Switzerland: Mountaintop Rösti with Ham, Tomatoes and Fried Egg

By Saturday, August 10, 2013 Permalink 0

Switzerland: Mountaintop Rösti with Ham, Tomatoes and Fried Egg

by Jenn Oliver

A photo essay with recipe

Matterhorn on the Riffelsee

Sometimes we need to let go of the world around us, our daily cares, issues that cause stress, and get away for a few days – relax, recollect, and come back ready to face the world with new resolve and vigor.  This Summer my husband and I have been doing just that, in a series of short little trips. Last weekend, we went to the top of the world (well, it felt like it to us) to slip away for three beautifully brisk and sunny days in Zermatt. It was majestic, incredible, awe-inspiring, and magical.  It was pure escapism as we explored the fantasy-like region around Zermatt and the Matterhorn, and all of our day to day cares floated with the clouds that sailed on past the mountaintops. No worries, no stresses, nothing but pure meditative existence, scenery, and a sense of childlike exploration. What more can one want in a holiday?

Gluten-Free Recipe Conversions – Strategies for Substitutions

By Friday, August 9, 2013 Permalink 0

Jenn Oliver, Culinary Chemist, The Rambling EpicureCulinary Chemistry: Gluten-Free Recipe Conversions – Strategies for Substitutions

by Jenn Oliver

From the archives

When my husband and I first started cooking gluten free in our kitchen, we mainly focused on one type of meal — those that were naturally gluten free.

The naturally gluten-free foods were the easiest to cook from scratch because they required no substitutions at all — risottos, fresh fruit, vegetables, custards & puddings, stir fry, roasted potatoes, homemade “chips”, salads, fresh steamed fish, bean stews, meringues, and even a macaron attempt or two. As a beginner to the gluten-free world nearly five years ago, I was thrilled with how many foods we could make without ever having to worry about an ingredient on a package label that could be harmful to my husband’s health.  As long as we cooked from entirely fresh ingredients and avoided anything that came in a package or required flour, we were fine — and what a great variety we had to choose from!

But it didn’t take long before my husband would say, “You know, I really miss pizza,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a thick creamy gravy to go on mashed potatoes sometime?” It was inevitable, really, that shunning all things flour-related was bound to cause waxing nostalgia for the meals we no longer ate. While it was great to get our feet wet by starting with the easy gluten-free meals that didn’t require any substitutions or extra thought, it seemed wrong to deprive ourselves completely of other foods that we enjoyed.

I set out on a mission of sorts to figure out how to convert our favorite foods to gluten free, where I found a veritable “Wild West” frontier land when it came to recipes — myriad flour blends and formulas either in packages on grocery store shelves or listed in books, none of which explained how they came to be or why they worked, often calling for expensive and elusive ingredients. It all seemed like some esoteric recipe voodoo.

I decided instead to create my own blends, first categorizing the various alternative flours and ingredients by texture and coarseness, and then quickly realizing that while those aspects do play a role in the end product, the key factor was in fact not the texture, but the starch, protein, and fat content, as these are the things that determine most how a flour will behave in a recipe. I can’t say I get a perfect product every single time on the first try, but the turning point in my success was when I started looking into exactly what I was replacing with my gluten-free flour blends.

Sometimes it really is the gluten that needs to be emulated, such as in a bread recipe, where the developed network of gluten in conventional breads actively works to trap the air pockets made by the yeast, allowing the bread to rise. Techniques for mimicking this include adding other leavening agents to help account for the fact that some of the air will indeed escape before the bread is done, or adding binding agents to help trap the air that is formed — and maybe even a combination of both of these techniques.

Often this is why one sees gluten-free recipes that include extra eggs, or gelling agents like ground flax or chia seeds, manufactured gums, or incorporation of starches into the GF blend, such as tapioca or arrowroot. Once we understand why these ingredients exist in a gluten-free recipe, we can better judge how to make substitutions to fit our needs – for example, don’t have ground chia seeds? Maybe adding an egg in its place will do the trick. The bread fell flat a bit and was too dense? We now have options. We consider the properties of the ingredients we are using, and this information can be used as tools for determining how to logically go about changing our recipes to improve them.

Other recipes that conventionally use flour don’t actually care about the gluten at all. Take, for example, a roux, essentially made up of a flour and a fat that are cooked together and then used as a thickening agent in soups and stews, such as gumbo. In the case of roux, there’s no elasticity needed, and no air to be trapped – all we are looking for is thickening, which occurs thanks to the starch components within wheat flour. This is great news for gluten-free cooks; there are lots of starchy gluten-free ingredients at our disposal that we can use to replace conventional wheat flour!

All-purpose wheat flour contains, along with gluten, a fair amount of starch. So to create a 1:1 substitution (by weight of course), one would just need to come up with a gluten-free flour blend that is also mostly (but not all) starch. This can be done either by using flours with similar starch content to wheat flour, or by supplementing the GF blend with a pure starch (cornstarch, tapioca, arrowroot, potato, glutinous rice flour, etc.). Each type of starch differs slightly in its chemistry, but for the most part they all have gelling and viscosity properties – i.e. they help food thicken and stick together. In something like our roux example, it’s not going to matter a whole lot what kind of starches we use, because the only aspect of the starch we are calling upon in this case is its thickening power.

Obviously, for baking, things get a little more complicated, but I’m convinced the overall strategy remains the same. The first thing I ask myself when converting a recipe is, “what in conventional wheat flour is doing the work? What traits do I need to make sure I replace with my gluten-free mix?” And then we can use our knowledge about the various gluten-free ingredients available to reproduce those properties. Actually, I think once one gets a bit more comfortable with gluten-free substitutions, there is even more freedom and more possibilities for “customizing” than when working with conventional all-purpose wheat flour. This is because one has the ability to pick and choose from amongst so many great ingredients — not just for certain properties, but also for flavors. For example, I often incorporate chestnut flour, because I just love the earthy rustic qualities it lends to baked goods.

Gluten-free substitutions don’t have to involve some mysterious wizardry in order to have success. Sometimes it’s just a bit of recipe tweaking, and other times, a little knowledge about the science behind why a recipe works goes a long way.


Culinary Chemistry: The Truth about Soy Sauce and Gluten Content

By Tuesday, July 23, 2013 Permalink 0

Food writer, Culinary Chemistry, The Rambling Epicure

Culinary Chemistry: The Truth about Soy Sauce and Gluten Content

by Jenn Oliver

From the archives

Soy Sauce and Umami: Now a Staple in Western Cuisine

Soy sauce has been around as a staple condiment in Asian cuisine for thousands of years, used for flavoring all manner of dishes and foods. It’s prized for the “umami” character it gives to the overall taste of a dish, and can have a wide range of subtle notes beyond the obvious saltiness.






For example, Japanese tamari is often wheat free (I stress, not always). Still, most of the soy sauces available on store shelves contain wheat. While there is some debate as to exactly how much gluten from wheat survives the fermentation and processing, the Celiac Disease Foundation Foundation does list soy sauce as a food that may contain gluten and needs to be verified. The Mayo Clinic also states that soy sauce should be avoided unless otherwise labeled. There is also considerable anecdotal evidence of experiences of people being “glutened” by soy sauce (my husband included). Therefore, for those who must eat gluten free, soy sauce immediately becomes a food that requires attention and is a complicated topic.

Culinary Chemistry: On the Technique of Brining

By Tuesday, November 13, 2012 Permalink 0

Culinary Chemistry: On the Technique of Brining

by Jenn Oliver

Hello and welcome to the first post of Culinary Chemistry with Jenn! I am Jenn, your resident scientist with a gluten-free husband who is curious about all things related to the how and why of cooking.  Today, we’re going to talk about brining, but each post will explore a different technique or phenomenon related to cooking/baking in the kitchen. Do you have questions or are curious about a particular aspect in the kitchen? Feel free to send me an email at jennoliver@theramblingepicure.com or on our online chat to the right of the screen, or join our Community and follow the Culinary Chemistry group and forum.

This past holiday season, families and friends gathered to share in their holiday traditions of a meal together — many of which surely included an oven-baked roast. Mine certainly did, as my husband and I celebrated our first Christmas abroad, a cozy romantic weekend together, marking our one-year anniversary since arriving to Switzerland, our current home. But just because the holidays are over doesn’t mean you have to swear off making roasts until next winter’s festivities roll around.

Spices for pork roast brine.














Part 3: What is Fermentation?

By Monday, July 30, 2012 Permalink 0

“Fermentation is one of the oldest and simplest means of preserving foods. It requires no particular kind of climate, no cooking, and so no expenditure of fuel: just a container, which can be a mere hole in the ground, and perhaps some salt or seawater,” quoted from the ever-insightful Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

On Food and Cooking

Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”









The third article in this mini-series is going to be scientific and a little bit nerdy. Get ready to learn the nitty-gritty behind fermentation.

Fermentation begins in the vegetable or fruit. The naturally-occurring microbes in the food proliferate under the right conditions – namely, under the lack of air. At the same time, these beneficial microbes suppress the growth of harmful microbes that rot the fruit or vegetable. The good microbes metabolize the plant’s sugars and carbohydrates before the bad microbes get a chance. In a way, fermentation is a “controlled-rotting” process: the difference between sauerkraut and rotting cabbage is which microbes are allowed to grow.

When protected from air, these microbes get to work producing lactic acid, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds and nutrients.

Ferments can be made by crushing the vegetables or fruit until enough liquid is let out, ensuring that the vegetables are covered and protected from the air. Usually, though, the vegetables need a little bit of help: salt draws out the liquids, sugars, and other nutrients, and so ferments are often dry-salted or submerged in a salt-and-water brine before being stored in a covered container.

Crushing: wine is also a form of fermentation

As the plants ferment, much of the material remains intact, hence crunchy kimchi and sauerkraut as opposed to being mushy or slimy (two problems which usually signify contact with air; check out a great troubleshooting link). As the vegetables ferment, not only do they retain their vitamins, but additional nutrients are formed in the process: namely Vitamin B, folate, and the production of enzymes. New flavors and aromas begin to develop, and continue to age and change for as long as you ferment your food.

The salt concentration of the brine and the temperature during fermentation are the two main components that determine which beneficial plant microbes flourish and, consequently, the flavors and aromas that result. Vegetables with a low-salt brine and fermentation under low temperatures will produce mild but complex flavors with Leuconostoc mesenteroides. Fermentation done in high temperatures will produce almost exclusively lactic acid bacteria, from the Lactobacillus plantarum microbe. Also, fermentations undergo a dual process: they produce the first microbe, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, which is then taken over by Lactobacillus plantarum during the second stage of fermentation.

Yummy Umami: The 6th Basic Taste?

By Thursday, April 26, 2012 Permalink 0

Yummy Umami: The 6th Basic Taste?

by Diana Zahuranec

Quick, name the 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty…and the fifth one is umami. Umami is the word that describes the savory taste of food, or perhaps “meatiness” of a food. It is the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. The Japanese singled out this flavor in the early 1900s thanks to a chemistry professor from the Imperial University of Tokyo, Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the glutamic acid compound C5H9NO4. Glutamic acid is found in both free and bound forms. The free form, which is formed when the protein molecule breaks down and releases glutamic acid, is the one we taste. “Umami” means in Japanese, literally, deliciousness.

Kikunae Ikeda, the Chemist who singled out MSG

A few years ago, I remember there was some hype that spread virally through America’s highly-informed (and often misinformed) consumer culture about MSG.

What is this lethal-sounding additive in the foods we eat, so cleverly covered up by only using three letters to trick us when we know better? It was soon known that MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an ingredient added to most processed foods in order to enhance their flavors. In the media, MSG was linked to many ills, including migraines, nausea, and cancer, among others.

Wariness and fear of MSG actually began in the 1970s, after Dr. Ho Man Kwok wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that he was experiencing all sorts of uncomfortable after-effects from a Chinese dinner, including numbness, weakness, and palpitations. He did not specifically link his symptoms to MSG, but a year later a study was done on baby mice by injecting high dosages of MSG (up to 4 grams per kilogram of body weight) and observing the brain lesions the mice suffered afterwards. Thus was born Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS). Studies, anecdotes, and reports were quick to follow suit afterwards, claiming that MSG was linked to all sorts of ills. Some prominent nutritionists today are convinced that added MSG is harmful, especially for children.

Culinary Chemistry: Tempered Chocolate for Valentine’s

By Tuesday, February 14, 2012 Permalink 0

by Jenn Oliver

I love to make food creations as gifts for holidays, because I communicate through food (definitely better than through words). With words I find myself trying to be very precise, searching rather unsuccessfully for the most succinct way to express a thought. However, with cooking, I let loose a little more – I find the constraints and structures of recipes to actually encourage a bit of play. It’s one of the reasons why I have come to love gluten-free cooking, because the restriction in effect serves as an impetus for ingenuity; so amidst all of the rules surrounding the preparation of food, I find the freedom to express myself. Today, I tempered chocolate to tell my husband, “I love you” for Valentine’s.

Tempering chocolate is one of those techniques that is all about rules. It takes care, patience, and most of all, constant attention. A bit of a hassle if you don’t have a temperature controlled device – but, if dipping fruit or other chocolaty Valentine’s confections, there are definitely some advantages to using tempered chocolate. For one, the melting point of the chocolate is higher, so it doesn’t melt as easily, making it less messy to eat. Tempered chocolate is also prettier. It has a more glossy sheen to it, and snaps a bit when you break it apart. Besides aesthetics, tempered chocolate is less likely to bloom – the process where fat rises to the surface giving chocolate unattractive gray splotches.

Culinary Chemistry: 10 Gluten-Free Tips for the Holiday Meals

By Thursday, December 15, 2011 Permalink 0

Culinary Chemistry: 10 Gluten-Free Tips for the Holiday Meals

by Jenn Oliver

The upcoming festivities are all about sharing, seeing friends and family, creating new memories and reliving old ones. It’s a time of joy, inspiration, goodwill, and laughter that I look forward to each year, while looking ahead to the New Year and the fun and exciting experiences the coming seasons will bring. We stroll around the Christmas markets tasting chocolate, nougat, mulled wine, and roasted chestnuts, flavors and delights not just for the taste buds but all five senses — and has become something I look forward to at this time every year.

But for some — such as those who are gluten intolerant or celiac — holiday festivities can bring about a certain anxiety, a stress caused by imposing dietary restrictions on those doing the cooking, or fear of gluten contamination from the grand holiday meal. Just having had a successful family Thanksgiving dinner that everyone, including the gluten free enjoyed, I thought it might be useful to share some of our tips for surviving, and keeping the holidays fun without stressing out about food. So here are 10 gluten-free tips for surviving the holidays.

  1. Be involved – The more you are involved in the process of deciding what gets made and from where everything comes from, the better chance you will have to help direct the meal towards foods and dishes that are safe for you. Being proactive from early on rather than waiting til the last minute may save a lot of stress and worry.
  2. Educate friends and family – It is beneficial for others to know about your dietary needs and what is involved in creating a safe environment. Not everyone fully understands the risks of cross contamination, or that croutons can’t just be picked off of a salad and that a knife can’t be double dipped into the apple butter when spreading on rolls.
  3. Suggest naturally gluten-free dishes – Recipes abound for a myriad lovely and flavorful courses that never contained any flour to begin with, such as salads, roast meats, vegetables. Feel free to explore/suggest dishes that require no alterations to prepare gluten free.
  4. Cook from scratch – Processed foods have a tendency to have a long list of ingredients, including some off limits and questionable ingredients, such as barley malt syrup, modified food starch, etc. Cooking from scratch gives one more control over what goes into a dish and is also easier to modify in order to make a food gluten free.
  5. Offer to host  – While hosting is often a lot of work, you know the safety status of your own kitchen with regard to holidays foods, and it may be easier to host than making sure that someone’s kitchen counter that was dusted with flour earlier that day from baking holiday cookies doesn’t end up contaminating your dinner. If you can’t host, offer to cook some of the dishes to help make it easier for the host to accommodate you, or at least to help with the cooking when you arrive so that you can help keep food prep safe for you.
  6. Make GF versions of your favorites – Many dishes require very simple substitutions to be made gluten free – stuffing can be made by just substituting GF bread; gravy and creamed sauces by substituting GF all-purpose flour, or GF cookies can be used to make your favorite cookie crumb crust for a pie.
  7. Keep GF foods completely separated from gluten foods – If you are eating at a mixed GF/gluten dinner, make sure that the foods you want to be able to eat are completely separated, so no one mistakes which serving spoons go into which dish and bread crumbs don’t find their way into the GF courses. Another idea is to serve the gluten-free folks first, before anything has a chance to get contaminated.
  8. Try new traditions and recipes – Holidays are all about traditions, but they can be as much about making traditions as keeping them. Rather than trying to replicate a longstanding favorite dish, why not try something completely different? A new set of flavors perhaps, so you don’t feel as if you are replacing your great grandmother’s heirloom recipe, but more just creating a new tradition for friends and family to enjoy in the years to come.
  9. Don’t gamble with your dinner – If you are not sure whether or not a dish is GF, it may be best to pass on it. No one enjoys being sick from having a gluten reaction over the holidays or while traveling. Depending on how long you will be there and who you are staying with, it may be a good idea to also bring some snacks just in case.
  10. Remember, it’s just a meal – There is so much more to the holidays than simply one dinner together – the holidays are also about spending time with friends and family, and sharing those special moments. If dinner doesn’t end up being the idyllic meal you had dancing around with those sugarplums in your head, remember the fun moments and spirit of the season, and the real reason for getting together in the first place.
Wishing everyone a happy and safe holiday season, and a joyous New Year!
Jenn Oliver writes our column Culinary Chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in science, and explains the scientific aspects of what really goes on when you cook (the next Harold McGee?). She’s been running a gluten-free blog, Jenn Cuisine, since 2008 and her kitchen is more like a laboratory than a kitchen. She’s focuses her chemical calculations and experiments on figuring out how to make traditionally glutinous food gluten-free.

Culinary Chemistry: Gluten Free – An Introductory Primer

By Friday, March 25, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jenn Oliver


If you don’t happen to have a friend or family member who must avoid gluten, the term may sound like some weird fad – indeed it seems to be the hot new thing in pop culture. But while the term may be gaining popularity in today’s society, it is anything but a trendy diet.

When I first met my husband, we went to a local burger place for dinner as our first date. He ordered his burger without any bread, and I remember being intrigued by that choice – I hardly knew the guy at that point (it was our first date after all), but he didn’t seem the type to be into following a low-carb diet. So in my rather up-front and pointed way, I asked him why he did that, and he then went on to explain to me how he was unable to tolerate gluten. After we got married a few years ago, I took it upon myself as a personal challenge to make sure he could find tasty food to eat that fit within his dietary restrictions – and what a great and adventurous journey it has been!

The Rambling Epicure Voices

By Monday, February 7, 2011 Permalink 0

Food writer, Culinary Chemistry, The Rambling EpicureJenn Oliver writes our column Culinary Chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in science, where she explains the scientific aspects of what really goes on when you cook (the next Harold McGee?). She’s been running a gluten-free blog, Jenn Cuisine, since 2008 and her kitchen is more like a laboratory than a kitchen. She’s focuses her chemical calculations and experiments on figuring out how to make traditionally glutinous food gluten-free.

Esmaa Self writes the Wild Woman on Feral Acres column. She lives on a small farm in Colorado where she employs organic and sustainable methods to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs, raise chickens, bees and fish and where she routinely turns out imaginative, healthy, guilt-free meals from scratch. One of her numerous blogs recounts her farming adventures: Backyard Eggs. She also writes novels and contributes to numerous organic farming and green publications, and runs a sustainable living site, Homeostasis.

Simon de Swaan is Food and Beverage Director at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America and has an incredible collection of antique cookbooks and books about food and eating, from which he often posts interesting and unusual quotes. In his column Simon Says, he gives us daily food quotes from his tomes.

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac is an essayist, editor and journalist. He directed the special editions of the Nouvel Observateur for almost ten years and and has published twenty books. As preparation for publication of his Universal Dictionary of Bread (Dictionnaire universel du pain, Bouquins Laffont, 2010), he obtained a baker’s certificate (CAP) at the Ecole de Boulangerie et Pâtisserie de Paris in 2007, and traveled worldwide to countries where bread held a particular cultural significance.