What Do You Mean, I’m Gluten Free?

So, I’ve hit the point where I think I should explain something that is going on with my cooking…

Very much to my own surprise, and rather to my own irritation, I seem to have some sort of an issue with gluten. (Or… wheat… but that’s the primary source of gluten in our culture.)

Home made whole wheat bread Backing up, here… For many years, I’ve preferred whole grains, and for the last 8 or 9, I’ve avoided refined grains all together and eaten only whole ones. And I make a very good 100% whole wheat bread…  But the funny thing has been that I have, without really deciding to, eaten less and less of that bread. And I used to eat a lot of whole grain rye crackers, but in the last few years they’ve been sitting on the shelf while I ate the brown rice cakes in their place. And we really haven’t had pasta that often lately… (Unlike many people I know, we prefer the texture of whole wheat pasta to that of brown rice pasta for most things. We like it chewy.) Somehow… we’re eating polenta, instead.  None of those changes were deliberate – I just seemed to do it.

A number of other people I know with the same issues I have with sugar and refined grain avoid wheat all together, finding that helps the way they feel. But I ate it infrequently, and didn’t notice any difference between the times I ate it and the times I did not, so didn’t think it affected me.

So, then, a few months ago… I’d been reading about making seitan, or Asian Mock Meat. Seitan is the Japanese word, but it’s common in the cooking of other Asian countries, too, especially in Buddhist cuisine, and it is very traditional, and can be done very well. It has the advantage of being chewy, so mimics the mouth feel of meat, and readily absorbs flavor from seasoning. A friend who is strongly a meat eater was telling us how good the Mock Duck at the local Thai place was… and others who are vegetarian were talking about how easy it was to make at home. I thought it would be interesting to try a relatively easy and traditional (not to mention inexpensive, if I make my own) meat alternative, and made some.

Well – the thing is, it is wheat gluten. You make a dough, awakening the gluten, and then wash out the starch, leaving only the gluten, which is protein. (Or, even easier, you make it from Vital Wheat Gluten – but I did the flour version.) For a first try it wasn’t bad, well worth making again.

And then – every place in my body where I sometimes have trouble with inflammation inflamed… badly. Sore, achy, swollen – the works… all at once. So I thought – this is not good… and set about avoiding every possible source of wheat and/or gluten for a while, to clear that up… and start considering what to do about it.

Breakfast - inhabitedkitchen.comNow, as I said, I’d never noticed any difference if I did or did not eat wheat. But in some reading I’d done for the blog, I’d learned that there is a real problem with cross contamination of oats – and I ate some form of oatmeal for breakfast almost every day. (And if I did not – I ate bread…) So I switched to the corn muffins (Yes I know people with corn issues too – one thing at a time…) and the inflammation cleared up, as I expected it to.

But so did something else. I’d been gradually, over just the last few years, developing a digestive problem, which I’d been blaming on the hormonal fluctuations that are causing the migraines. The severity had varied, for no obvious reason, but it was frequently uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful. The usual advice is to change your diet to… the way I already eat – lots of vegetables, beans, and whole grains… and I wasn’t sure what else I could do. But a week without gluten – or regular oatmeal which might have gluten contamination – and it cleared up completely. For the first time in well over a year.


So I started researching. This particular symptom is a known – though atypical – symptom of celiac disease. Which is an autoimmune disease, which (contrary to what medicine used to think) can be developed as an adult. Especially (like other autoimmune diseases) as a result of ongoing stress. Like years of daily migraines, maybe??

Fresh and Lovely - www.inhabitedkitchen.comSo I’ve been sort of testing this myself… I made my bulgur wheat tabbouli – and the symptoms came back. I avoided gluten and they went away. I tried oatmeal again – and the symptoms came back. (That seems a lot for cross contamination, actually… some people do have trouble with oats themselves. though it’s not clear why. One of these days I’ll get the certified gluten free oats and see what happens… now, I’m just avoiding them.)

And – in some ways this is more conclusive – I had symptoms for no apparent reason. Thought – oh, that was too easy… mentioned it to Rich – who checked the label of the can of chili we’d eaten the day before. Bingo… wheat flour… (We have a couple of cans left – he’ll finish them.) We’re going to be reading labels even more obsessively than we do already.

So… (If you’re still reading this far down…) this is now a Gluten Free blog, as I am now eating gluten free. I have not been officially tested – and honestly I don’t know if I will be… (Yes, I’ll discuss this at my next doctor’s appointment.) To get a positive result, you need to eat a “normal amount” of gluten (which is much more than I’ve eaten in many years, possibly ever, since I never ate bread with dinner – they seem to assume that Normal is three meals a day) for a period of time before the test – authorities seem to disagree about how long, but I’ve seen as long as three weeks. And whatever the results are, I’m not going to eat something that causes trouble…all the test would do is help me avoid a few arguments.

Salad lunch WIAW 33The key is, though, that this really doesn’t change most of what I eat. The warnings I have seen not to just go gluten free all seem to be aimed at people who then buy a lot of expensive and highly processed GF convenience foods… instead of avoiding processed food and eating whole grains. All I’m doing is changing the assortment of whole grains I eat. I’d actually been playing with a variety of grains before this arose at all – partly as a service to others, mostly because I find it interesting. Since I cook most of our food from scratch, it is very easy to control what is in it.

Cheesy eggs in tortillas - www.inhabitedkitchen.comMy biggest change has been breakfast – what do I do without my lovely steel cut oats? Muffins, yes, but I’ll also experiment with other kinds of porridge. And buckwheat pancakes… at least some of the time. I’m also going to be pulling away a little from rice. After the “oats masking the issue” Thing I suspect it’s best to not eat the same thing all the time, day in and day out, just because I think it is innocuous. You’ll be seeing more of other grains, and more potatoes and sweet potatoes…

And I will be experimenting a lot with recipes. Most of the recipes out there seem to be aimed at people who are trying to find a replacement for their nice light white bread, and their cookies, and Aunt Mary’s Angel Food Cake recipe. That’s not the way I eat… I want a replacement for a good sour rye bread, and chewy bagels, and the beautiful whole wheat bread I’d made for years. I don’t know if I will get them. Cost is a major factor for me… and the interesting grains and flours are the most expensive. (Though the flour is still usually less expensive than buying even standard baked goods… I have to remember that.) On the other hand – I may actually do better with pie crust and an occasional holiday bread using millet and rice flours… we’ll see. And I don’t want to use a lot of gums and things, and I do want to understand what is happening… There will be much research, and much experimentation. And, eventually, if and when I find something interesting, you’ll read about it.

Roasted Stuffed Pumpkin - www.inhabitedkitchen.comAnd, again – this does not in any way affect most of the recipes I have posted on this blog. I am working on the GF roux cubes (so far, millet flour may be the winner, and I’ll write about them as soon as I feel I have something, but I want to try some other variations) but vegetable recipes, and roast chicken, and ways to come home and throw dinner together – that doesn’t change. Most of the food I eat has not changed at all.

This will continue to be a blog about “Eating well, with limited time, energy, and money” – and it has always (quietly) avoided sugar and refined grains. (I didn’t usually talk about that, because, well, what did that have to do with Brussels sprouts? But I have posted an occasional sugar free dessert.) I probably will talk a little more about the gluten, because that will be taking some of my time and attention, as I experiment and learn, and you may as well get the results.

Frozen roux cubes - inhabitedkitchen.comMostly, though? The biggest change right now is the roux cubes – if wheat is fine for you, keep making and using the ones you have – they’ll continue to work in any recipe I make down the road. If wheat is a problem and you’ve been sighing over them, sub in millet flour for now – I’ll have more details later, but a straight substitution did give me something that worked. For that matter – if you didn’t like the look or taste of whole wheat in your white sauce but want to use whole grains, try the millet flour… it has a much lighter color and flavor. (Before I ever knew gluten was an issue for me, I was trying different flour and fat combinations just because I wanted to see how the flavor affected the end dish. This just sped up the experiments.)

If you like the blog, keep reading – nothing major will change. If you are new here, I hope you will like it! (I’m not usually this wordy…)






4 thoughts on “What Do You Mean, I’m Gluten Free?”

  • totally fascinating, wish you well with this. Don’t leave garbanzo four off your list to try as I am on the look out for new ideas. You make gluten free sound comforting and easy rather than scary

    • Thanks!

      I really don’t see it as scary – though I’ll certainly admit annoying…

      Right – I haven’t even touched the bean flours yet. I was fascinated, though, to see that there is a perfectly traditional Italian bready sort of thing made from garbanzo/ceci/chick pea/gram flour. And a number of Indian breads.

      My approach here, as it always has been, is to look at the foods I *do* eat, more than the ones I do not. And the more traditional foods that do fit my – I hate the word diet, it’s been so misused over the years, but it really just means what you eat – so,the foods that do fit into my eating pattern (how’s that?)…

      Let me disentangle myself from that non-sentence. The more traditional foods I eat, recipes that play to the strengths of the food, rather than trying to make it something else, the happier I am.

      So – instead of yearning for rye bread, I’ll feast on buckwheat pancakes, and blini, and kasha, and galettes, and…

      I keep looking at iddli – an Indian steamed cake? Dumpling? made of rice and dal. It needs a special thing to cook it, but I think I can fake it well enough in an old fashioned egg poacher to at least decide if I like it enough to go to Kalustyan’s and buy the real gadget.

      And so on from there. It’s going to be an adventure…

  • I will follow your experiments with interest, Anne. I have been avoiding wheat for quite a while now, and very much liking oats and rice and buckwheat and chick peas and…oh the world of browns that emerged when I looked another direction than wheat!
    My choice was like your pattern of simply comfortably drifting toward other things, and did not have significant symptoms to show. I just know I feel better!

    • The problem for me was that I was eating more oats than wheat – but, for me, they seem to be part of the problem, not the solution…

      One reason I can move on without it being too scary is that I never did eat that much bread. Even when I was growing up, my parents never served it with dinner, as an adult I’m not fond of sandwiches, and I’d rather have hot cereal than toast for breakfast. This makes it much easier for me than for many people. Avoiding oats is actually more disruptive… I’ve had to rethink my breakfasts.

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