Cooking and Baking Tips for Gluten-Free Households
There was a time when living with coeliac disease was more or less a nonstop battle. It was certainly possible to get by without gluten in your diet, but it wasn’t as if the market was bursting at the seams with specialist products and ingredients.
Even just 20 years ago, comparatively few people really had a clue what the whole “gluten-free” thing was all about. Then it became something of a nonsensical trend people started falling simply for the sake of it, despite doctors and nutritionists universally recommending the opposite.
In any case, awareness of the importance of avoiding gluten when living with a sensitivity of any kind is at an all-time high. As is the availability of gluten-free products, and the extent to which the hospitality sector caters to those who can’t eat gluten.
But even now, getting to grips with cooking and eating at home when you cannot tolerate gluten isn’t always easy. It’s something you get to grips with eventually, but at first can seem more complex and daunting than many newcomers to the gluten-free lifestyle expect.
A Few Fast Facts About Gluten
Before getting started with the tips, guidelines and pointers from the pros, a few (possibly) fascinating facts and insights about gluten you may not have been aware of:
- Gluten is the Latin word for ‘glue’.
- Cutting out gluten entirely is the only effective treatment for coeliac disease.
- Coeliac disease affects different people in different ways.
- Gluten can inhibit nutrient absorption in those with coeliac disease.
- Not all products labelled ‘gluten-free’ contain absolutely no gluten.
- A breadcrumb-sized amount of gluten could cause a celiac patient serious harm.
- Gluten in cosmetics does not cause harm to celiac patients.
- Just because something is wheat-free does not mean it is gluten-free.
Being diagnosed with celiac disease represents the start of a life-long learning experience, as you gradually adapt your lifestyle habits to keep the condition under control. More often than not, simply eliminating gluten in its entirety can be so effective that no other treatment is needed and no side effects or symptoms are felt.
But even when a celiac patient hasn’t felt unwell due to their condition for many years, even the tiniest amount of gluten consumed accidentally can wreak havoc on their health and wellbeing.
Cooking and Eating Gluten-Free: The Basics
Moving on to the practical tips and guidelines that could help with the transition, a few important fundamentals to be aware of first:
- Always check the ingredient you buy are gluten-free, not just ‘low’ in gluten
- Ensure your equipment has been cleaned if used previously to prepare products or meals that contain gluten
- Where possible, focus on ingredients and products that are naturally gluten-free, as opposed to modified versions with a reduced gluten content
- Before trying out a new recipe, always read it from start to finish to ensure you have all the necessary ingredients and won’t find yourself in a position where substitute products are necessary
- If you have any doubts or concerns whatsoever regarding an ingredient needed in even the tiniest quantity, don’t take the risk – it simply isn’t worth it
- It may not always be possible to substitute regular ingredients for gluten-free ingredients in precise like for like quantities. It’s therefore better to stick with actual gluten-free recipes where possible
- Don’t simply assume that some of the staples you’ve always used are definitely 100% gluten-free. Some types of baking powder sometimes contain gluten, so be sure to read the label carefully.
- There are instances when some gluten-free recipes can take longer to cook and/or bake than their conventional counterparts, so try to keep a close eye on things until you nail those all-important timings.
Other than this, just a handful of important pointers will help you get to grips with what may initially seem like a tricky transition:
1. Start simple and take things from there
Even if you are pretty experienced and accomplished in the kitchen, it is advisable to start simple with gluten-free cuisine and take it from there. This means focusing on things like biscuits, simple cakes, easy breads, and so on. This will provide you with the perfect opportunity to get used to the different types of ingredients you can and cannot use, along with which you like and which you don’t.
Some gluten-free flours are better than others in terms of taste, texture and effectiveness - depending on the recipes you use them in. Hence, a little trial and error will always be involved along the way.
2. Follow gluten-free recipes closely
You’ll eventually find yourself in a position where you can confidently ‘tweak’ your favourite gluten-free recipes in a variety of ways. When getting started - and particularly where baking is concerned - it’s important to stick as closely to the recipe as you possibly can.
Gluten-free recipes often differ from conventional recipes in terms of ingredients, quantities and how they come together. It’s therefore better to find gluten-free recipes you can follow to the letter, rather than those you’re mostly keen on but would prefer to swap a few things out.
3. Take care with gluten-free all-purpose flour blends
These can be absolutely fantastic, and in some instances can make a great substitute for standard all-purpose flour. However, the fact that they’re comprised of a blend of various different components means no two products are ever the same from one brand to the next. With one bag of blended gluten-free all-purpose flour, you’ll whip up the most amazing muffins but fail to bake even a semi-decent loaf of bread, for example.
Again, trial and error holds the key to working out which of these will work in your favourite recipes. Though in most instances it’s better to stick with something specific as called for in the recipe, rather than a relatively random blend.
4. Practice (and practice) the dishes you love
Find the very best-looking versions of your all-time favourites (minus the gluten) and spend plenty of time working to perfect them. Many people when making the switch to a gluten-free lifestyle mistakenly think they’re suddenly excluded from half of their favourite dishes. This really isn’t the case at all, as you’ll probably find that most of the things you love are still within reach - albeit in a gluten-free guise.
They may not be as easy to make as before and may call for a different list of ingredients, but it’s more than worth the effort. It’s also a great way of easing the transition and making it slightly less daunting to deal with.
5. Be meticulous with weights and measures
It’s the golden rule when baking just about anything, but matters even more when cooking and baking gluten-free. Set yourself up with a decent set of tools and accessories for accurately weighing and measuring a wide variety of ingredients. The more precise you are, the more likely you are to come out with a result you’ll be happy with.
On that note, don’t be fooled into thinking things won’t occasionally go catastrophically wrong. Don’t beat yourself up about it when it does - it’s all part of the process of teaching yourself a new way to cook and bake, which is essentially what you are doing.
6. Learn how to recycle your mistakes
Speaking of which, making mistakes along the way is far less demotivating if you have a backup plan in mind for whatever it is you’ve ended up with. For example, if you bake a bunch of cookies that come out quite disastrous, why not crush them down and use them as the basis for some kind of gluten-free cheesecake or tart? If your cake doesn’t come out as planned, cut out a bunch of cubes of the good stuff and make a trifle.
Bread that goes wrong can be turned into breadcrumbs - there’s a ton you can do to recycle your inevitable mistakes along the way. And don’t forget that the vast majority of the creations you come up with can be frozen, so there’s no need for anything to go to waste.
7. Be patient
Last but not least, being a relatively accomplished cook when making the switch to gluten-free living can actually be trickier than it would be for a person who doesn’t know their way around the kitchen at all. This is because you’ll already have a long list of cooking and baking habits, preferences and methods you’ve come to count on, along with ingredients you’ve so far gotten by on.
All of a sudden, you find yourself in a position where you’ve more or less got to take things back to the drawing board. Frustration, mistakes, often feeling like you simply cannot be bothered cooking - all to be expected from time to time and perfectly understandable. Your patience will undoubtedly be tested along the way, but stick with it and your health and wellbeing will thank you long term.