By Rochelle Bilow
After test-kitchen contributor Jackie Ourman‘s 7 year-old son was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2011, she began worrying: Will we ever eat normally again? She mourned the eating life she assumed her son would never experience. (Birthday cakes! Pizza parties! Beer in college!), and just as the enormity of the situation was sinking in, Ourman got another bomb: She was also gluten-intolerant. A former HR professional in investment banking turned stay-at-home mom, Ourman realized she was not content with a lifetime of lumpy pasta, rice crackers, and processed, packaged wheat substitutes, she decided to enroll in culinary school. There, she learned to cook and bake without gluten, chronicling her experiences along the way. An internship opportunity led her to Bon Appétit, where she now works in the test kitchen.
Ourman knows too well that these days, uttering the phrase “gluten-free” is a sure way to incite controversy and spark debate. From the gluten-intolerant and gluten-sensitive to the gluten-oblivious, our country is obsessed with this elasticity-giving protein composite found in wheat, barley, rye, and brewer’s yeast. Although not everyone who avoids gluten is intolerant of it, Ourman and her son represent the small portion (about 1%) of the population who can’t absorb nutrients in gluten-containing foods—eating it makes them sick. In light of that, Ourman has dedicated herself to raising awareness about living a gluten-free lifestyle, including how to cook without gluten and how to navigate the world of dining out.
Ourman has also been hard at work in our test kitchen, creating entirely gluten-free, BA-approved desserts. After tasting them all (they’re delicious), we spoke with Ourman about how to give up rye, barley, and wheat without sacrificing flavor, texture, or enjoyment: What are the most common gluten-free mistakes? Here’s how to totally screw up gluten-free cooking—or not.
It’d be a mistake not to eat this gluten-free chocolate cream pie.
1. This Gluten-Free Flour Is All I Need!
If you’re giving up gluten for health reasons (meaning you’re actually allergic to gluten and your body can’t tolerate it), you’re going to need to think beyond chickpea flour. “Gluten-free is not just about ingredients; it’s a process,” Ourman says. Cross-contamination is a serious issue, so if you also cook with glutenous flours, you’ll have to take extra precautions not to mix the two. Think about the cookware and tools you use: Flipping gluten-free pancakes with a spatula that you just used for whole-wheat flapjacks is a no-go. While you can certainly use the same pots and pans for both kinds of baking, be sure to clean them thoroughly between rounds. And it may sound elementary, but gluten-free cookies can’t hang out on the same serving platter as regular cookies. Even well-meaning health-food stores often get it wrong: It’s a definite “don’t” to store bulk gluten-free flour directly next to a tub of the regular stuff.
2. Carbs Are Bad, Duh
Repeat after us: Gluten-free does not mean carbohydrate-free or grain-free. If you’re looking to ban all carbs from your life, that’s cool. We don’t judge. But it’s not the same as going gluten-free, which requires eliminating flours that contain gluten: wheat (including spelt), barley, and rye. Gluten-free folks can still happily enjoy carb-y, starchy delights like rice, potatoes, amaranth, sorghum, and oats (provided they’ve been processed with gluten-free equipment). “Rice and potatoes are totally underrated!” Ourman says, adding that she tries to live as naturally gluten-free as possible. That means she chooses foods that are already sans gluten, rather than seeking out gluten-free versions of traditionally gluten-rich foods like pasta, crackers, and wheat bread.
See more: 10 Healthy Office Snacks
3. All Flours Look the Same in the Dark
Truth time: Gluten-free baking isn’t as simple as swapping a cup of all-purpose pastry flour for a cup of g-free. There’s a whole world of gluten-free flours out there, from chickpea flour to almond meal, and they don’t all react with other ingredients in the same way. For the gluten-free dessert recipes on our site, Ourman uses a widely available option: King Arthur Multi-Purpose.
As a general rule, Ourman avoids recipes that rely on flour as the star ingredient. “If you go for recipes that have a high ratio of flour to other ingredients, your baking project becomes more like a science experiment.” She also adds a small amount of ground almonds, ground oats, or coconut flour along with her gluten-free flour. “It acts as a moistener and adds extra flavor,” she explains, noting that a recipe that calls for two cups of all-purpose flour may get swapped out with one and a half cups of gluten-free flour and half a cup of ground oats. And one more word about add-ins: Any recipe that calls for more than a cup and a half of alterna-flour should be supplemented with a binding agent. Ourman likes to use xanthan gum, and although she hasn’t experimented with guar gum, says that can also be used.
These are not a health food. But they sure are tasty.
4. Going Gluten-Free Will Make Me Strong Like Bull (and Skinny, Too)
If you’re looking to shed a few pounds or lighten up your diet, going gluten-free may not be the best option. Gluten-free is not synonymous with healthy. As Ourman says, “A gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.” Don’t be fooled into eating gluten-free treats at the expense of other healthy (and naturally g-free) choices, like fruits and vegetables.
See more: The Worst Things to Do at a Restaurant
5. Going Gluten-Free Is Hard. I Give Up.
Going gluten-free is hard. Dining out means doing research, and truly gluten-free restaurants are admittedly rare. (Does that gluten-free pizza get handled with the same pizza peel as the wheat one the table next to you ordered? Will the bar carry gluten-free beer?) Ourman became discouraged early on when gluten-free recipes from her favorite websites didn’t replicate well in her own kitchen. Because gluten-free baking can feel like conducting your own chemistry experiments at home and hoping for the best, there’s a lot of potential for missteps along the way—not to mention that the many different gluten-free flours available can vary drastically in taste, and what one recipe tester deems awesome can taste flat to another.
When done right, a gluten-free lifestyle does not have to be austere, overly restrictive, or isolating—and it can definitely be delicious. Remember to seek out naturally gluten-free foods, and continue testing substitute recipes until you hit your stride. “Food is so personal,” Ourman says—only you know what tastes good and feels right.
More from Bon Appétit:
6 Peanut Butter Alternatives for Sandwiches
photos: Alex Lau