The gluten-free diet, once rarely heard of, is now officially mainstream. There are popular diet books about it, whole grocery store aisles dedicated to it, even special gluten-free menus at hotel chains. I’m surrounded by people who avoid gluten: my step-brother and his two kids, a good friend, my daughter’s playmate, and one of my culinary assistants. This would have made the record books years ago, when gluten intolerance was thought to affect only one person in 10,000. Turns out, back then the vast majority of cases were undiagnosed. We were looking at only the tip of the gluten-free iceberg.
What is gluten intolerance?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, and in foods made from those grains. It’s not inherently bad for you unless you have an intolerance for it (which, it turns out, a whopping one person in 10 does). There are two distinct types of gluten intolerance: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition in which eating gluten leads to severe intestinal damage and nutrient malabsorption. It causes a range of symptoms from nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea to extreme fatigue, joint pain, skin conditions, and delayed growth in children. The only treatment for celiac disease is to follow a strict gluten-free diet for life.
Gluten sensitivity, which has only recently been recognized as a separate condition, has some of the same symptoms, though it doesn’t lead to an autoimmune reaction or intestinal damage. People with gluten sensitivity have different thresholds for how much gluten they can tolerate. If you suspect that you’re gluten intolerant, it’s critical to see a doctor for a test before changing your diet. (A word of caution: If you’re gluten intolerant and you avoid gluten prior to the test, it could lead to a faulty result.)
Gluten-Free Buttermilk Pancakes
The fad factor
The rising popularity of gluten-free eating can also be attributed to pure trendiness, something I call fad-induced gluten avoidance. This “condition” plagues folks who are easily lured in by celebrity-endorsed diets and online ads that make big promises with little to back them up. With their claims that going glutenfree can help you lose weight, be healthier, and regain your energy—and the Hollywood elite swearing by it—it’s hard not to be seduced. Food marketers who make big bucks on gluten-free specialty items have helped propagate this trend, too. Sadly, one of its side effects is the minimizing and misdiagnosis of real gluten intolerance, which can happen when people who actually have it aren’t taken seriously.
It’s true that if you’ve regularly been eating loaves of bread and dozens of cookies and you turn toward naturally gluten-free vegetables, lean meats, nuts, beans, and fruit, you’ll probably lose weight and feel better. But that has nothing to do with gluten and everything to do with eating a more balanced diet. Ironically, simply swapping wheat bread and the like with gluten-free counterparts can lead to weight gain and inferior nutrition, because gluten-free products are often higher in refined starches and sugars.
How to cook without gluten
Since so many people are truly gluten intolerant, chances are that at some point you’ll have to cook for a friend or family member on a gluten-free diet. Luckily, it’s not hard to do. All fresh vegetables, fruit, proteins (eggs, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, beans), and unprocessed dairy are naturally gluten-free, so base your meal around those main ingredients. Avoiding breads, cookies, and cakes made with wheat, rye, or barley is a no-brainer, but remember that pasta, couscous, bulgur, and farro are all made from wheat, and therefore contain gluten.
It’s not always obvious when an ingredient contains gluten. Flavorings like soy sauce are often made with wheat protein, malt vinegars and beer are made with barley, and some sauces use flour as a thickener. Even the word “natural flavorings” on a package label can mean the food has gluten in it. To be safe, stick with simple, unprocessed seasonings like citrus juice, pure chile powders, ground spices, garlic, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. And try using cornstarch, arrowroot, or tapioca as a thickener instead of wheat flour.
As for baking, gluten is what gives structure to bread and many other baked goods. Without it, they can turn out heavy and flat, so good gluten-free baking requires special ingredients to provide lightness and shape. Pancakes, on the other hand, feed that “bakery-fresh” craving but don’t require much structure, so they’re relatively easy to make gluten-free. In my gluten-free buttermilk pancakes recipe, I tinkered with various gluten-free flour combinations until I found one that’s just right. Rather than use a lot of cornstarch and refined rice flour, as many recipes do, I opted for more nutritious, fiber-rich whole-grain brown rice flour and almond meal. The results are incredibly tender, moist, fluffy,and flavorful. You might make these pancakes for a guest who eats gluten-free, but once you taste them, you’ll surely make them again just because they’re delicious.
For grain dishes
Instead of: pasta, barley, bulgur, or wheat berries
Use: corn, rice, potato, quinoa, wild rice, or buckwheat
Instead of: 3 Tbs. wheat flour
Use: 2 Tbs. cornstarch, arrowroot, potato starch, or tapioca starch
For quick breads and muffins
Instead of: 1 cup wheat flour
Use: 3/4 cup any combination of brown rice flour, cornmeal, and almond meal mixed with 1/4 cup cornstarch or tapioca starch
For crunchy toppings and coatings
Instead of: breadcrumbs
Use: crushed cornflakes or rice-square cereal; read the label to be sure it’s gluten-free