There is No Gluten Free Breadline
How I became an online source of gluten free baking expertise for celiacs in the COVID-19 pandemic
Twelve years ago I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Within a month, my mysterious symptoms disappeared. Lethargy and depression lifted. My vomiting, eczema, neuropathy and intermittent internal bleeding were suddenly gone. Had I known that I was allergic to wheat in high school, maybe I would have been a peppy cheerleader instead of an angsty teen! A highly unlikely probability unless the cheerleading team enjoyed chanting Edna St. Vincent Millay and Audre Lorde poems while wearing all black. Diagnosed halfway through college, like most students, I craved carbs during the stress of studying for finals week. What do you crave most when you’re stressed out? Pizza? Bagels? Pastries? Every term during finals week I would fitfully sleep, dreaming about a giant bagel, 4 stories tall, rolling down Burnside Boulevard in Portland, a mile from my college campus. In my dream, my barefeet pounded the pavement as I raced down Burnside in my pajamas. The giant Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bagel gained on me as it rolled, teetering down the boulevard where a hundred years ago lumberjacks rolled cedar logs down to the banks of the Willamette River. I would wake in a cold sweat just before meeting my circular bread death.
The secret to good gluten free pastry is butter. The secret to good gluten free vegan baking is to just eat an apple.
In other words, I love bread. But the food science and biochemistry of what makes bread delicious is gluten. The very thing celiacs are allergic to is the one ingredient that makes bread good. Sure, you can add guar gum, xantham gum and a ton of other things to mimic the chewy texture of “real bread”, but that stuff is expensive. Personally, I don’t have a million dollars to spend on overpriced amaranth and xantham. “Gluten free” shouldn’t be synonymous with “expensive.”
This is the part where I’m going to try not to stand up on my soapbox and preach about how angry I get about food deserts. This is where I try not to go on a diatribe about the economic disparity of impoverished people’s access to food and healthcare. In another article on another day, this is where I would tell the story of the time that I worked in a GI clinic where the staff would theorize in the breakroom about why only white people with European-descended genetics have celiac disease. No, I argued. It’s much simpler and more sinister than that. Being white and wealthy means that statistically, you will have better access to healthcare and testing. Celiac disease is common among white people because on average, more white people have the privilege of being diagnosed with a food allergy that research shows can lead to other chronic illnesses and cancer if left undiagnosed and untreated.
My point is that gluten free on a budget is possible. Potatoes! Yams! Rice! These are all inexpensive ingredients that I have used to make pastries that my friends could not tell were gluten free. Yes, perhaps I have really nice friends who were trying to spare my feelings by complimenting the apple tartes, croissants, baklava, pie, and focaccia that I made, but they came back and asked for more.
I have worked in restaurants. Both front of house and back of house in pastry. So I can’t help but apologize to waitstaff when I go out (before COVID-19), promising that I am not trying to be the coolest gluten free hipster when I ask if they can leave the soy sauce out of the amazing dish that the chef spent all month perfecting. Did you know that most soy sauce has wheat added to it? I don’t know why, but I’m assuming that it thickens the viscosity and does little else. “Fine,” you say. “Your allergy is real, we get it. But doesn’t bread have a few other ingredients?” you point out. Yes, you’re right. But gluten is the magical protein that makes pizza crust chewy. Gluten makes French bread crisp through the Maillard reaction and the resulting physicochemical changes of the gluten matrix. Gluten gives noodles their chewy texture. Just think about the way that a rice noodle, though delicious, will break versus spaghetti or egg noodles. And pastries. Anyone who has braved trying a cake, muffin, or cookie from a gluten free bakery will regale you with stories of the sandlike crumbs that they choked and coughed on. Most celiacs are unconsciously eating their gf cookies without inhaling. Same thing with most gluten free crackers. And you know why? That’s right, you guessed it. Gluten. Without gluten, the cookie will crumble into a fine dust, the mummified remains of whatever pastry you were hoping to enjoy.
Show me your credentials. Why should I listen to you?
I was a pastry chef at a bistro café when I was fourteen years old. Granted, it was not a gf restaurant, but I learned how to make perfect focaccia. I baked fresh biscotti everyday because we always sold out. People traveled an hour on a ferry from another country to purchase my pastries by the dozen! Scones are definitely not my favorite pastry, but we were located across the water from British Columbia and who am I to say what is the best kind of pastry? I say this not to brag but to establish that I know a lot about baking and have a long-trained instinct for the chemistry of cooking.
I have loved baking ever since I was old enough to stand on a chair and hold a spoon. My grandmother hated my aversion to meticulously measuring everything. She scolded me for throwing in a pinch of salt rather than a measuring spoon, planed over the top for precision with the back of a butter knife. I was so sad when I received my celiac disease diagnosis because suddenly, all the knowledge I had felt useless and wasted. the way that dough is supposed to feel when it’s ready to be rolled out. The texture of flour on the rolling pin. Scoring loaves with the precision of a ninja. Eclairs that puff up boastfully with more hot air than I am full of. With the same intense curiosity that frustrated my sweet control freak grandmother, I slowly grew back the confidence to experiment with baking again. For the last decade I have read everything I could and tried a lot of failed gluten free experiments. I have tried my best to reinvent baking without gluten. These are the highlights of what I have learned. And what better time to share than when we are all self isolating and quarantining for COVID-19.
Lessons I have learned from my honorary food science / biochemistry PhD. in Gluten Free Baking
- I have learned that eggs are your friend in the absence of gluten. As a recovering former vegan, I can confidently attest that gf vegan baking is possible, but you know what else is possible? Eating a fistful of sand instead of cake.
- The secret to good gluten free pastry is butter. The secret to good gluten free vegan baking is to just eat an apple.
- Try to grow your own gluten free sourdough starter culture. King Arthur has really good gf baking products, although these instructions are for wheat flour.
- If you live in the city, you can still grow your culture by setting it beside an open window with a screen. I have never tried to buy a gluten free sourdough mother online, but it’s worth a try, although there is always the risk of rogue bacteria or that it isn’t really gluten free and might make you ill, depending on your allergy.
- Feed your gluten free sourdough yeast culture a diverse variety of flours. I’ve read that most non-gf cultures thrive with rye (NOTE: Rye is not gluten free), but I’ve tried to think about the biochemistry of the different gf grain options out there. My sourdough culture has a combination of the following, but you should feel free to experiment: almond flour, flax, potato, rice, amaranth, occasionally coconut flour
- Bananas! Yes, you heard me right. Again, my food science degree is only honorary — unless someone wants to pay my student loans off for me!). For some reason, baked bananas or plantains will give your gf dough a very gluten-like chewy texture. The less ripe the bananas, the less you will taste the banana flavor and can use this technique for savory breads. My spouse constantly asks me to make more focaccia this way. The secret is to use relatively green unripened bananas and to also add sautéed rosemary and garlic to the dough. For the best banana bread recipe, gluten free or otherwise, the Blackbird Bakery cookbook is the absolute best with its Texan Pecan Banana Bread.
- To make the roasted bananas… Preheat oven to 350°F and arrange the unpeeled bananas on a piece of wax paper or aluminum foil on a baking sheet (the foil is for easier cleanup because these get very sticky). Poke the bananas, still wrapped in their peels a few times with a knife or fork. Bake for 15–20 minutes or until the skins turn black and there is gooey banana juice oozing from the ventilation holes. BE CAREFUL! These baked bananas are extremely hot. Wait for them to cool, then add them to your dough. I usually consider 3 bananas equivalent to 1 cup of flour in the recipe. The trick is variety, so add other gf flours that you like or have on hand. I usually do a mix of rice, almond, a baked or boiled potato, and 3 roasted bananas. On a side note, I am trying to be conscientious and use less almond flour because it’s not good for the environment. For example, it takes 1.1 gallons (5 litres) of water to grow one almond.
So all in all, good gluten free baking on a budget during quarantine is possible. I’ll leave you with one last list of suggestions on my favorite gluten free flours.
- Trader Joe’s All-Purpose Gluten Free Flour — Ingredients: whole grain brown rice flour, potato starch, rice flour, tapioca flour
- King Arthur’s Gluten Free Flours (they also offer regular wheat flour, so be aware when buying/ordering)
- Almond Flour of your choice
- Flax Seeds
- Baked or boiled potatoes, smashed for “flour”
- Baked or boiled yams, smashed for “flour”
- Rice — Sometimes I grind the rice grains myself with my Ninja blender or with a mortar and pestle.
- Roasted bananas or plaintains (baked in peel — see instructions above)
- Buckwheat (contrary to the name, this grain does not have gluten)
- Acorns — I have made acorn bread several times and it tastes very different, depending on the harvest that year and rainfall and my own patience in milling the acorns. The really tricky part is to soak the acorns and process them so that they aren’t so tannic and bitter. It’s a very laborious process that I can write about another time. Acorns were the food staple of many of the indigenous nations in California until the U.S. Cavalry committed genocide by burning their stockpiles. It’s a morbid irony when you consider that the almond industry is such an economic boon in California’s agricultural economy.