic autoimmune disease). When a person with celiac eats foods containing gluten, his or her immune system responds by attacking the small intestine. The villi that line the intestine can become damaged, making the body unable to absorb nutrients. This can cause many different issues such as loss of weight and bone density. There are myriad symptoms that occur with celiac disease and they vary among different people. One person might just have gastrointestinal distress, while another may have rashes, joint pain and depression. It’s best of course to visit a doctor for diagnosis. The method should include a blood test and (if it is positive for the antibodies) an upper GI endoscopy to confirm or deny damage of the intestinal lining. It’s important to note that even cross-contamination can severely affect those with celiac disease.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a bit of a controversial topic lately. We’ve all been hearing things on the news about it not really being a thing. Some think it’s not gluten bothering humans’ digestion but rather has to do with the hybridization of wheat. Many people with other autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis say they have reduced symptoms on a gluten-free diet. There are lots of ideas out there and we’re happy for the conversation and awareness. We’d like to stay out of the controversy though since we are neither doctors nor scientists. Our general modus operandi is: if you feel better cutting gluten from your diet, awesome. Don’t eat it and let us help you figure out what to make instead!
How do I make sure I don’t get glutened?
The best way to be sure you don’t get glutened is to read ingredient labels religiously, cook at home, and eat out at purely gluten-free restaurants. Of course, the latter two aren’t always possible. While eating out in “regular” restaurants we’ve found that it’s helpful to ask your server if he or she can recommend some things on the menu that are already gluten-free (rather than making substitutions). If you have celiac disease or feel that cross-contamination adversely affects you, it’s important that you are clear about this. In a busy kitchen the same cutting boards, knives, and other tools are often used on both gluten-free and gluten containing foods. A lot of the time naturally gluten-free foods like french fries are fried in the same oil as foods that contain gluten—like onion rings. That oil contains little bits of gluten that can adhere to other foods. Be friendly, ask questions, and if cross-contamination is a serious concern, let your server know.
Some other useful tips: You may want to spoon things like jam or peanut butter out of a jar and spread it with a separate, clean knife. If you’re at a friend’s house for the weekend and you don’t have a dedicated gluten-free grill or pans, use tinfoil as a clean surface for grilling and parchment for baking. Always talk to the cook—make sure he or she understands which foods really contain gluten. When in doubt, bring a snack along with you or eat before a cocktail party.
What can I eat?
It’s likely you eat lots of naturally gluten-free things already, but you may not know it! Roast chicken and potatoes, for example, is gluten-free. We love the natural approach: it’s easy to eat whole, fresh foods in season. As the seasons change so does the food you eat—you’ll never be bored. As a basic framework, remember that these are your friends: fruits and vegetables, natural proteins, potatoes, and whole gluten-free grains. Some great gluten-free grains are millet, quinoa, buckwheat, rice, corn, amaranth, sorghum, teff, and gluten-free oats.
Yes, there are moments when it’s hard to be gluten-free. On-the-go meals and desperate snack situations are particularly challenging. We’ll be giving you recipes for those times on our site down the line. For now you can usually find nuts, and plain popcorn, fresh fruit, or a piece of cheese at a supermarket or deli.
The key to eating gluten-free, of course, is to know which foods contain gluten. Reading ingredient labels is essential. Sure--at first it’s frustrating to stand in the supermarket aisle reading ingredient lists or to ask questions of servers and chefs, but you’ll develop a shorthand and it will soon become second nature. For a very thorough list of gluten-containing ingredients, see here.
Cooking at home is always the most fool-proof. If you’re the cook, you know you didn’t dust the fish with flour before you tossed it in the pan. Certain foods can be replaced with their healthy gluten-free version, like brown rice pasta. Or, try a gluten-free grain instead. Making quinoa or millet is just as easy as making pasta and it’s fun to discover new natural ingredients that have a breadth of uses.
Gums, Flour Mixes, and Batters
Gluten provides structure to doughs and it helps everything stick together. When baking with gluten-free flours, it’s best to use a mixture of flours instead of just one type. Each flour provides different and useful characteristics that work best when combined. The gluten-free all-purpose flours we prefer to use don’t contain xanthan or guar gums. While gums do provide amazing results, we’ve found that a mix of psyllium, flax, and chia seed works just as well, creating a similar effect using whole foods. If you would prefer to use xanthan gum in our recipes, you can replace the psyllium, chia, and flax with 1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum or use a gluten-free all-purpose flour that already contains gums.
Our recipes generally ask for an all-purpose rice-based gluten-free flour mix. (We like Trader Joe’s.) For a more economical mix you can make at home, we like the proportions in the rendition by America’s Test Kitchen. We always weigh the ingredients we use in baking, as flours measured by volume can be inaccurate. Given this, our recipes will turn out best if you follow the weight measurement. (Kitchen scales are not that expensive and the benefit they provide is immense!)
One last note: gluten-free batters and doughs are often much more wet looking than traditional ones. When baking, don’t second-guess an extra-runny gluten-free batter—it’s normal and ideal.
We’ve found that gluten-free baked goods need to cool completely through the center before they are moved from their pan. Moving them too soon often causes them to fall apart. While a “regular” cake may sit for only 5-10 minutes in the pan before it’s moved to a cooling rack, a gluten-free cake should sit until the whole cake (even the middle) reaches room temperature. This surely requires patience, but it’s worth it. When baking batches of cookies, it’s helpful to have extra sheet pans on hand since you may want to get another batch in the oven before the first one is cool. Always line cake and sheet pans with parchment paper, which makes baked goods easier to remove from the pan.
Gluten-free baked goods keep differently from “regular” baked goods. If gluten-free baked goods are stored in the fridge, they tend to dry out and/or become more dense. For this reason we store them covered in a resealable container or tightly covered with plastic wrap at room temperature. Once they are baked and cooled, wrap tightly and freeze them, then defrost at room temperature.