Breathe. It’s okay. It’s not as daunting as it might seem. You do have to be careful, just like you have to be careful when feeding someone with an allergy, but it’s not gonna break the bank or your mind. Here are the bare-bones you should know.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s what gives bread products their bouncy, chewy texture, and pastries their tenderness. Its elasticity is what gives products that rise… the stretchiness to rise. And more and more these days, people are cutting it out of their diet because it makes them sick.
What kinds of foods should I avoid serving?
Anything that has wheat, rye, or barley in it. Your all-purpose flour is ground wheat. As is your baking flour. Most likely, any flour in your house is going to be made of wheat. This means no “normal” breads, pastas, roux, cupcakes, pizza.
But there are sneaky sources of gluten, too. Processed foods manufacturers sometimes use the many properties of gluten to help with consistency or for filler. Sometimes, gluten is in products you would never expect it to be in. So processed foods can be a minefield. Sneaky sources of gluten include soy sauce, salad dressings, marinades, some cold cuts/deli meats, canned/tinned chili and soups… The list goes on. I always am sure to read the labels—even for products I’ve bought before, in case they’ve changed the recipe.
And just to be even more complicated, there are common ingredients which also equal gluten which don’t sound like they do. “Wheat flour,” sure. Sounds like it has gluten. But remember that barley has gluten, too, and malt comes from barley, so that “malt” that’s in Rice Krispies makes them no longer gluten free. Also, “modified food starch” may or may not come from wheat flour, so some avoid that as well.*
Celiac and gluten intolerant and gluten sensitive, oh my!
Everyone is different. Everyone I know who avoids gluten has a different level of reaction and desired avoidance. So, it’s best to ask for specifics. PLEASE ASK. I can’t speak for others, but personally I am more than happy to explain to someone how they can not make me sick.
Things to remember/ask:
Ask first about what level of ingredient avoidance the person strives for. In this, some are more sensitive than others. No modified food starch, old-fashioned blue cheese (which used to be made with wheat starter, nothing with “may have been processed on equipment containing wheat or gluten”? Or are one or more of those okay? How careful do they need to be? Go back to this list. At the bottom, there’s a list of things which may or may not contain gluten. How careful does your guest or guests need to be about those items? Just ask.*
Planning on serving something that contains oats? Gotta ask. See, commercial oats are usually processed on the same machinery that gluten-containing grains are processed on. As such, they’re usually contaminated with gluten. Gluten-free oats exist; they’re processed only by themselves, and thus avoid the contamination problem. HOWEVER, there’s some disagreement whether oats are really safe for celiacs and other gluten-sensitive individuals, and so many still avoid them, even if they’re gluten free. I know oats still make me somewhat sick, so I avoid them, but again, everyone is different. You know what I’m going to suggest doing by now, right?*
Plan on drinking alcohol? Well, beer is right out, unless it’s a gluten-free beer made from sorghum and/or rice. (They’re out there. They’re not always good, but they’re out there.) Distilled alcohols, on the other hand, are another source of disagreement. Some places will tell you that the act of distilling will take out the gluten. But regardless of what they say, scotch gives me a gluten reaction, as do wheat-based vodkas and cheaper tequilas and rums and gins, which are usually wheat/grain-based. And I’m not the only one. For some people, however, those alcohols are fine. You really do need to ask for the individual’s input. On the other hand, 100% agave tequilas and real rum (made from sugar cane) are naturally gluten-free options for you. And wine is made from grapes, which are also gluten-free.
Now we get to the big C-word. …Not that one. No, not that one either. I’m talking cross-contamination, here. I know it’s been talked about on this site before, usually in regards to uncooked meats and bacteria. (In all of these posts, in fact.) Well, the same goes for gluten. Crumbs get in the butter or are lying in wait on the counter. Or are lurking in your toaster. Croutons were tossed into the salad in a bowl, leaving contamination. Gluten has gotten trapped in the grain or the cuts in your cutting board, or in the joints in your pastry knife, or in your colander when you drained pasta. Gluten gets everywhere!
Here’s the thing, though. Different people have different levels of sensitivity. So, you really should ask. I know I need things cleaned well in-between uses with lots of hot, soapy, water, and would prefer to not use a toaster oven that has had gluten-y toast in it, but brushing off the crumbs is usually good enough for me if there’s no alternative. That’s not good enough for a friend of mine, however. That’d make her quite sick. So you need to ask. Should kitchen items have never been used for gluten-containing products? Simply cleaned well in-between using? Wiped off? What about toasters and sponges?
“Naturally” gluten-free meals are ones which don’t require any special products, and little-to-no substitution or alteration. For example, steak and corn on the cob and baked potatoes are all gluten-free. Just make sure the steak marinade is gluten-free (Better yet? Please don’t marinade that steak. Salt and pepper are gluten-free, and all you need to do a good steak justice), and use a new stick of butter for the corn and potatoes so it doesn’t have crumbs in it, and you’re all set. On the other hand, pasta suppers require gluten-free pastas and gluten-free garlic bread, and while tomato sauces are generally gluten free you always have to make sure.
As usual, the less processed food you plan to include, the better. Whole foods have fewer ingredients, after all. Meat and vegetables and fruits have one ingredient, and as long as that ingredient isn’t wheat nor rye nor barley (nor oats), it’s gluten-free.
Honestly, planning and serving a gluten-free meal is not really difficult. It just takes a little getting used to, and some thinking outside the box. Serve corn tortillas instead of wheat with your Tex-Mex food. Salads without croutons. Meat and vegetables. Homemade vegetable soups, either with no noodles or with rice noodles or rice. Stir-fry with rice and wheat-free tamari (instead of soy sauce with wheat in it). Rolled-up cold cuts, cheese, and gluten-free crackers. Baked potatoes. Serving a completely gluten-free meal is going to make it easier on you, rather than trying to worry about cross-contamination along with all the other things you’re worrying about when company is over.
And when in doubt? Say it with me now.*
Do you eat gluten-free? Does someone in your household? What’s the main thing you want someone to know when you go over to their house to eat? Chime in in the comments!
*The best thing to do is to ask. Really. Please ask.