Recent Posts by Jenn Oliver

Gluten-Free Recipe Conversions – Strategies for Substitutions

Published 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.

 

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Culinary Chemistry: Tempered Chocolate for Valentine’s

Published 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.

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

Published 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!
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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.
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Switzerland: Watermelon and Fennel Salad Recipe

Published by Thursday, September 8, 2011 Permalink 0

Switzerland: Watermelon and Fennel Salad Recipe

by Jenn Oliver

Until recently, I didn’t know anyone did anything with a watermelon besides just cut it up and eat it. I mean, it’s already completely sweet, juicy, the pure essence of summer. Why mess with the perfection embodied in this pink fruit? The mere sight of a ripe watermelon evokes memories of childhoods past. For me, it evokes images of weeks at girl scout camp, running around outside, carefree, swimming in the lake, making new friends, riding horses…you get the idea.

But why not play, and see just where the flavor of this fruit can go? Have you ever thought about the flavors of this king of summertime snacks and how they would meld with other foods? I certainly hadn’t until Meeta challenged us Plate to Page alumni to photograph watermelon as a fun photography assignment — two photos — one raw, and one in a dish. Yes, a dish. Who puts watermelon in things? Ha, maybe it was time to change my perspective and open my eyes to other possibilities.

Perspective is a funny thing. Sometimes our first impressions have such a profound effect on us that we forget to look for other possibilities right in front of our noses. I think that’s why I like to go for walks and hikes, because all that time away from everything gives my mind space to think and breathe. And sometimes, I even get to get lost and freak out after sitting at a train station for 30 minutes until I figure out that the train only passes through on weekdays…

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Culinary Chemistry: Gluten Free – An Introductory Primer

Published by Friday, March 25, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jenn Oliver

Gluten-free.

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!

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Culinary Chemist: Why I Switched to Measuring by Weight

Published by Friday, January 28, 2011 Permalink 0

An Ode to the Kitchen Scale

As a gluten-free home cook/baker, I make substitutions all the time.  Sometimes I convert a recipe from “glutenicious” (this is a word I’ve coined to express “containing gluten”) to gluten-free, and sometimes I’m just trying to find another GF flour because of the gazillion different GF ingredients available, and the one called for in the recipe doesn’t happen to be one of the myriad I keep on hand in my pantry. Everyone who cooks gluten-free is bound to be confronted with this situation, and it is natural to want to (or need to) alter recipes no matter what your specific dietary restrictions may be.  In that sense, I am a recipe developer. We all are.

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