It’s pretty much impossible to make it through your day without hearing or seeing the words “Gluten-Free.” In a relatively short span of time, this niche lifestyle necessity has become mainstream marketing madness, and the food world has taken this dietary need to heart.
So what is gluten and why do people want to be free of it? Gluten is a protein found in grass type grains like wheat, rye and barley. It helps create structure and elasticity in baked goods and is responsible for the incredible loft in some of your favorite breads and buns. Do you love a big heaping slice of chewy, crispy, bendable, soft pizza? Do you relish the perfect bagel? You can thank gluten.
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes those afflicted by it to become ill when they ingest gluten. Specifically, their small intestine’s delicate villi are compromised by gluten and as such, stop processing vital nutrients they need from foods. Celiacs must adhere to a gluten-free diet in order to survive.
More recently, an awareness of non-celiac gluten sensitive people and wheat allergics have all found relief when they avoid gluten-containing foods. That means that while their small intestine may not be under attack, people who avoid gluten for health are feeling less illness. For even more of the population, the mass marketing around gluten free (GF) foods has created a diet fad.
This isn’t at all bad. A shift in the culture of wheat just means that we have evolved in our culinary needs. Learning to adapt, or adopt new cooking techniques is a slow shift, but the world of gluten-free baking is quickly catching up (but don’t go looking for the perfect San Francisco Sourdough in gluten-free form – it just can’t be done).
What are the options?
The leaps and bounds in the gluten free industry over the last several years are astounding. This relatively unknown diet was set against a bleak backdrop of yucky rice flour breads and minimal baked goods. Now GF has gone mainstream and you are hard pressed to find a store that doesn’t carry gluten-free options. From flours to cakes, to crackers, gluten free is on the table and there are some really deceptively gluten-looking imitators.
Dozens of companies now offer pre-mixed “All-Purpose” baking blend flours at the market. These blends make quick work of using a gluten-free substitute in place of regular wheat flour. Their trick is to use many alternatives, instead of just one, for example rice, chickpea, tapioca, sorghum and coconut flours, rather than just rice flour. Before mass-production of all-purpose blends, the home chef would possibly need to mix 5-6 gluten-free substitutes to really mimic a regular wheat filled dish. Even then, it didn’t often compare. Additions like xanthan gum are often added (but are pre-added to an all-purpose mix), to help stabilize the baked good, something gluten would have done for you.
Today, apart from allergies to wheat substitutes, an all-purpose blend is your best bet for easy gluten-free baking. Big names like Chef Thomas Keller (and Lena Kwak) have hit the market with their own blend Cup-4-Cup. Bob’s Redmill, Pamela’s, King Arthur Flours and even Betty Crocker have all joined the mass advance towards gluten-free. I personally think Bob’s Redmill offers the most usable blend, but to each chef their own.
Keep in mind: Like all food fads, gluten-free has been mismatched as a diet lifestyle. Eating gluten free will not make you skinny! If you take out one carbohydrate (wheat) and replace it with another (rice, tapioca, sorghum), you are still heavy in the carbs. Do explore gluten-free options if you, like millions of other people, feel relief from symptoms like gas, bloating and irritability – what could it hurt? But, if what you are looking for is overall health, consider more veggies, not more ways to make pizza…