Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Going Gluten-Free? Know Your Grains

A while back, I was told by a professional cook that farro is a gluten-free grain. I happened to know that farro is an ancient relative to wheat, contains gluten. To my horror, I realized that she was serving farro as "gluten-free" substitute to the allergic eaters at the party she was catering. I wondered how many people paid for it later on. It is a common error in the food industry for chefs and servers to mistake gluten-containing grains for gluten-free ones. The general awareness about gluten-containing grains seems to be limited to wheat. My intention is to correct that misconception.

There are many articles and websites available that go in-depth about each and every grain. My intention here is not to be repetitive and do the same. I just want to arm you with the basics so that you can eat safely, especially when someone is trying to pass a glutenous grain off as a gluten-free one.

Gluten-containing grains that you can't eat

Wheat, Farro, Spelt, Kamut, Barley, Rye, & Oats

Farro, also known as Emmer Wheat (and some say Spelt), is an ancient grain that originated in the Mediterranean. It is often considered the great grandfather of wheat grains. Some say that it is safe for people with gluten intolerance to eat, because it has a lower count of glutenous proteins. My thoughts: it’s a gluten-containing grain, and an ancient relative of wheat. It is off of my menu, and probably should be left from yours. The next time an expert, like a chef, tells you that farro is gluten-free, you have my permission to educate that mistaken professional. 

Spelt also originated from the Mediterranean and later migrated to central Europe, and finally, America. It is said by some to be the same grain as Farro. It is said by others to be a direct descendant of the Farro plant. Regardless of its true identity, it is an ancient cousin of wheat. Some people mistake it for a gluten-free grain, but it contains gluten and should be avoided. 

Kamut is an ancient wheat grain that originated in Egypt. It is often used to make bread. It contains gluten and should not be eaten.

Barley is a close relative to wheat, therefore it should be avoided.

Rye is a species of wheat and should not be eaten.

There is debate in the health system about whether or not oats are safe for people with gluten intolerance, but oats are often processed on the same equipment as gluten-containing grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. I have eaten oats that were not marked as gluten-free and felt terrible afterward. I have eaten oats labeled gluten-free and had no problems. If you are willing to spend a pretty penny on GF oats, they are available in GF grocery aisles.

Gluten-free grains

Rice, Corn, Amaranth, Buckwheat, Millet, Montina, Quinoa, Sorghum, & Teff

Amaranth is an indigenous grain from South America. To me, it has a strange mildewy flavor, so use it sparingly. It is best if very little is mixed with other GF flours. I have tried to eat it cooked like rice, but I couldn't handle it.
Buckwheat is a flowering plant that is cultivated like a grain crop, but it is not a cereal or grass plant, like wheat. It is said to be indigenous to Asia. I rather enjoy buckwheat as a hot cereal. It is also great sprouted and sprinkled in salads! It adds a nutty richness to the flavor and texture of cakes, pancakes, and flour mixes. It is almost purple in color, so if you want the look of your baked goods to imitate the originals, you may want to skip the buckwheat. It is a little dense, so it is best if mixed with other GF grains.

Millet is a seeded plant used for grain and cereal production. It has no relation to gluten-containing grains. It has been a staple in Asia for thousands of years. Millet is rather flavorless and its texture is a bit grainy. However, it is nice when mixed with certain GF flours and used in particular cake, muffin, and quick-bread recipes.

Montina (Indian ricegrass)
A newcomer to the GF market, Montina is a grass plant that is not related to rice. It is indigenous to North America. It’s as much of a mystery to me as it is to you. 

One of my favorite GF alternatives, quinoa is not a grass plant, nor is it a cereal grain. It is actually related to leafy vegetables, and it originates from South America. It is high in protein and essential fatty acids. Quinoa is great baked in bread and cake mixes, especially spiced cakes, like carrot and apple cinnamon. I love to eat it cooked like rice in salted water. My favorite is to use it like pasta in olive oil-based sauces with garlic and herbs. It's also a great substitute for couscous.

Sorghum comes from a species of grass plant and originates from tropical regions around the globe. It has a sweet, nutty flavor. I have only eaten it in baked goods. It's not quite clear what sorghum's texture is when cooked alone. But it is a nice complement to most GF flour mixes.

Teff is a type of grass plant that comes from Ethopia. It is not one of my favorites. It is sandy, dry, and its flavor is bitter and uninteresting. I usually avoid it, unless someone else knows how to use it better than I do.

Other GF flour bases

Tapioca starch, Potato starch, Arrowroot powder, Bean flour

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