Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to be Gluten-Free Sensitive

I got an email this week from Sara (hi Sara!) asking if I had any advise for someone who had friends who are gluten-free and wanted to be sensitive to that.

Oh, honey. You're awesome.

For starters, when you bring a pre-packaged gluten-free item to share on playdates, do not open the packaging until you get there (even drinks). That will be really helpful to keep down any contamination. Also, only purchase items that are not manufactured in the same plant as wheat. Considering how easy cross-contamination is, I cannot believe that these foods are gluten-free and people still get sick from them (I speak from experience).

As for cooking at home, that's a little more tricky.

Personally, I keep a gluten-free home. Last night my parents came to watch the boys (so we could go to Back to School Night at Griffin's school, where children are not welcomed -- that's a whole complaining post unto itself as they could at least name it to not sound child-friendly) and they brought takeout over to eat for dinner. With big wheat-y buns. I tried to convince them to eat outside but they weren't having that -- so they rolled paper towels all over my table and ate over them. And then I mopped after they left. Wheat ::shudder:: is not allowed here.

But, my home is the only home I know of that's gluten-free. When we visit family in Michigan I cook - and bake - in a home that has wheat, in a kitchen where wheat is served and prepared for every meal while we're there.

I have quite a few "rules" when I'm there (luckily, I have very understanding in-laws who want us all to stay healthy during our visits). One, is the the kitchen is really clean. Before I make anything - even a drink - I wipe everything down with cleaner and hot water. If I'm doing any mixing, I clean the black splash and under the cabinets as well.

When I cook something, I run all the dishes I need through the dishwasher before I cook with them (even if they were already "clean" - I've found traces of wheat flour in the cabinets, and I figure better safe than sorry). If you don't have a dishwasher, put on some gloves and re-wash what you need with super-hot water and soap. Gluten is one of the hardest proteins to denature. The hotter you can get dishes while cleaning, the better.

If you are using a hand-held or table standing mixer, make sure is is completely clean before using it. If it has anything dried or crusty on it, it's not safe and will contaminate what you're making.

Keep your own stash of gluten-free baking necessities and keep them separate to insure they do not get contaminated with wheat. This is such a pain, I'm sorry, but really you should not bake with same sugars, vanilla, spices, baking soda, baking powder, cornstarch or variety of flours (corn flour, for cornbread, etc) unless you open a new package for gluten-free baking and then use it for "regular" baking only afterwards. If you want to continue to use it for gluten-free purposes, put it in an air-proof container (or two air proof containers, one inside another) and label it all as gluten-free only. And I really want to say the same goes for milk, butter (not the whole box, just the bars), sour cream, yogurt, etc - start with an closed container for gluten-free cooking. When working with salt, take it straight of the big package, not what you use everyday.

And, of course, the items you use for gluten-free baking needs to be gluten-free and not processed in a plant that processes wheat. I've gotten sick from purchasing brown rice flour from a company that also manufactures a lot of wheat products - I'll never make that mistake again.

This is a good time to mention xantham gum, which is very important to gluten-free baking.

Gluten is a protein, a glue if you will. When you bake with wheat, the gluten is what helps make the final product hold it's shape. Baking soda and baking powder help it to rise, but the gluten is what makes it hold that shape once it's cooled.

Gluten-free baking, especially when using my gluten-free mix, is a very low-protein way of baking. Thus, no glue. No way to hold its shape. Xantham gum is very necessary because it works in the manner the glutens work - it helps it hold its shape. If the xantham gum is left out of a dish, it will collapse. If too much is used, it will also collapse. It's a very fine science.

Xantham gum is sold in bags that hold about 16 ounces - which is a lot. It will need to be decanted into it's own air tight container to keep it fresh. It takes me about a year to go through that much and I bake all the time, and it often goes stale before I've used it all. If something isn't baking right it's most likely your xantham gum, baking powder and/or baking soda has gone stale.

And here's my little hint: use one teaspoon of xantham gum for every cup of gluten-free flour in a baking dish like muffins, cakes and cupcakes; use half-a-teaspoon of xantham gum for every cup of gluten-free flour in baking dishes like cookies and brownies.

So if you have three cups of gluten-free flour in a cake recipe, you'll use one tablespoon of xantham gum (which equals three teaspoons). If you're making a cookie recipe that calls for one and a half cups flour, use 3/4 of a teaspoon of xantham gum.

The only other thing to touch on, really, is what contains gluten and what doesn't. The common idea is gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Oats are also avoided due to the high level of wheat-oat contamination in the fields and the processing plants. But, other grains are being discovered to contain similar glutens such as spelt and quinoa - it really depends on each individual's tolerance.

But the amount of chemicals and foodstuffs made from wheat, rye, barley and oats and astronomical. Gluten can be found in everything from ice creams, ketchup and hair products to yogurt, soy sauce, butter and soft drinks. Hidden glutens include natural flavors, mono and diglycerides, MSG, rice syrup, anything malted, yeast, vegetable shortenings, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), maltodextrin, maltose, food starch and spices -- and the list continues. Personally, I avoid anything chemically that I do not know exactly what it's from. Period.

If you do not have a gluten-free person in your home, I really, honestly recommend you only purchase items that are labeled gluten-free or are additive-free for sharing with your gluten-free friends. Read labels every time you buy something that should be gluten-free, because manufacturing moves and ingredients change.

And when in doubt, ask an expert - your friend who is gluten-free will definitely be able to tell you if she's comfortable with something or not. Or when in doubt, you can always ask me. I try to stay on top of the chemicals and the legislation.

I hope this helps! Happy baking!