Monday, October 18, 2010

Baking Gluten-free Even Though I Don't Have To

While I was at the International Food Blogger Conference in Seattle in August I met Diane Eblin. She runs the blog The W.H.O.L.E. Gang, and she came up with a wonderful idea to get bloggers together in honor of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and have our own 30 Day Food Revolution. Last week I was a guest blogger on her site. Today I reprint that post on my own site in case you missed it.


I am lucky enough to not have any food allergies. I can eat what I want. That’s not to say I like everything. I hate olives, mushrooms, eggplant, okra, and raw tomatoes. But really, it boils down to being blessed that I can always find something I want to eat on any menu.

Not so for people who suffer from celiac disease. Those are the gluten-free folks who have to stay away from wheat products because their digestive system is unable to break down the protein, causing them incredible discomfort. There are several other grains and foods that have gluten, but for purposes of the discussion here we are going to think in terms of wheat.

For those who are unfamiliar with the gluten in their world, a short lesson. Gluten is derived from the Latin word for “glue”. It is a form of protein that exists in many grains including wheat, rye, and barley. It’s what gives pizza dough its stretchiness, elasticity to doughs, and chewiness to bagels. Without it many baked goods would simply crumble apart.

As I learned more about gluten-free cooking and baking I began to think.  I was amazed at all the different grains that were used in gluten-free baking to substitute for regular wheat flour. You can’t simply replace wheat flour with rice flour. Gluten-free baking requires a mixture of flours and then xanthan gum, which acts as the glue in place of the gluten. For instance, this is the blend I have been using lately:

1 1/2 c rice flour
1 c sorghum flour
3/4 c tapioca flour
3/4 c potato starch

As I learned more about the different flours out there it occurred to me – Why is America so wheat-centric?

I am really into history and cultures and so I was suddenly thinking about how certain grains have been used for millennia by other cultures and yet we Americans are all about wheat. Think about it. The Inca used quinoa in Peru, rice has been used throughout Asia, and amaranth was used by the Aztecs and throughout ancient India and Africa. Flours can be and have been made out of tapioca, potato, nuts, corn, chickpeas and more. If you go to some of the best patisseries in Europe you’ll find that the best cakes and pastries are made from nut flours and without any wheat flour at all.

Here in the United States almost all of our baked goods are made with wheat. There are a lot of reasons that led us down this wheat-centric path, such as improvements in wheat varieties, farming methods, government subsidies and corporate controls over farms, but I’m not going to go into that. Suffice it to say, wheat is our dominant grain.

I came to a decision. I will bake gluten-free in my own home. After all, I can get my fill of gluten everywhere outside my house. Any restaurant I go to or snack food I grab while at work or traveling will have gluten. Any time I order a pizza, have a sandwich, or a piece of coworker’s birthday cake there will be gluten. So in my home – gluten-free baking.

You know what? It’s not a big deal. Typically you will find no discernible difference taste-wise from regular baked goods. The difference with gluten-free goods is often just in the texture. Without the gluten some gluten-free baked goods will just crumble. But you will find that many things should be crumbly, like shortbread, and other foods compensate through other ingredients, like bananas in banana bread.

Now I bring my gluten-free items to work and wait for everyone to enjoy them before I announce, “that was gluten-free”. My coworkers are amazed and are learning to not be afraid of gluten-free baked goods.

To try some GF recipes yourself, click on the "gluten-free" tag in the topic cloud on the left.
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