Monday, April 30, 2012

A Word About Xanthan Gum

If you've ever done any gluten-free baking, or checked the ingredients of a packaged gluten-free product, you will have seen the ingredient xanthan gum.  It's everywhere.  It is used as an emulsifier, a thickener, and a gluten replacer, depending on what kind of product it inhabits.  You will see it in sauces as an emulsifier and thickener.  It's often found in ice creams - especially low-calorie or non-dairy ice creams - to smooth and thicken it for a creamy texture.  For gluten-free cooking it's used to replace the gluten in your baked goods to give the product structure.  Some people claim that you can't cook gluten-free without it, but I'm here to tell you that's not true!

Think about the first two uses I of the gum that I described.  In both cases, the gum is used to give the substance more body and form.  However, both sauces and ice cream are liquids, and xanthan gum is used to thicken them.  Breads and baked goods are not liquid in their finished state, and they don't need thickening as much as strength and flexibility that gluten normally provides in regular wheat flour.  Xanthan gum only lends one of these things to your breads and baked goods: strength, or stiffness.  It allows your baked good to hold its form, but it doesn't add flexibility.

In fact, if you use too much, or you don't make your dough very wet, your final product will be hard and dry.  Don't listen to people who tell you that you can't get bread to rise without it.  Your bread will rise - sometimes even better than without it - but without some help from a dough enhancer your bread will collapse in the oven.

Some people avoid xanthan gum because it doesn't agree with them.  Shauna at Gluten-free Girl has a post about it here.  She has made a lot of headway in using other things besides gums to replace gluten when needed.

There are lots of recipes where gluten doesn't need to be replaced at all, which is the case for my new pancake recipe.

I tried it with gums first, and it was a complete fail.  You're much better off with a good blend of flours that is balanced out between starches and whole grains, and which has a tasty flavor.  Visit my shop to find my flour blends.  My No. 1 All-purpose Flour doesn't have any xanthan gum in it, and can be used on its own in lots of recipes.  My No. 2 Pastry Flour has the xanthan gum already added at the minimum level so you don't over-do it.

Don't get me wrong.  I still use xanthan gum.  It's just that I have some rules about how to use it.  For instance, xanthan gum sucks up a lot of liquid, so you have to adjust for that in your recipe.  There are lots of things you need to adjust for in your recipes for liquid, like whole grains vs. starches, so it can get complicated.  You have to try a few times before you hit the nail on the head.  Here are a few guidelines:
  • Use the minimum amount of xanthan gum necessary for your baked good to hold its form, no more.
  • Xanthan gum works better in a sticky, tacky or wet batter.  If the dough is dry when raw, xanthan gum will make it into a brick when cooked.
  • Your dough with xanthan gum in it will become more soft and flexible if you put some oil or butter in it.  This is why almost every GF bread recipe has fat, but traditional breads don't.
I'll also list a few things that don't need xanthan gum, or which xanthan gum can hurt:
  • flours or batters for deep-fried foods
  • gravy
  • sauces
  • pancakes
  • anything not baked
Basically if you think of xanthan gum as lending structure, not flexibility, you will get on the right track with your gluten-free cooking.

As a teaser, I'll show you some photos of a bread recipe I'll share with you later this week.  This one does not have any xanthan gum.
One of these slices of bread has xanthan gum, and the other doesn't, but they both rose.  Check back later this week for the recipe.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Omission Beer Gluten-free Lager

A few weeks ago I posted a review of the brand-new Omission Gluten-free Pale Ale from Widmer.   It only took a short time for me to find the beer in a number of different locations, which you can find on the Find Omission page of their website. 

Since I have a gluten eater and beer lover as a resource, I will start with my boyfriend's response to the Omission Gluten-free Lager.  He sipped, then said:

"What style of beer is this?"

"A lager," I replied.

"Oh, this is pretty good for a lager.  I've had plenty of lagers that weren't nearly as good as this."

In this quote, I may have left out a few expletives that referenced other lagers.  But there were no expletives referencing this one.  You heard it from the expert: Omission Gluten-free Lager is pretty good for a lager. 

In some of the other reviews I've read about Omission, bloggers have commented that they prefer the Pale Ale.

I, for one, am not one of those bloggers.  I prefer the lager.  I might have even preferred the lager before I went gluten-free.  I've never been one of those people who got really into IPA - even though I live in Portland, and got really into beer.  Stouts, mostly.  For me, it's all about the roasty, malty thing.  I've definitely appreciated the occasional hoppy brew, but the roasted malt flavor of stout was one of the few things I missed after going gluten-free.

This is where Omission comes in.  They have preserved the malt flavor of beer by brewing with real barley.  They just "omit" the gluten.  They remove it afterwards.  Beer drinkers who try this type of beer say that it tastes like regular beer, but there's something different about it that they can't put their finger on.  I think I've just put my finger on it. 

Beers go through some sort of secret process after brewing to remove the gluten.  I think this process also dampens the subtlety in the flavor.  The Omission Pale Ale, while nice and bitter, doesn't have any of the hoppy, delicate, nuanced nose that other IPAs might have.  You can't pick out the Cascade Hops or a citrus aroma.  The flavor is there, but it's all dampened down.  If you don't believe me, just smell it.  You don't get the "nose feel."

Did I just coin a phrase?

This nose feel scenario is why I prefer the lager to the pale ale when it comes to Omission Beer.  If I'm craving a pale ale I'll find one that has really complex things going on with the aroma, and I'll deal with the metallic aftertaste.  If I want to taste the barley malt, I'll go for an Omission Gluten-free Lager.  That being said, I think both of these beers will be on my menu for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Will Make it Rise!

I've been doing quite a bit of research lately on gluten-free bread making.  I have noticed that there is a wide variety of binders, emulsifiers, dough enhancers, and other tricks of the trade that people use to improve the dough.  The gamut of ingredients is surprising.  I haven't used most of them, partly in an effort to be more purist, and partly due to the fact that I don't know where to start.

Many of these ingredients have conflicting reports on when they are used and what for.  For instance, I have one source saying that gelatin is used to add moisture and shelf life to bread dough, and another saying that it adds volume but makes dough brittle and dry.  I've heard similar contradictory claims about xanthan gum, which I know to be true from experience.  Depending on how you use it, xanthan gum can either help bread to rise and hold its form, or it can make a dough stiff, dry, and unable to expand.

The same can be true of gluten itself: quick breads are all about retarding the gluten formation because it can make a hard product.  Bread making strives to develop the gluten to help the dough expand and become elastic.   The two concepts seem contradictory, but make sense if you're familiar with cooking with wheat.
My new tip: drop your bread on the floor before baking.

Dropped bread results in a superior loaf.
The same issues surround gluten-free baking, but we GF bakers don't have hundreds of years of tradition to inform us what circumstances provide which effect.  Hopefully the technology that helps us all share our recipes will help us catch up to our glutinous baker friends in creating successful artisan methods for making gluten-free bread.

I have to admit, I love being a part of this process of figuring out how to bake gluten-free.

Here is a list of gluten-free dough additives I've compiled from my research so far:
These ingredients are often used in addition to dough conditioners found in traditional gluten-containing breads, such as:

  • ascorbic acid
  • vinegar (esp. apple cider vinegar)
  • oil or other fat (usually only found in richer breads like brioche)
  • lecithin
  • eggs (usually only found in richer breads like brioche)
  • beer or sparkling water for carbonation (to help expand the yeast bubbles)
What is your favorite dough enhancer, binder, or other trick for making gluten-free bread?  What has given you the best results in volume, flavor, or texture?  How do you make them work for you?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shallots and Asparagus

Lately, I haven't had enough time to keep up with my blogging.  Between work, chores, and making ridiculous amounts and varieties of food with my boyfriend I just can't find the time.  "I'll do anything I can to help you establish your gluten-free empire," my boyfriend told me sweetly.  He would cook,  clean, or whatever needed to be done. Instead, I asked him to do something that wouldn't help get the chores done at all: I encouraged him to start his own blog.  Thus was born Just Another Shallot and Asparagus Blog.  We collaborated on a lot of the recipes on here, and I must admit, I took all the photographs so far.  (Note to self: teach boyfriend studio photography.)  My favorites so far are the photos on the sushi post.

Need some gluten-free product photography done?  I'm your lady.  Here's my website.  But back to this new blog: he may not lead with this information, but all the recipes on there are gluten-free, so stay tuned.  Later this week there will be a recipe for steak with asparagus topped with a shallot and butter sauce.

Those are purple asparagus, if you were wondering.  They lose their purple when cooked.  The asparagus on the sushi is a purple, too.

So, if you're ever wondering where I am, just take a look at Just Another Shallot and Asparagus Blog.  I may be there.  I tend to concentrate on scones, bread, waffles, and pancakes on this blog because that's what I think you, my readers, might want.  But really sushi and steak are more what I would eat on a day-to-day basis if I could.  You can get all of that naturally gluten-free goodness by checking out my blog's savory, vegetable-y counterpart.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Arrowhead Mills Buckwheat Flour - is it Gluten Free?

I promised my faithful readers back in February that I would provide a riveting blog post involving a gluten test on Arrowhead Mills Organic Buckwheat Flour.  Today, belatedly, I will fulfill that promise.  But first, a word about buckwheat and why it might need testing for gluten.

Buckwheat is not related to wheat at all.  If you would like an explanation of the word origin, read the Wikipedia article on buckwheat and click to Etymology.  The point is, it's more closely related to rhubarb than anything remotely like a cereal grain.  It is ground into a flour for use in any number of baked goods.  Buckwheat waffles are my favorite application of this flour. 

In spite of the fact that buckwheat is nothing like actual wheat, the flour can sometimes be contaminated with wheat flour.  For most people this would not affect the use of buckwheat flour, but for those sensitive to wheat gluten it could make them sick.   The cross-contamination could happen during the harvesting of the food or during production of the flour.  The source of the contamination is not always clear, but the end result is that there are very few certified gluten-free buckwheat flours on the market.  (Birkett Mills has buckwheat flours that they say are gluten-free, but I have not tried them.)  Arrowhead Mills is the only one that I have found that claims a gluten-free status right on the bag.  However, as I mentioned in my Hearty Blueberry Muffins Recipe, Arrowhead Mills has not been explicit about whether or not they test their buckwheat for gluten contamination.  I wrote to them to ask about it, and this was their reply:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding our Arrowhead Mills Buckwheat Flour. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and your satisfaction is very important to us.
The Hain Celestial Group's labeling declares major allergens (peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, and wheat) and we follow the U.S. FDA's regulations. We recognize the serious nature of the allergen issue and we strive to minimize risk.

Both major and minor ingredients of all products, as well as all processing procedures and equipment, are closely scrutinized and all potential allergen issues as determined by the Hain Celestial Group are declared on our labeling.

We assure you that strict manufacturing processes and procedures are in place and that all of our manufacturing facilities follow rigid allergen control programs that include staff training, segregation of allergen ingredients, production scheduling, and thorough cleaning and sanitation.

Thank you for your continued support. If we can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact us at 1-800-434-4246, Monday through Friday from 7AM - 5PM Mountain Time.

I wanted to use the flour in some products I am selling in my online store, and I needed them to be absolutely safe for celiacs and other gluten-sensitive individuals.  Since they didn't answer the part of my question about testing, I decided to test it myself.  I bought a 5-pound bag from the Arrowhead Mills online store.  I used an EZ Gluten Test Strip to test it for gluten.  The test, which can be bought for personal use, is sensitive to anything above 10 parts per million of gluten protein.
To my surprise, the test came back positive for gluten.  To make sure I didn't just hit a "hot spot" I tested the flour a second time, from a different portion of the bag, with the same results.  It was not a "high positive," and unfortunately the type of testing I use does not give me an exact amount of gluten in parts per million (ppm).  The EZ Gluten test has only five possible results: Negative, Positive, High Positive, Very High Positive, and Invalid.  The High Positive rating is for gluten presence up to 10% or 100,000 ppm.  All I know from the "Positive" test results is that the flour has gluten above 10 ppm and below 100,000 ppm.  The federal guideline for claiming that a product is "gluten-free" is that it has fewer than 20 ppm of gluten protein.  It's possible that this buckwheat flour falls under that range.  My testing is not sensitive enough to determine the exact amount of gluten in my sample.
You can see that the third line, the "test" line, is faint compared to the H and C lines.  The EZ gluten literature states that "the intensity of the test line is not an indication of gluten concentration."

My conclusion is that individuals who are highly sensitive to gluten should use caution with this product.  While Arrowhead Mills cleans their lines before processing their buckwheat, it does not sound like they have a dedicated facility for gluten-free production, and they don't say whether they do any testing in-house for gluten contamination.  While their product may have fewer than 20 ppm of gluten as per the federal guideline in the US, there is currently no law or federal regulation that can force them to prove or comply to this standard.  My own testing has shown that there is likely over 10 ppm of gluten.  Regular and consistent testing of the flour in a lab would be required to determine whether it is truly gluten-free.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Omission Beer

I stepped into the Horse Brass Pub last night.  The occasion was that the Horse Brass happens to be located across the street from my laundromat.  My boyfriend and I felt like a laundry night celebration - or consolation prize, as the case may be.  I started checking out the famously long list of guest taps that they offer, looking for something gluten-free.  There was a cider on tap, but at the very bottom, I saw a surprise: Omission Pale Ale.  The server came by and I jumped right on it.

"Can I get a bottle of the Omission Beer?" I queried, expecting the usual look of pity on my beer-loving server's face when he realized I wasn't going to order anything good.  But that's not the look I got.

The server replied, "Yeah, that's actually pretty good.  It's the only gluten-free beer I've ever tried that tastes like real beer."  If I hadn't been getting it anyway, this would have sold me.  I've never had a Portland beer server recommend a gluten-free beer in all my many years of being gluten-free.

And it did.  It did taste like real beer.  Omission is made like real beer, with malted barley, and the gluten is taken out afterward.  To see a video of how it's done check out Gluten-free PDX's blog post on it.

My boyfriend wanted to try it, too.  "If someone served this to me I wouldn't have known that it was gluten-free," he said.  "Finally, some hops."

Seeing as how it's so real, is it safe for me? you might ask.  From all accounts, yes.  They test each batch before selling.  Read more about it on the Beer West Blog and on Gluten-free Portland's coverage of the beer release event.

Now you'll be asking: where do I find it?  It's only available in Oregon right now.  The Omission website has a growing list of locations where you can buy it.  Widmer Brothers brews the beer, and they will have plenty in supply a their Gasthaus, I'm sure.  The Horse Brass isn't on the list yet, but you heard it from me, you can get it there too.  Keep an eye out for it around Portland and you'll be sure to run into it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Recipe for GF Calamari

If you're like me, the first thing you thought of when you learned that you had to eat gluten-free was: how will I get my calamari?  Well, here's your answer.  And it's surprisingly simple.  Calamari can be very affordable compared to other seafood, so don't be intimidated by trying to cook it.  I experimented with plenty of other breadings, but this easy solution is the best.  The combination of rice flours makes a breading that is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
You will need five ingredients:

Canola oil (or another high-heat oil)
calamari, cut in pieces
glutinous rice flour (a GF food made from cooked sticky rice)
white rice flour

Here's how you do it:

Heat the oil, at least 1 inch deep, in a pan or deep fryer.  Mix in a medium bowl:

Glutinous rice flour
Salt to taste

Mix in a separate bowl:

White rice flour
Salt to taste

Coat the calamari pieces with the salted glutinous rice flour first, then the white rice flour.  When the oil is hot, cook the calamari in batches.  Place the pieces gently into the oil and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until it starts to brown.  Flip each piece over and cook the other side for 1 minute.  Remove to a paper towel and cook another batch.  Serve hot.

Would you like some other gluten-free ideas?  Visit the blog carnival at the Gluten-free Homemaker.  April's theme is lemons.  I should have taken this photo with a beautiful slice of lemon, which would go perfectly.


Friday, April 6, 2012

The Best Gluten-free Pancakes You will Ever Eat

I had plenty of failures before I got gluten-free pancakes to work for me.  My goals: to make the pancakes look, feel and taste just like I remember from childhood.  Everybody's dream.

Sunday was pancakes and scrambled eggs day.  We did brunch because my sister and I went to church with my mom Sunday mornings.  My dad cooked brunch.  He proved himself a versatile chef in other areas, but where he excelled was in the realm of pancakes and sourdough bread.  My childhood memories are infused with the smells of pancakes and baking.

I haven't nailed the sourdough bread yet.  In fact, I haven't even tried.  There's time for that.  For now, I will conquer the pancakes.  Every individual has a certain way that they like pancakes to be, and the origin of their pancake desires rest in the way they had pancakes presented to them as a child.  For me, the perfect pancake is about five inches across and a quarter inch high.  It bubbles perfectly after the batter is on the griddle for a while, and when you flip it you see a perfect golden disk, evenly browned.  My dad had an electric griddle which got a lot of good use.  I use a cast-iron reversible griddle over the stove top, and I get very similar results.

So here is my homage to my father's perfect pancakes.  You can buy a mix too!

Recipe for The Best Gluten-free Pancakes You Will Ever Eat

Makes about 10 5-inch pancakes.

(Please note: this recipe calls for no xanthan gum.  Many of my recipes with this flour mix don't need it.  I tried using xanthan gum at first, but it made the batter too dense.)

Heat your griddle to medium-low.  Mix in a large bowl:

1.5 cups (200g) GF Pancake Flour Blend
4 Tbsp (44g) sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

In a medium bowl, whisk together:

2 eggs
3 Tbsp (44 g) butter, melted
1 tsp vinegar 

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat for a few strokes.  Measure out:

2/3 cup milk

Add the milk to the batter a bit at a time until you get the consistency that you want.  Using the full 2/3 cup should give you batter for 5-inch wide, 1/4 inch tall pancakes as pictured.  Less milk will give you fewer, but thicker pancakes.  Beat the batter until well-combined.  Don't worry, there's no gluten.  You can't over-beat.  Once it's smooth, pour the batter onto the griddle to the size of pancake desired (if the batter doesn't pour, you need to add more milk).  Cook the first side until bubbles appear evenly over the entire surface.  Flip the pancakes once bubbles appear in the middle of the disk.  Cook the second side until the pancake is evenly brown on the bottom.  Set them aside on a warm plate as they cook and repeat the process until all your batter is gone.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Beer-braised Chicken Tacos

Some friends and I went to a cabin in the woods a few weeks ago for a weekend getaway.

We shared cooking duties, and I was involved in Mexican Night.  I thought up this idea for making some beer-braised chicken to share with those of us who were not vegetarian.  Boy did the vegetarians miss out, because this was one of the best things I've ever made!  I've cooked the recipe several more times since.  It takes a little time to braise things until they are tender, but it's really worth it.  Dark-meat chicken is the quickest to prepare, but I've also used this same recipe with leftover pork chops that were also tasty.

For the beer in the recipe, I've used several things, depending on what was available:

Redbridge Beer
New Planet Raspberry Beer
Harvester Pale Ale

Everything worked well, even the raspberry beer.  I recommend just getting something that you want to drink, because you probably won't use a whole bottle unless you're making a larger batch.

I often make my own tortillas.  Corn tortillas are naturally gluten-free and it's amazing to have them fresh.  Check out the No Recipes blog post on How to Make Tortillas to learn how.

Recipe for Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

Makes enough meat for about 6 tacos

In a heavy saucepan, heat:

1 Tbsp olive oil

Once the olive oil is hot, brown on both sides, one or two at a time:

4 boneless skinless chicken thighs

Brown them one at a time if necessary; don't crowd them in the pan.  Once there is nice browning on the bottom of the pan remove the chicken to a plate and pour in:

1/2 cup beer

Scrape up the browning from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.  This browning makes the sauce deliciously rich.  Once the pan is completely deglazed, add the chicken back in and top the chicken with:

salsa verde
more beer if needed
salt to taste (depending on how salty your salsa is, you may not need any salt.  The flavors will concentrate as the dish cooks.)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds (optional)

Cook at a simmer until the meat is  very tender, 40-60 minutes.  If more browning forms on the bottom of the pan, scrape it up and incorporate it into the sauce.  In the meantime, prep your tortillas and any toppings you want.  I like sauteed shallots and bell peppers, fresh sliced avocado, cilantro, and sour cream (pictured above).  Other times, I like to keep it simple to highlight the verde sauce (pictured below).  When the chicken is done, assemble your tacos with all your favorite toppings, or leave each topping in a bowl for each person to choose their own.