Culinary Chemistry: Gluten Free – An Introductory Primer

Published by Friday, March 25, 2011 Permalink 0
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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!

Gluten is a term to describe energy storage proteins in certain plants and is comprised of two types of proteins: glutelin and prolamin.  These groups of proteins are found in several types of plants.  In wheat, the glutelin glutenin and the prolamin gliadin make up the gluten structure we are most commonly familiar with. Gliadin in wheat along with hordein in barley and secalin in rye are currently known for being the culprits of many unpleasant symptoms associated with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.  The dietary term “gluten” refers to proteins that adversely affect those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity – namely, those from wheat, barley and rye.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder related to increased intestinal permeability from dietary gluten. Gluten sensitivity however, has a physiological effect that is markedly different from celiac disease. Better understanding of the biochemical mechanisms and possible solutions to each is an active area of scientific research. In practical terms, they both dictate a need for a gluten free diet.  My husband’s gluten sensitivity means that he cannot eat anything containing wheat, barley or rye, even in trace amounts. This includes avoiding alternative “low-gluten” wheat varieties such as spelt, because a low amount of gluten means gluten is still there, and he will still react to it.

One doesn’t realize how many foods contain gluten until one has to avoid it.   Anything made with wheat based flour – many types of pasta, breads, cakes, pie doughs, muffins, pastries, croutons, sauces, breaded/battered foods, the list goes on.  And then there are the not-so-obvious sources of gluten – soy sauce, modified food starch, some hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, some stocks and broths, Worcestershire sauce, some salad dressings, some cured meats which use wheat-based products as fillers, even beer as it is traditionally made from barley ingredients. Then on top of this are the cross-contamination issues that also give rise for concern for a gluten-free individual – oats may often be cross-contaminated with gluten, and foods made on equipment shared with wheat products may also contain trace amounts of gluten – tiny minuscule amounts  can be more than enough to cause severe reactions in sensitive/celiac individuals. One learns to become an expert label reader. The same is true when preparing foods in a kitchen – one has to be very careful to take the appropriate precautions to ensure no cross-contamination occurs when preparing a dish from someone who cannot tolerate gluten.

In the face of all of these “don’ts” about living gluten-free, how does one find food to eat? There are several companies dedicated to making gluten-free folks’ lives a little more convenient by providing packaged foods that are safely free from gluten. But if boxed cookies and cake mixes aren’t your thing, living gluten free (or with gluten-free loved ones) is a great motivator to get back in the kitchen cooking from scratch – there is a wide variety of alternative flours and ingredients to choose from when converting a recipe to gluten free, and many talented gluten free cooks and bakers have cookbooks available – there is also a plethora of fantastic gluten free food blogs out there with lovely successful recipes to try.

Gluten Free Zucchini Bread by Jenn Oliver

Substitutions are often straightforward in cooking – for example, one can usually substitute just about any gluten-free flour for all-purpose wheat-based flour when making gravy. But baking tends to be the special challenge in preparing gluten-free foods. Gluten may be the magical protein that holds conventional dough together, making it stretchy and elastic enough to trap air as bread and baked goods rise in the oven, but that doesn’t mean the gluten-free foods are without hope.

In fact, even if one sets aside the myriad of already naturally gluten free foods and dishes at one’s disposal, many delicious foods that start from a batter or a dough don’t need gluten at all – pancakes, waffles, several cakes and several cookies probably actually benefit from being gluten free. And when gluten is traditionally a necessity in a baked good (e.g. bagels, pizza dough, strudel, some pastas and many breads), there are often ways around recreating the “glueiness” or elasticity that is so characteristic to these doughs through the addition of binders such as eggs, gums (xanthan, guar), gelling agents (gelatin, pectin), and even flax meal among others. Depending on the application, some recipes may need to be altered only slightly or they may need to be rather significantly amended in order to recreate the same textures as a food’s traditional glutenicious version – that is where the fun comes in!

Gluten-free bakers are admirable, often unsung heroes of culinary creation – masters at adapting recipes and substituting ingredients, able to look at a recipe and estimate the proportions of gluten free ingredients necessary for a successful dish.  As baking does not come naturally to me, I tend to take a more systematic route with a “lab book” so to speak writing down each of my trials. But no matter the methods one chooses for recipe development, as much as traditional baking is an act of chemistry, so is baking gluten free.

At some point there are certain ratios of ingredients that will just work for different baked goods. One intrepid food blogging group, the Gluten Free Ratio Rally, is working together on a monthly challenge to determine precisely what those ratios are for the best product result. It’s part of what makes gluten-free cooking so exciting – the chemistry of gluten-free cooking/baking is not as common knowledge as other areas of cooking, so we’re all in this together. One of the wonderful things about knowing other gluten free cooks, whether professional chefs or in the home, is the incredibly supportive network that surrounds everyone. By helping each other, we can transform traditional paradigms of gluten-free foods to their full potential – the flavorful textured successful dishes we all know they can be, that glutenicious and gluten-free folk alike can enjoy.

Do you have favorite gluten free inspiration sources? Share them in the comments!

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  • Marcia
    April 22, 2011

    I found this URL while looking for “gf chemistry”. I have made bread from a box mix (GF Pantry – Favorite Sandwich Bread) very successfully twice and I have failed miserably 3 times. Each time the bread rises fine. It is the cooking that is going wrong. The bread splists itself apart creating a top and bottom and then leaves uncooked spots while the crust becomes too dark. When it cools the bread collapses to 1/2 its “right out of the oven” size. Grrrrr What am I doing wrong? I have tried more water/ less water, lightly beating the room temp eggs/whipping the eggs, adding extra yeast/or not, adding a pinch of baking powder or a bit of cider vinegar, cooking at 375 or 350, etc, etc, etc…
    Any ideas? I am willing to change mixes or even try “from scratch” again. I have been eating GF for 10 years so I am not a complete newbie.

    • Jenn Oliver
      June 6, 2011

      Is it a bread mix you’ve used before? It may not be your fault… or maybe your oven’s temperature has changed – if your temperature is actually higher than you programmed your oven to be I could see issues too – the collapsing afterwards could be due to air escaping since your bread split. Though without knowing exactly what was in your mix it is hard to say, I’m sorry I’m not a very experienced GF bread baker….

  • Janelle Bremer
    May 25, 2011

    This is a great article!

    The best tip I found for baking is to use flour measurements in grams instead of cups. When you do this you can use the same ratios from the original recipe to make your gluten free substitutions.

    • Jenn Oliver
      June 6, 2011

      Yes measuring by weight is critical! Ever since I started measuring by weight I have had much more success converting recipes.