Going gluten free is a big step, one that involves making a lot of changes to the way you eat and cook. For someone new to the gluten-free world, it can be confusing to sort out what you can and can't do.
From a culinary standpoint, you'll likely be trying new recipes and making substitutions in old favorites. This can often lead to unexpected results in the kitchen. To help you on your way, here are some tips to help you navigate your new way of cooking.
First: Check With Your Doctor
If you're going gluten free because of a medical condition such as celiac disease or a wheat allergy, then you'll need to consult with your doctor to understand your situation as it relates to cross-contamination (as in, is a stray crumb of bread going to make you violently ill?) and similar matters.
In some cases—especially if there are others in your household who are not gluten free—you may need to consider using an entirely separate set of utensils and other tools (like the toaster, the griddle, and so on).
And, of course, when it comes to purchasing prepared and packaged foods, you're going to have to become an expert label-reader. Gluten can hide in many places and it's not always described clearly on nutritional labels (although products that are explicitly gluten-free are typically labeled as such).
How Do You Cook?
But for our purposes (which is to say, cooking), you will definitely have some adjustments to make.
Someone whose life is centered upon baking yeast breads, pastries, and other baked goods, or loves nothing more than making homemade pasta and pizza dough, is going to have a bigger adjustment to make than someone whose passion is cooking Asian or Mediterranean food, for example.
But whatever your situation is, there's one thing you're definitely going to say farewell to, and that is ordinary wheat flour.
Say Goodbye to Wheat Flour
When trying to understand how to cook without gluten, it's helpful to understand what gluten is and what role it plays in recipes.
Gluten is a combination of proteins that occur naturally in wheat (and to a lesser extent, in rye and barley). When flour is moistened, then kneaded or mixed, the gluten molecules literally stretch out, forming longer and longer chains.
These chains are elastic, which is why you can stretch a piece of dough. As the dough develops, the glutens form pockets that are like stretchy balloons.
When the gases produced by yeast or another leavening agent inflate these gluten balloons, the dough rises. And finally, baking hardens the dough in its inflated state, giving the bread its structure.
Now, with gluten-free flours such as rice flour, almond flour, or buckwheat flour, none of this is going to happen. With no gluten, the dough can't stretch, the gases from the leavening seep out instead of causing it to rise, and the final product is generally significantly flatter than its gluten-based version.
This will obviously be less of a problem with foods like pancakes and cookies than it will with fluffy items like cakes and breads. Likewise, pizza dough relies on gluten for its characteristic chewiness and crunch. Different flours can indeed be mixed to form a crust, but it will typically be thinner and more brittle.
As you become acquainted with cooking with gluten-free flours, you'll get better at gauging what's possible and what's not. And there are a great many pre-packaged baking mixes that take all the guesswork out of making these substitutions.
On the bright side, one of the major pitfalls with wheat flour, particularly with tender baked goods like pie crust, soft cakes, and quick breads, is that overworking the dough or batter will cause the final product to be too tough. And with gluten-free flours, it's simply not possible to overwork the dough or batter, since there is no gluten in it to overwork.
Flour Is Also a Thickener
Another important role that wheat flour plays in the culinary arts is as a thickener for sauces, soups, and stews. In these cases, it's the starch content, rather than the gluten, that is critical to the process. And that means that in most cases, gluten-free starches will work just fine.
That means if you are making a roux for a sauce or soup, you can use rice flour with absolutely no difference to the final product. As you become more familiar with the properties of the various starches, you'll figure out which ones work best for which purposes.
For example, cornstarch is great for thickening fruit pie fillings and it has the added property of giving the filling a glossy sheen. Cornstarch is also ideal for battering foods in preparation for deep-frying them, producing a light, crispy coating on the fried food.