Feeding someone with a severe gluten intolerance such as coeliac disease is a lot harder than most people think. Before I was diagnosed, I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding wheat, rye, oats and barley. Sure, those things are in a lot of foods, but once you take those off the ingredients list the rest is easy, yes? Er, no, as it happens. Not at all. Not even close. So this is my attempt to explain how to cook gluten free. It covers all of the traps I have encountered so far, and I hope it will be a good guide for those who wish to boldly invite somebody with coeliac disease over for dinner. Take heart! It’s tricky, but not impossible.
The biggest problem with trying to be gluten free is cross contamination. People with coeliac disease react to a single crumb of gluten, and can be poisoned by as little as a drift of flour dust in the air, or a spoon that was put down on a crumby surface and then used for stirring. Being poisoned with gluten is a little like getting gastro. For some coeliacs it doesn’t have obvious symptoms (but nonetheless damages the intestine), but for others it can lead to full gastro symptoms, which I won’t disturb you with. Suffice to say that there is a reason that “Crumbs!” is now my worst swearword.
There are many traps with cross contamination, especially if you don’t regularly cook gluten free, because if you have ever used a spoon for flour and then put it into your sugar jar, your sugar is no longer gluten free. Your butter, margarine, jam or honey is not gluten free if you ever put the knife from the toast back into the spread. If you are cooking gluten-free pasta and use a spoon that you just stirred wheat-based pasta with, your gluten-free pasta isn’t. See? Nasty, isn’t it?
Another surprise trap is that cooking surfaces like BBQs that have ever been used to cook anything with gluten are contaminated unless they have been very thoroughly cleaned. You can’t deep fry gluten free and glutenous* food in the same oil, as the crumbs will cause cross contamination, so hot chips and the like are usually not gluten free, unless they are cooked in their own special oil. You can’t use the same tongs, or the same spatula. People with coeliac even need a separate, gluten-free toaster that has never been sullied by ordinary bread. One slice of glutenous bread in that toaster renders it unusable for us.
I have lost count of the number of cafes I have seen that sell “gluten free” cakes and slices, but keep them on the same plate as the ordinary cakes, and use the same tongs.
The safest way to be gluten free is to use fresh packets of everything, have all your surfaces thoroughly clean and crumb free, and not cook anything glutenous at the same time (to avoid mixing up your utensils).
Then there’s the hidden gluten in processed foods. Fortunately these days labeling in Australia is very good – if it is derived from wheat, barley, rye or oats, it must be listed on the label. It is usually safest to avoid products labeled “may contain traces of gluten”, although some coeliac sufferers choose to eat those, so it is worth checking with your friends what they prefer.
Products that contain wheat glucose syrup as their only glutenous ingredient are actually safe, as the glucose syrup has been so highly processed that there is no gluten left. Wheat starch is not ok, however, so if you’re not sure, best to avoid it. Most sauces, especially soy sauce, are not gluten free, so either read the label very carefully or avoid them. Sausages and many cold meats like ham and processed meats often contain gluten, so its best to seek out alternatives that are labeled gluten free.
There is gluten in the weirdest places – some cornflour is made from wheat (go figure). And the flavourings in many chips, nuts and other snacky sorts of foods often contains wheat. Obsessive label reading is your friend, or play it safe and only buy things labeled gluten free.
There are gluten free alternatives available in many supermarkets (often in a separate gluten-free section), and some excellent specialty shops about the place – check out your local coeliac society website for details. Anything labeled “gluten free” is safe. For many recipes you can directly substitute gluten free flour for ordinary flour with good results, although it takes a bit of practice to refine the proportions. In general, gluten free flour tends to leave things dry and crumbly, so make your mixtures wetter, and use xanthan gum to help them stick together. (You can often buy Xanthan gum in the health food section (or, as I like to call it, the freaks and weirdos aisle) at the supermarket.)
So that’s gluten free in a rather large nutshell. But wait! There’s more! Stay tuned for my next exciting installment – how to be fructose friendly!
(Please add a comment if you know of any traps I have missed – it would be great for this article to be a continuously evolving, up-to-date resource!)
*Note “glutenous” means containing gluten, as opposed to “glutinous”, which means sticky.
You might also be interested in my “fructose friendly” post.