Tips for a Gluten-Free Holiday

More and more, people are deciding to ditch the gluten in their diets. With Gluten-Free Baking Week occurring from December 17 – 23, it may be a good opportunity to try out some gluten-free recipes ahead of the holidays.

Gluten is a naturally occurring mix of proteins that are found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is found in the endosperm of the plant, which is responsible for nourishing the developing embryo. When the plants are harvested, the gluten remains in the wheat, rye, and barley. During baking or cooking, the gluten affects the elasticity of the food and acts like a glue, holding things together.

Gluten is being avoided more regularly in recipes because a growing number of people are experiencing gluten sensitivity or intolerance. In the United States, an estimated 18 million people have a gluten sensitivity. Though not much is known about gluten sensitivities, these people can experience abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, rash, headaches, and a sensation of a foggy brain from consuming gluten.

Even more American are facing Celiac disease, a gluten intolerance that affects 1 in 141 people or at least 3 million Americans today. Celiac disease occurs when consumption of gluten damages the intestine, making nutrient absorption difficult. Others may also face similar conditions brought on by gluten consumption, like gluten ataxia, an autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous tissue and muscle coordination. Gluten may also impact irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that affects between 7-20% of adults, by fermenting in the gut and causing bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. So for many, figuring out some gluten-free recipes to enjoy over the holidays is essential.

Foods to Eat and Foods to Avoid

Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley, as well as all their derivatives. So when looking at ingredient lists on labels or in recipes, there are a number of ingredients that should be avoided.

Ingredients Containing Gluten

  • Enriched flour
  • Graham flour
  • Spelt  (also called dinkel or hulled wheat)
  • Kamut (also called Khorasan wheat)
  • Triticale
  • Durum wheat (also called pasta wheat)
  • Einkorn wheat
  • Emmer wheat (also called farro)
  • Semolina
  • Farina

With that in mind, there are some key holiday foods that those sticking to a gluten-free diet need to avoid. Many baked goods, like breads and cookies, contain flour or wheat, unless specifically labeled as gluten-free. Stuffing, sauces and many gravies also rely on similar ingredients and may not be safe to eat for anyone with a gluten condition.

It’s important to note that not all grains contain gluten, and will be an option for those on a gluten-free diet. Grains like quinoa, sorghum, some rices, millet and amaranth naturally do not contain gluten. Oats may also be an option, though they are often contaminated with gluten during processing, so it’s important to always check the label to ensure any oats you buy are gluten-free.

Fresh foods that are not processed often do not have gluten in them either. Meats and fish, dairy items, beans, vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts do not have gluten in them in their natural forms. If these foods have been processed, breaded, or mixed with grains, then there might be gluten present and you should read products labels. If you have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, make sure to read the label on everything you purchase to be safe.

Tips for Gluten-Free Baking

Worried that you will never be able to eat bread or cookies again when taking on a gluten-free diet? Fear not. There are some great commercial options available and even better recipes to satisfy all your gluten-free needs.

Baking gluten-free items often turn out as good, if not better, than their traditional counterparts. Why? They don’t have gluten. Remember, gluten acts as a glue and effects elasticity. Too much gluten and things can become too tough once baked. Working with ingredients containing gluten can also impact the consistency of your batter and how much it can be stirred before possibly being ruined. Without the gluten, over-stirring your batter is no longer a worry.

If you want to try your hand at gluten-free baking, start by using a commercial gluten-free flour blend and a gluten-free recipe. The Gluten-Free Girl recommends playing around with different flours and making your own flour blend using two or three of the gluten-free flour options. By using multiple flours, you can get a flavor and texture closer to wheat flour. It’s also important to remember that it’s ok when your dough looks completely different than it would with regular flour. Gluten changes the elasticity of the dough, so gluten-free bread dough often is the consistency of pancake batter.

Gluten-Free Girl also recommends baking by weight instead of cups. Scary concept, right? But using a scale instead of a measuring cup will allow you to swap out ingredients more easily and more accurately than using cups and tablespoons. 100 grams of something can be swapped for 100 grams of something similar, but they might not be the same number of cups. And remember, the rest of the world uses weight for recipes, so it really isn’t a new idea.

Lastly, many recipes recommend the use of xanthan gum or guar gum to act as a binding agent instead of gluten. But for some, these gums can still cause the uncomfortable symptoms of gluten and may be better off avoided. Try using psyllium husks, ground chia seeds, or ground flax seeds instead of the gums. This will have the same effect on your baking, but not on your gut.

Test out some new gluten-free recipes for your holiday baking and you can see the difference for yourself!