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Cooking gluten-free holidays

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:52pm
I love this man.

If you think for a second that food isn't an important part of the holidays, think again. In fact, Ben spent hours Saturday morning on the phone with his family, talking about that very topic. Let's just say I am terribly grateful, to both Ben and his family.

Since we will be making the trek out to New York to visit with his family over the holidays, his parents are doing more than any gluten-free gal could ever hope for to make my visit a safe, healthy one. They are asking all the right questions about all the traditional foods and this means Ben has been on the phone with them a lot. He even put together a shopping list and potential menu for the time we will be there.

On that list are some traditional foods, such as pumpkin pie, with GF variations, but it's mostly focused on foods and ingredients that are naturally gluten free. By that same token, many of the 'traditional' foods of the holidays ARE gluten free if they are made from scratch and prepared on clean surfaces. Roasted root veggies, turkey, asparagus, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberries, and green beans are all gluten free.

If you, too, will be preparing a holiday meal with a gluten-free guest, this post is for you.

If you are the gluten-free-er and you are heading to someone else's home for the holidays, I hope your hosts are as open to learn and concerned about your health as mine are. Even if they aren't, direct them to my site, this post, or any number of the other GF bloggers out there. The Gluten Free Girl also has a post on how to cook for someone gluten free.

This is a rough guide with just the basics, and may be incomplete (please comment if you see anything missing!). And, I cannot emphasize this enough -- Don't ever feel silly or stupid or like a pest asking your gluten-free-er about what gluten is and how to cook gluten-free. They will be happy to fill you in with more than you ever wanted to know and feel blessed you care enough to ask.

Gluten-containing grains: Wheat, Barley, Rye, Kamut, Spelt, Triticale, and regular oats contain the protein called gluten. Certified gluten free oats are available; oats only contain gluten when grown and processed near wheat – it is basically a cross-contamination issue. Gluten is a protein and it is what makes baked goods elastic and hold together.

Ingredients to watch out for in processed foods: If you are cooking for someone else who is gluten-free, it is sometimes easier to cook from scratch or only trust products that label themselves “gluten free.” It can become mind-boggling to keep track of all of the ingredients derived from gluten containing grains. Ingredients/foods to be avoided include: wheat, barley, rye, oats, kamut, spelt, triticale, beer, flour, monosodium glutamate, wheat starch, malt (malt extract, malt syrup,malt flour, malt vinegar), soy sauce, gravy (including “sauces” and “roux”), marinades, teriyaki, imitation seafood (imitation crab), and licorice. Blue, stilton, and roquefort cheeses sometimes contain gluten, as does Maltodextrin. The blue part of blue cheese is a mold, usually started from wheat grains. There are exceptions, however, for some cheeses made in the United States, so check with companies. Maltodextrin (and dextrin) is made from corn in the United States, but for pharmaceuticals and food products made outside of the United States, check with each company. "Natural flavors" are sometimes made using barley, so it's usually best to check with the company.

Remember - "wheat free" does not mean "gluten free;" some people have an allergic reaction to wheat specifically, but can tolerate barley, spelt, etc., so some manufacturers cater to this crowd, but are not gluten free.

Many companies will provide gluten information upon request and often have information on their websites, especially in the FAQ section.

If you are out looking on the internet, be sure to find recent information, as many companies change their ingredients and sources for ingredients.

Gluten-free flours: Some "grains" that are naturally gluten free, like buckwheat (which is technically not a 'grain'), may not actually be gluten free when sold as a flour. If they are processed along with wheat, they will not be gluten free. Always check labels. The flours from Bob's Red Mill are tested regularly and their GF flours are labeled as such (note that their buckwheat flour, for example, is NOT GF). Unfortunately, gluten free baking is not as easy as substituting a gluten free flour for all-purpose flour. See my post on flours for more information on how to use these flours and be sure to ask your gluten-free-er about other sensitivities, such as corn.

Xanthan gum: This is a binder that is used to approximate the properties of gluten in baked goods. Most recipes will call for a small amount of gum (either xanthan gum or guar gum). They are, from what I understand, interchangeable in most recipes. It is expensive, but a small bag of it will last you a long time. It should be stored in the fridge to maintain effectiveness.

Kitchen contamination: To be completely safe, kitchen items (cutting boards, spoons, spatulas, etc.) made from wood, plastic, rubber, and silicone that have been previously used with wheat flour should not be used. Also, non-stick skillets and other non-stick cookware previously used with gluten-containing food items are likely to harbor gluten. Don't forget about bread machines, toasters, pizza stones, and cheese cloths – all of these need to be avoided. All stainless steel, metal, and glass objects (provided they are thoroughly cleaned and no sticky residue is left behind) are safe to use for cooking for gluten sensitive individuals. When in doubt, a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil can be used to cover any surface, placing a barrier between the gluten free food and the previously used object.

Anyone who is familiar with clean-room environments, and the dirty vs. clean dichotomy that necessarily follows from it, will immediately understand the concept of cross-contamination. I worked for a summer as a sterilization assistant in a dentist office during college, so I have been well-versed in this dichotomy and I'll give you the gist here, in gluten terms.

If you touch something with your hands, or a knife, or a spoon, etc. that contains gluten, your hand or that object is now "dirty" and should not be used for gluten free eating or cooking. Once you wash your hands or the dirty object, it is once again "clean" and safe for gluten-free eating and cooking. For example, a slice of bread is on the counter. You take a knife and spread butter on the bread, then take some more butter, and spread that on the bread as well. The counter, the knife, the butter, and your hands are all dirty -- even if you can't see visible crumbs. A good way to get around this is to start with unopened products, especially butter, nut butters, jam, and anything else in which a knife or spoon may have been previously dipped. No one wants to have to rack their brain, trying to remember what has been where.

Here's another example that is less obvious. The cat food has gluten in it. The cats eat the food, lick their fur, and they crawl in my lap to be petted. Needless to say, I wash my hands a lot.

This may seem like overkill to some, but gluten is a protein that sticks to surfaces. Unlike bacteria, which can be "killed," gluten cannot be boiled or disinfected away. It has to be physically removed from a surface by washing it away. Do you remember those plastic goggles from biology class? Placing them in the "sterilizer" killed the germs, but did not "clean" them - the gunk stayed.


If your head is spinning, take a deep breath, relax, and remember what I said about whole, natural ingredients - they are all gluten free except for the few grains I listed above. Just keep in mind the cross-contamination issues, enlist the help of your gluten-free loved one, and all will be fine.

And, although we all know food has an important place in holiday celebrations, what is most important is celebrating the presence and health of loved ones and the appreciation we have for those with whom we share our lives.

I am certainly grateful beyond words - for my family, friends, Ben, and his family.
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