Your Gluten-Free Guide to Whole Grains

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat and some other grains—it’s what gives bread its springy, chewy character. Many people are discovering, however, that they have an intolerance to gluten or are celiac. While you may be able to eat any grain that catches your eye, some of your dinner guests may not be so fortunate…and besides, your taste buds (and health) will benefit from sampling the wide world of non-gluten flours and flavors. Chickpea flour, for example, makes wonderful sautéed flatbreads (similar to Indian chapatis), and almond meal is a welcome addition to many cookies and quick breads. Injera—the traditional bread prepared in Ethiopian households—uses ground teff, a grain that is gluten-free. In fact, some of our most cherished American dishes are gluten-free: traditional cornbread and buckwheat pancakes, to name a few.

If you’re trying out a gluten-free diet or are cooking for someone who is, you should know that you need to avoid using any wheat products (including creamy soups and sauces made with the butter-and-flour paste known as a roux) as well as the other grains that contain gluten: barley, bulgur, couscous, kamut, rye, and spelt. Oats are on the questionable list, since they’re often processed with or grown alongside wheat. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and easier to find gluten-free oats. But wheat sneaks into soy sauce, so don’t plan on serving chicken glazed with soy sauce—instead, look for wheat-free tamari, which simply contains fermented soybeans, water, and salt. Check out the Celiac Support Association’s website for a complete list of gluten-containing foods.

There’s something else to consider, too, as you explore the gluten-free world: the concept of whole grains. Like wheat-based products, most gluten-free products are made with stripped-out starches rather than whole grains. Unfortunately, stripped-out grains don’t taste like much, aren’t fun to use in the kitchen due to that lack of taste, and result in a host of health problems. The good news? Once you know what whole grains are and why they matter, you’ll be able to find lots of whole-grain gluten-free options.

Cereal grains consist of three main elements: the outer, tough bran that protects the seed while it waits for a good opportunity to grow; the delicate, nutrient-rich germ that is also the embryo of the seed; and the endosperm, the starchy inner portion that serves as the future plant’s food stock.

In terms of nutrition, all three elements of a grain are useful for human health. Just as it does for the plant, the starchy endosperm provides us with easily digestible, quickly-broken-down-into-glucose (blood sugar) energy. The germ offers us a variety of desirables: vitamin E, folate, zinc, phosphorous, and many others. The bran is mostly indigestible fiber that sweeps out our digestive systems and keeps us humming along.

In short, the whole grain provides us with a well-balanced package. If you start to take it apart, however, you run into some problems. One is that the out-of-context elements wreak havoc with our health, such as Type II diabetes. That’s often a result of eating large amounts of refined grains (endosperms), starches, and sugars. The other big problem with dissecting grains is that their delicate germs quickly degrade when taken out of their protective bran hulls. That degradation is passed on to us in the form of impaired nutrients.

Your best bet for freshness, nutrient value, and flavor is to opt for whole grains. When you get your whole-grain product home—especially whole-grain flours—put it in the refrigerator to extend its life and then use it within a month or so of opening. (This especially holds true for nut flours like almond and hazelnut, which contain more oils and are even more delicate than grain flours.) If you want to enjoy the freshest flours, grind as much flour as you need at the moment. This is a good way to save money, too, because whole grains keep much longer than pre-ground flours. Anything softer than a coffee bean can be ground in a coffee grinder; for harder grains, you’ll need a flour mill or Vitamix.

Another good reason to purchase whole grains is to use them in soups, stews, salads, side dishes…the list goes on and on. Scots, for example, have a wonderful tradition of using whole or steel-cut oats in everything from savory dinner stews to hearty breakfast porridges. Steel-cut oats have simply been sliced a few times—nothing has been stripped away, and even though their bran has been pierced, they’ll last longer than a grain that’s been ground into flour. In many African countries, millet and sorghum grains form the basis of many meals. Buckwheat—also known as kasha—reigns supreme in eastern European countries and is often served in its whole groat form.

Using whole grains will make your meals easy to prepare and more economical—just add some brown rice to your soup as it simmers away instead of buying/making a separate loaf of bread. Make your own breakfast cereal by cooking a big pot of whole grains on Sundays and then having a bowl of them before you leave for work in the mornings. (Add your own toppings: dairy milk, coconut milk, nut/grain milk, cinnamon, maple syrup, honey, dried dates, fresh fruit, etc.) Cooked whole grains will last for a week in the fridge. Your breakfasts will be much, much less expensive and much healthier than if you rely on prepackaged dry cereals; mix and match them however you’d like (just pay attention to individual cooking times).

Because of their relatively dense texture, cookies and quick breads are delicious when made with whole-grain, gluten-free flours. Yeast breads and airy cakes are trickier to make without gluten, however—when making those, it’s best to rely on recipes created with gluten-free whole grains. Specialty cookbooks can help you get the gluten out of your génoise.

The good news is, whether you’re gluten-free by design or out of necessity, there’s a world of possibilities at your whisk! And they’re all delicious.

Culinary speaker, cooking instructor, and recipe developer Lisa Howard loves to share her joy of food during her classes and talks. Her first cookbook, Healthier Gluten-Free, is available, and her second book, The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils, will be published in fall 2015. Stop by to check out her collection of over 1,000 original recipes.