Crash Course in Gluten-Free: Easy Substitutions

by Kris on March 24, 2011 · 9 comments

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This fifth installment in my “crash course in gluten-free” series (see parts 1-4 here, here, here and here) comes from a suggestion from my husband’s mom. We have quite a few food allergies and intolerances on Nick’s side of the family (not just me!) so she has been saving my posts for meal options, and wondered if I would be doing one on easy substitutions. I hadn’t planned on it, but what a great suggestion! So thanks, Bev- and here are some of my favorite tips and tricks for easy gluten–free substitutions.

Learning to cook gluten it requires quite a bit of research and effort- from the grocery shopping, to the recipe searching, the successes and the flops. Cooking gluten free for yourself is one thing because often the motivation comes from essentiality; cooking for others that have food intolerances and allergies can be quite a bit more difficult. I goal for this post is to not only target those with gluten issues but those who are cooking for others with food sensitivities.

Old Favorites, New Ingredients

Often the best way to cook for someone who is gluten-free is to simply choose a recipe that is inherently gluten-free- a big pot of chili (gluten free cornbread optional), a meat or fish main with rice or potatoes as a side; asian rice noodle dishes, many soups and stews. But this isn’t always possible, and sometimes recipes only require simple switches to be gluten-free. Some of these easy switches can include:

  • Flour/Starch- Used as a coating, any sort of gluten free flour can be used- brown rice, buckwheat, coconut, garbanzo, arrowroot or even corn starch. As a thickener, I suggest using arrowroot starch, tapioca, kuzu (wild japanese arrowroot) or if you must, corn starch/potato starch (though highly processed it is not my first suggestion health-wise).
  • Breadings- ground almonds or other nuts make a wonderful gluten-free crust (check out my almond crusted whitefish), as do crushed up gluten-free cracker crumbs as well as g-free bread (if you happen to have it on hand), crumbled and spread on a baking sheet, baked on low heat to dry (oil and seasonings optional).
  • Side dishes and soups- More and more stores are creating entire sections devoted to gluten-free options, but often overlooked are simple gluten-free options like rice and potatoes (I prefer sweet over white, but it’s your choice)- risottos and pilafs are great, elegant sides, roasted potatoes or mashes are also great. To get a little more fancy, quinoa works well with just a quick rinse and a few herbs added to the pot, millet can be used to make a creamy mash and buckwheat is a nice hearty addition to soups in place of barley. Check out my post on grains for cooking times.
  • Main Dishes- Casseroles and other similar items can often be made gluten-free by simply switching out the grains. If your signature dish is a pasta dish, buy brown rice or quinoa pasta. If your casserole uses barley, try buckwheat instead.

Tip: There are many cultures where there are an abundance of naturally gluten-free dishes; Indian, Mexican, Ethiopian, Thai/Asian, South American, Middle Eastern, Caribbean; look to them for inspiration!

Wheat-free baking

Baking without flour can be one of the most challenging quests in gluten-free living. But once you get the hang of it, it doesn’t seem so hard after all.

Some tips:

  • Remember: Gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley and rye (as well as spelt, kamut, some oats, etc) therefore it is a binding agent. What this means is without a substitute binding agent, your baked goods will essentially fall apart. I like to use a bit of xanthan gum or guar gum found at most health food stores, as a sub for gluten’s binding ability. These items can be costly but you rarely need more than a teaspoon in a recipe so they will last a long time- a worthy purchase!
  • Often gluten-free baked goods can be dry and crumbly; aside from the addition of added gums (see above) experimenting with different levels of moistness can help combat this. I like using honey or agave as sweeteners in g-free baked goods, as well as plenty of dairy-free milk and sometimes applesauce or other fruit puree
  • DO NOT OVERMIX. This will cause your gluten free goodie to become hard and dense- not desirable!

Baking gluten-free can be tricky because no flours act like wheat do; even rye breads often use a mix with wheat because it simply works the best.

Due to the nature of gluten-free flours, just subbing in brown rice or buckwheat flour for wheat is impossible. This is why blends come in handy. There are various recipes for All-purpose blends online; here are a couple I found to be helpful:

Gluten-free Goddess’ tips and blends
Jenn Cuisine All-purpose Flour

You could also buy a pre-mixed blend, I prefer Bob’s Red Mill All-purpose gluten-free baking blend, or Namaste Foods All-purpose. Note that some, but not all already have xanthan gum added to them (Bob’s does not).

If you are substituting dairy and eggs as well, here are a few suggestions:

  • In place of butter: If melted, light olive oil or canola oil work well. In place of hard or creamed butter, earth balance is a reliable trans fat-free  vegan substitute.
  • In place of milk: almond milk, rice milk or hemp milk are my top choices (soy works as well if you choose)
  • In place of buttermilk: Using a 1:1 ratio of cups to tablespoons, add 1 tbsp lemon juice per every 1 cup of milk sub, mix and let sit for 10 minutes. Voila- dairy free buttermilk!
  • In place of cream: full fat coconut milk works wonders! (this works in cooking as well, I love it in soups!) you can also make a super creamy cashew cream by blending raw cashews with some water until you reach desired consistency,
  • In place of eggs: Egg substitutes, like Ener-g can be used but often are incredibly processed, and if you have a corn sensitivity, are made with corn. I like to use a more natural version, mixing 1 tbsp milled flax or chia seeds with 3 tbsp water (let sit for a few) per every one egg. Also, an addition of a bit of arrowroot starch blended in (thanks to Meghan for this top!) makes this work more efficiently.

Everyday options

Items such as breads, tortillas, pasta, pizza crusts… often “everyday” items that are completely wiped out by removing gluten from the diet can be hard to find substitutions for. But never fear, there are plenty of delicious options, many of which you would never even know are gluten-free!

  • Tortillas: try brown rice tortillas for larger, burrito-style tortillas, but more often than not plain corn tortillas are gluten-free.
  • Bread: This one can be hard to find a sub for, but Food for Life has many great options, as does Udi’s- these can be found at many larger grocery chains. In addition, check out smaller family owned bakeries and see if they have any options! They’re appearing more and more.
  • Pizza/Pizza crust: For personal pizzas, gluten-free tortillas work wonders. I have seen multiple varieties of g-free pizza crust in the freezer section of whole foods and other natural foods stores; right now I am working on my own gluten-free version as well. If you really want to splurge for the real thing, there are a lot of chains coming out with gluten free crusts, like Pizza Pizza and Boston Pizza for example.
  • Pasta/Noodles- For Italian-type dishes, brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta and other mixed varieties can be great options. Be careful to not overcook them, because they can get incredibly sticky- but don’t worry if it seems like it’s taking a long time, they do take longer to cook, just keep checking. As for noodles, many asian dishes can be substituted with different asian noodles- in place of udon, use rice stick; in place of somen (japanese thin noodles), use soba (buckwheat only varieties), and rice vermicelli is almost always gluten-free.
  • Condiments: Condiments are one place that tricky gluten can be hidden in various forms. The best way to stay away from it? Make your own salad dressings, ketchups and mayonnaises. Instead of soy sauce, use tamari (but make sure it says wheat-free) and check mustards to see if they contain wheat.

Sources:
Gluten-free for Dummies
Wiki Books
Gluten-free goddess
Jenn Cuisine
This one is an all-around great set of tips for baking and cooking gluten-free.

Do you have any suggestions on easy gluten-free substitutions?

xo

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{ 7 comments }

i3etty March 24, 2011 at 9:30 am

wow, what a great summary of ideas! will definitely try some of these out soon for the gluten-free people in my life :)

Katy March 24, 2011 at 9:50 am

Thanks for the suggestions about how to make a dairy-free buttermilk, and also to use the coconut milk as a replacement for heavy cream!! I absolutely LOVE cream soups, but have had to forgo them because of Cheryl’s lactose intolerance.

Also, the other night, we seasoned some cornmeal and used that to “bread” a couple of fish fillets. It turned out lovely and crunchy, so we’ll definitely be doing that again.

Kristin March 24, 2011 at 11:57 am

Coconut is amazing- so is the cashew cream in soups! I’ve made a “cream of broccoli” soup with cashew cream and it is to die for!

The cornmeal idea sounds great for a breading- thanks for the tip!

Gillian March 24, 2011 at 10:35 am

Do you think the super authentic Mexican corn tortillas are gluten-free? Had some in Kensington when my dad visited and they were phenomonal, so authentic!

Kristin March 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

I believe they are, because usually they’re just corn flour- all the ones I’ve gotten have been! SO delicious, I know. Where is this place in Kensington? We need to take a trip! :)

Pamela Sharpe-Dovbniak March 24, 2011 at 10:53 am

Hi,
I am Wesley Dovbniak’s wife, Pamela from Ottawa. I was interested to know that there were allergies on your husband’s side of the family…….our daughter has multiple life threatening food allergies as well. I would like to know a little more about what allergies they are. Could you email me and perhaps we could chat more? I really enjoy your blog and was very happy to discover it
Thanks

Kristin March 24, 2011 at 11:55 am

Hi Pamela,
Sure I can email you. Thanks for reading!

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