Would it surprise you to learn that throughout most of recorded history, only a small, though powerful, portion of humanity (currently about 35 percent) has eaten wheat? Those of you who are embarking on wheat-free diets should take heart from this: people have been cooking and living healthy lives without wheat bread, wheat pasta, and wheat cakes for a very long time, and their rich cooking traditions can serve you still.
Wheat is a demanding crop. It cannot grow in the south because it is susceptible to blights under warm, humid conditions; it cannot grow in the far north, because it is too cold for it there. It cannot grow in wet or poor soils. There’s a great deal of the world that cannot support wheat. In those regions where wheat is not easily grown, you will find wheat-free (and even gluten-free) food traditions that you can cook from and enjoy. Be assured that they are many, storied, and fine.
Of course, there’s a second route for people who cannot tolerate gluten-producing proteins, and that’s the one that food manufacturers want you to take: buying costly mixes that approximate the tastes and textures of wheat-containing foods. I have explored these, and while they’re convenient, most of them do not make terribly good substitutes for glutinous foods: they are expensive to buy, and some of them don’t taste much like the real thing. You will be far better off seeking out traditions that never involved wheat.
Several years ago, a woman recently diagnosed with celiac disease told me that her diagnosis came with an unexpected blessing: it prompted her to learn to cook. Before then, she had mostly eaten out, ordered in, and otherwise avoided cooking, thinking it was too time-consuming for someone with demanding professional work.
When I realized how much more expensive buying gluten-free foods was, I decided I was going to learn to cook for myself. I had expected nothing more than eating more economically, but I discovered that I loved cooking for its own sake—it was more soothing than I anticipated, and I could eat really well without worrying that there might be gluten in anything so long as I did the cooking myself.”
That is the alternative that cooking out of long-established gluten-free traditions offers you. Here’s what you’ll need to know in order to face this new challenge.
What Is Gluten? Gluten is the largest protein molecule known to biochemistry. For our purposes as cooks and eaters, what’s important to understand about it is that some raw grains possess the potential to produce gluten. Gluten is not a protein that sits there, wholly formed: it must be produced through the combination of two precursor proteins, glutenin and gliadin, in the presence of oxygen and water, physical agitation (mixing, kneading), starch, and salt.
Some ingredients used in cooking—for example, sugars, fats, and eggs (which contain fat)—block the formation of gluten by preventing the two precursor protein molecules from attaching to each other. The kind of potentially glutinous grain also makes a difference: rye and barley, for example, contain less gliadin and glutenin than wheat. Hard winter wheats contain far more of these proteins than soft spring wheats and winter wheats grown in the South.
Celiac disease vs. Gluten Free
Many people are being told to try gluten-free diets as aids to digestion, clearing congestion, and a host of other health problems. Such changes in diet are voluntary and distinct from celiac disease, in which one’s own immune system attacks the presence of gluten in the gut and damages the gut’s lining. If you are not gluten-intolerant but simply want to minimize your exposure to it, you can minimize gluten production when baking by using low-protein wheat flours (White Lily; pastry flour; cake flour). If you have celiac disease, you probably need to entirely avoid the proteins that can form gluten and instead cook from traditions that never incorporated gluten-producing grains.
Industrial foods regularly include gluten-containing ingredients in places you wouldn’t expect to find them: tomato-based pasta sauces, soy sauces, canned vegetable sauces, salad dressings. That’s why learning to cook and bake instead of depending on processed food is so important to your health.
Here are the world’s most common grains that do not contain gluten:
legume flours (not derived from grain but made into flours)
As a cook or potential cook, this list should tell you that you can freely cook polentas (corn), stir-fries and risottos (rice), grain salads (quinoa, amaranth), flatbreads (buckwheat, millet, oats, teff, rice)—a range of possible explorations that’s almost unlimited! The traditional foods of central & southern Mexico and equatorial Central & South America; those of western, sub-saharan Africa; those of southern China and southeast Asia; those of southern Europe and the Horn of Africa can offer you more than a lifetime of pleasurable cooking and eating, most of it gluten-free.
*While oats themselves do not contain the precursor proteins to gluten, they are usually processed in plants that also process wheat; this is why oats are sometimes listed among gluten-producing grains. Certain brands of milled oats (such as Bob’s Red Mill GF Oats) are made on equipment that has not processed gluten-producing grains.