Gluten-Free in the Kitchen.
If you have to be gluten-free for any reason, then you know how tough it can be to feel confident in the kitchen. Maybe you’re not sure where to go for recipes, or what gluten-free products to stock your pantry with, or maybe you’re nervous about cross-contamination. Trust me, I hear you. I was that newly diagnosed Celiac only eating prepackaged gluten-free foods and raw vegetables because I had no idea what I was doing. And being a dietitian now, I know that was so not healthy for too many reasons, and definitely not enjoyable (especially because the GF bread back then was pure cardboard. Still traumatized).
There are so many great resources out there now for finding creativity in gluten-free cooking, so it’s easier to be gluten-free now and still enjoy cooking while making sure you’re getting adequate nutrition. Here are my top tips for for being gluten-free in the kitchen (and yes, it includes making dessert. Always).
1. Experiment with gluten-free grains.
“But gluten-free means grain-free, right?” No way! And it definitely doesn’t mean carb-free either (more on that in another blog post). There are so many excellent gluten-free grains out there for you to try that make cooking while gluten-free a lot more interesting. I’ve had Celiac disease for over 10 years and there’s several types on this list that I haven’t tried (or even heard of tbh). It’s not all about the brown rice and quinoa. You can have a diverse diet when it comes to grains, and I definitely encourage you to do so, both for your health and sanity. Below is a great list of fiber-rich gluten-free grains and plant-based foods for you to find, try, and hopefully love:
Garbanzo beans and Garbanzo bean flour
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils… go ahead and get your fiber on)
Nut flour (almond, hazelnut, coconut, peanut, etc.)
Oats and Oat Flour*
Peas and pea flour
Potatoes, potato starch, and potato flour
Rice and Rice flours
Yucca (have you had yucca fries?? So, so good.)
*Oats are a little more controversial. Some organizations state that oats contain a protein called avenin, which is similar to gluten, but most organizations report it is safe to eat oats. This is mirrored in the research, which shows that people with Celiac disease are able to tolerate oats just fine as long as they are certified gluten-free and do not come from a facility that may also handle wheat, barley, or rye for cross-contamination reasons.
Because non-gluten free foods like breads, cereals, and flours are rich in certain vitamins and minerals, those that are gluten-free need to make sure that they consume these nutrients in adequate amounts from other sources. I’m talking about B-vitamins (including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), as well as iron. Eliminating these foods also means eliminating a lot of fiber, so eating a good amount of gluten-free whole grains, as well as legumes, fruits, and vegetables, is going to be important in making sure a gluten-free diet still has enough fiber. You can also get your B-vitamins from non-grain sources, such as protein (fish, chicken, etc.), dairy and vegan dairy that’s been fortified, legumes, and dark leafy green vegetables.
Gluten-free cooking, and especially baking, is all about the right substitutions. Sometimes recipes that have a gluten-containing flour as the main ingredient can be tricky to make gluten-free, but it can be done! Experimenting is one way to find out what works, but I also love scouring Pinterest for good gluten-free recipes, or going on my favorite GF recipe websites like Against All Grain (ask me for my other recommendations!). The cooking time may also vary depending on what flour you use, so again, experimenting is great, but using a gluten-free recipe from the start is definitely easiest (and you know I like to make things easy because your girl over here is not a chef).
I would also highly recommend finding great pre-packaged gluten-free baking products that you love. Here are my recommendations:
Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour: This 1 to 1 Baking Flour from Bob’s Red Mill is a lifesaver for easy substitutions from a gluten-containing recipe.
Gluten-Free Bread Mixes: There are a lot of good ones out there, but I love the taste and texture of the Simple Mills Artisan Bread Mix. I like to make little buns with it for tiny egg salad sliders.
Gluten-Free Bean and Starch Flours: These can really make cooking more interesting and allow you to get certain textures that a lot of gluten-free products just don’t have. Check out the selections from Namaste Foods and Bob’s Red Mill.
A great Gluten-Free Dessert (if you have a sweet tooth): This is a must for me to be ok with being gluten-free. I love a good sweet, and these blondies from Namaste Foods are my absolute favorite.
Oh, and by the way: A lot of the flours, starches, and others listed above have shorter shelf lives, so storing them in the freezer can be a helpful way to extend that!
Because gluten is the key to allowing baked goods to essentially become inflated and rise during cooking, gluten-free baked goods need something to replace the gluten to achieve as similar a product as possible. That’s why you may see things like chia seed, psyllium husk, flax meal, xanthan gum, or guar gum in a product or called for in a recipe. Again, these things are necessary to try to achieve the same texture as a gluten-containing product. On that note, I would recommend to store GF baked foods at room temperature if possible (or freeze if necessary), because they don’t tend to stay as well in the refrigerator.
2. Get comfortable reading labels.
I’m not going to lie, if you’re gluten-free or have other food allergies, intolerances, or restrictions, it’s really important that you know how to read food labels so you can avoid any offending foods. Gluten is especially tricky because it can sneakily show up in strange ingredients, which is something I often see most often in these foods:
Anything malted: malted flavoring, syrup, extract, beverages, milk, vinegar, etc.
Brown rice syrup
Candy (especially chewy candies)
Frozen french fries and potato products
Gravies, sauces, dressings, and other condiments
Chips, especially multi-grain or seasoned tortilla or potato chips
Seitan and some tempeh
Soy sauce (go for Tamari!) and other similar sauces
Spice and seasoning mixes
Take extra care to watch for these words on ingredient labels if you’re using these foods in your kitchen. Some of these may be derived from wheat, but they also may be from corn or another GF source. The label is supposed to denote with the phrase “contains wheat” on the label or in the ingredient list, but this may not be there if the product hasn’t been strictly regulated or certified. In other words, just be careful with these:
Maltodextrin and dextrin
Modified food starch
These always contain gluten: Certain flours (bromated, durum, enriched, farina, graham, phosphated, plain, self-rising, semolina, or white/wheat), barley, and rye
Don’t forget to check your supplement and medication labels too!
3. Avoid cross-contamination.
Whether you’re cooking gluten-free for yourself or a family member, it’s important to make sure your work station (or your food in the pantry and fridge, for that matter) doesn’t come in contact with gluten-containing foods. Depending on how severe your allergy or intolerance is, you may want to have a separate cabinet, cooking utensils, and entire workstation dedicated to that gluten-free life. The toaster is one of the main kitchen gadgets I worry about when talking about preventing cross-contamination. All those crumbs give me anxiety!
If you’re helping a family member or loved one follow a strict gluten-free diet, it’s really important to have patience. Eating can be a scary occasion for them even at home because every time is an opportunity to get sick. So being as careful as possible, letting them watch your prepare their food (even if it’s like a hawk, like I do), listening to their concerns, and trying your very best will always put them at ease.
This also goes for what you purchase in the grocery store. I would definitely avoid buying GF items in bulk, especially GF flours that are right next to flours that contain gluten. That stuff flies and can definitely contaminate the product you’re buying.
4. What about eating in restaurants?
Restaurants can also be difficult. My best advice is to review the menu beforehand to make sure you have gluten-free options, and consider calling the restaurant to make sure the staff is knowledgeable and that the kitchen can accommodate you. Don’t take it personally if they can’t, it’s much better for both of you if they are honest and upfront to avoid you getting sick. Trust me, I’ve been to plenty of restaurants that said they could “definitely” accommodate a gluten-free diner, only to find out that the staff really didn’t know what gluten even was. Needless to say, I didn’t feel confident that my meal would be free of gluten, which makes a very uncomfortable and frustrating dining experience. Using services like Yelp and other restaurant review databases can be a good way to scan the reviews of other gluten-free diners to see what their experiences were like. When I do this, I’m less looking for their reviews of how things tasted and more so whether or not their server was knowledgeable and their meal was actually GF.
Although these tips are helpful, I know that it can still be hard to find that confidence in the kitchen if you’re gluten-free or have other food allergies, intolerances, or restrictions. The best advice I can give is to experiment, take the pressure off, and have fun with it. Finding someone to try recipes with, or someone who know what they’re doing, is also a great place to start. I personally have to follow gluten-free recipes to a T or else they’ll come out as some sort of crazy mess, and that’s ok! Whatever you can do to get comfortable with food again is the goal here.
Need help deciphering the foreign language that is sometimes food labels, or help reviewing a menu for safe choices? Reach out to a Registered Dietitian to help you… we’re well-trained.