My household includes someone with celiac disease, so I cook gluten-free most of the time. Celiac (or coeliac) disease is an autoimmune disorder which is triggered by even tiny amounts of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Affecting roughly 1 in 133 people, the complications are serious and the damage is lasting, so it's not just a case of avoiding gluten most of the time. For celiacs, the prohibition is total and permanent.
As a cook, it's not too difficult to manage once you learn what to look for on labels. There are many surprise sources of gluten on labels that don't say "wheat" — soy sauce, modified food starch, malt. Because even tiny amounts of gluten can trigger a reaction, contamination is an issue. Labels now will generally warn when a product is prepared on shared equipment, where wheat products are also prepared. For instance, oatmeal has no gluten, but Quaker oatmeal is processed alongside wheat products and has enough contamination to trigger reactions. Nuts are frequently processed on shared equipment. Once we learned the labeling, it became manageable.
Gluten-free has become a bit of a craze. An unknown percentage of the population, said to be as much as 20%, has (or believes it has) a gluten sensitivity not as severe or as sensitive as celiac disease. And a lot of others have decided to avoid gluten, based on no real science. Many believe it's a weight-loss strategy. The good news is that valid or not, and fad or not, the popularity means many more gluten-free products are becoming available and manufacturers, restaurants, waiters, and suppliers are more knowledgable, all of which is good for the celiacs.
There are many, many gluten substitutes. Some are more successful than others. It depends on the application. Some things are pretty easy, such as sauces where flour or a roux is used as the thickener. A range of thickeners can be used: Potato, corn, or tapioca starch, xanthan gum, even mashed potato flakes.
Baked good are harder, Cakes, especially highly chocolate ones, are not too difficult. Scones and relatively dry products like cookies work pretty well. And you can get creative, using cornbread instead of bread.
There are numerous flour substitutes, from Pamela’s, Glutino, Bob’s Red Mill, and others. I don’t bake much so can’t tell you how they compare. One I want to try is Cup 4 Cup, a supposedly excellent flour sub which came from Thomas Keller’s pastry chef. Keller backs the company. It's hard to find (the day I went to Draeger’s for some, it was sold out). It's available mail order, too, and at high=end places like Williams-Sonoma.
As a general rule, anything that has a stretchy, gum-like or elastic texture, like pizza or bagels, is very hard to do; things without masking flavor like white bread, where wheat is the main flavor, are hard. We have made some GF pie crusts that are surprisingly good.
Pasta is a huge challenge but happily there is a new kid on the block. Previously, the only passable one we found was Tinkyada, which is quite good. But now, Barilla has a GF variety which is so good, I even serve it to non-GF people.
I'll post some GF recipes from time to time. Here's a really great one. These GF chocolate chip cookies are so good, it's hard to tell they are GF except for the tell-tale, grittiness in the after-taste. But it's the only defect and it's minor. And I'm looking at some formulation changes that may improve that aspect.
Alton's Chewy Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 8 ounces unsalted butter
- 11 ounces brown rice flour, approximately 2 cups
- 1 ¼ ounces cornstarch, approximately 1/4 cup
- ½ ounce tapioca flour, approximately 2 tablespoons
- 1 teaspoon xanthan gum
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 ounces sugar, approximately 1/4 cup
- 10 ounces light brown sugar, approximately 1 1/4 cups
- 1 whole egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
- Melt the butter in the microwave* or a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Once melted, pour into the bowl of a stand mixer.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, xantham gum, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
- Add both of the sugars to the bowl with the butter and using the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the whole egg, egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Add the chocolate chips and stir to combine.
- Chill the dough in the refrigerator until firm, approximately 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Shape the dough into 2-ounce balls and place on parchment-lined* baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. (The recipe makes 24 cookies, so you'll do two pans at once, two batches). Bake for 14 minutes, rotating the pans after 7 minutes for even baking. Remove from the oven and cool the cookies on the pans for 2 minutes. Move the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Store cooked cookies in an airtight container.
* Don't skip the parchment paper. These cookies do stick.