A growing number of Americans have become aware that they suffer from some level of gluten-sensitivity, a condition that can seriously impact a person’s health and perhaps even force them to turn to gluten-free baking.
Gluten-sensitivity encompasses a wide range of conditions, from a mild wheat allergy to celiac disease. Some gluten-sensitive people are seemingly asymptomatic. For others, avoiding gluten can be a case of life and death. Rose O’Carroll, owner of Rose’s Wheat-Free Bakery and Café in Evanston, Illinois, says her mother was confined to a wheelchair before being diagnosed with celiac disease. Thomas Mercer, chief operating officer for the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle, tells of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease-like symptoms who became completely lucid after gluten was eliminated from her diet.
Gluten is a mainstay in the American diet. Found in grass-related grains, such as wheat, rye and barley, it shows up in much of the processed food sold in the United States. And some crops, like corn and oats, can be contaminated with gluten because they are grown or processed near wheat. Altering your diet to avoid gluten may seem overwhelming.
Luckily, there are many staples still available for gluten-free baking. Also, food manufacturers and restaurant owners have learned there’s money to be made catering to the gluten-free market. And with a little practice and some out-of-the-box thinking, gluten-sensitive cooks can continue to enjoy their favorite baked goods.
Below are seven ingredients that come in handy in gluten-free baking. All can be found at your local supermarket or natural food store.
There’s a reason why this grain is a staple throughout much of the world. If you’ve only eaten instant white rice, try brown basmati rice for a richer flavor.
Rice is easy to digest and good for those with multiple food allergies; that’s why it’s often a baby’s first grain. It also has a stickiness factor that makes it popular with wheat-free noodle manufacturers. Rice is versatile enough to be used for all three meals, and it is easy to pair with vegetables, beans and seafood.
For an easy treat, make rice pudding. Cook brown rice, then cover with milk or soy milk and let sit overnight. Add raisins, a cinnamon stick and a long dash of maple syrup. Heat up and let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring and adding milk as needed. It’s a good dish for breakfast or dessert.
While quinoa once was considered sacred in the Incan empire, Western cuisine only recently has embraced this wonderful food.
For more than 5,000 years, quinoa was treasured and cultivated by Incans, both for its ability to thrive in high altitudes and for its high energy content. Spaniards suppressed quinoa cultivation, but it escaped the conquistadors’ swords and continued to grow wild in the Bolivian mountains.
Good thing, too, as it is a perfect protein. Technically a seed, quinoa usually outstrips wheat and rice in protein content, topping out at 22 percent. It also is a complete protein, meaning quinoa doesn’t need to be paired with other foods to have its protein accessible to your body.
It’s best to wash quinoa in a strainer to remove the bitter outer coating. It has a nutty flavor that makes it a welcome addition to vegetables, but the same flavor makes it a bit strange as a substitute for pasta with any kind of tomato sauce.
Some dancers I know love to start their day with a bowl of quinoa and toasted walnuts drizzled with maple syrup. It keeps them moving all morning.
Amaranth is another nutritional powerhouse that came from pre-colonial times, this time thanks to the Aztecs. Suppressed by the Spanish for its use in human sacrifice ceremonies, amaranth now is valued for both its high nutritional content and its ability to grow on marginal land.
Technically an herb, amaranth doesn’t match the protein content of most quinoa, but it still packs a punch that outperforms wheat and rice. It also tops wheat in iron and fiber, and has three times the calcium level of milk per serving.
Amaranth has a stickiness factor that can make it good for casseroles and in baked goods. However, overcooking can make for a gluey mess. Like quinoa, it’s versatile enough for most vegetable and meat dishes.
Amaranth enthusiasts like to pop it like popcorn. Use a hot skillet without any oil. Pour a small amount of amaranth in the pan, no more than to cover the bottom. Some folks cover it with a lid.
Amaranth pops quickly, so don’t walk away or it will blacken. Combine with herbs, butter, sweetener, or all three.
Millet makes good bird seed, and it can find a home in your kitchen, too.
Millet challenges rice’s dominance in parts of China and is one of the most important grains in the world.
It’s prized because it’s drought-resistant, easy to store and requires little input to grow.
Want proof? Take a look at the crabgrass that pops up in manicured lawns. Millet at work.
Millet’s nutritional content isn’t as high as that of quinoa, but it still outperforms wheat. It’s high in protein and amino acids and seems to have some cancer-fighting properties.
Millet has a nutty flavor and can add a nice crunch to baked goods, such as cookies or bars.
To prepare, wash first. Some cooks prefer to toast it before using in baked goods. It’s also good in puddings and sauces.
It can be cooked until creamy. To add some nutritional kick to a favorite comfort food, some millet enthusiasts add it to mashed potatoes.
Egg, xanthan gum, guar gum, potato starch, tapioca flour and other binders
Gluten is a handy thing for binding your baked goods together (see “How Bread Works,” Page 10). That’s one of the reasons wheat rules in the bakery business. Try to make bread without a gluten replacement, and your results may fall flat of your expectations.
Gluten-free bakers have learned to substitute starches, gums and some flours for gluten to create a glutenlike effect in their baked goods. It’s not an apples-to-apples swap, but it seems to do the trick.
Egg is a natural binder and leavening agent, if you’re not vegan. Xanthan gum is a popular binder with an added bonus of helping to prevent tooth decay. If you don’t have potato starch handy, you can grate a potato in a pinch and let it drain over a bowl. Pour off the liquid. What remains is the starch.
Using binders is an imprecise science, and most gluten-free bakers say they use a combination of xanthan gum and other binders. If you’re starting out, consult a gluten-free cookbook until you get the hang of it. As one gluten-free baker said, while combining the ingredients may seem easy, it’s the key to gluten-free baking technique.
Many people grew up believing wheat is the only type of flour. Actually, you can make flour out of almost anything. Rice, potato, soy, millet, bean … the possibilities are endless.
Again, gluten-free bakers tend to mix and match their flours. Your best bet is to follow a cookbook until you get a feel for what works.
Rice flour tends to add a fun crunch to cookies and cakes. Garbanzo bean flour makes a nice approximate to wheat. Bean flour, when combined with other flours, can help make a complete protein out of your baked good.
Most natural food stores will carry at least five or six of the flours that are alternatives for wheat.
A gluten-free baking mix (preferably brownie)
OK, so this isn’t indispensable, but you should take time to treat yourself with something easy as you adapt to a gluten-free lifestyle. Otherwise, it might be easy to give up.
Natural food stores usually have more than one gluten-free baking mix. Many supermarkets and natural food stores also carry gluten-free flour mixes. You also can find such mixes online.
Gluten-free baking is not a life sentence to bland food. Instead, it can be a chance to improve your diet and experiment with some wonderful dishes. Good luck!