Gluten-free Cooking

Operators share tips on making safe, gluten-free items in house.

Published in FSD Update

Florida Blue’s gluten-free cookie uses rice flour and

In the food industry, there are always buzzwords. Organic. Factory farming. Superfoods. And these days, gluten free. Though a gluten-free diet is a medical treatment for celiac disease, more people across the country have started avoiding foods containing gluten for a variety of reasons: losing weight and eating healthier, to name a few. Couple that with an increased understanding (read: easier diagnosis) of celiac disease, and gluten free is a buzzword with staying power.

After customers asked for gluten-free options, Jason Adams, resident district manager with Sodexo at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, teamed up with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) to earn gluten-free certification. Today, gluten-free options are present across campus, including a gluten-free menu at the full-service restaurant, where items like gluten-free pizza, bread, rolls, pastas and soups are available.

“This platform offers a variety of comfort foods that are all made from scratch,” says Adams, who created a customizable gluten-free pasta bar. “Parents and students feel much safer while eating on campus now.”

Adams isn’t alone in his efforts. Anthony Kveragas, chef/manager at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., makes a variety of gluten-free items from scratch, including soups, salad dressings, pizza, fried chicken and pastas. “Offering popular gluten-free comfort foods is where we have received the most appreciative feedback,” Kveragas says.

Savvy substitutions

So how can you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon? The first step is to identify existing recipes that can be easily converted with gluten-free ingredients, says Kveragas, who substitutes gluten-free soy sauce and rice noodles in Asian recipes. “Cornstarch, rice, chickpea, potato or tapioca flour, xanthan gum and arrowroot [are great thickening alternatives] to bind a soup or in breads as they provide the stickiness needed in dough.”

Making items from scratch is key. “It’s a lot easier to deal with allergens when we know exactly what’s going into a dish and can control things,” says Max Huppert, director of nutrition for the Steamboat Springs School District, in Colorado, who has found success with gluten-free granola cookies and pizza. Plus, prepackaged items are more expensive, he adds. “Include a nutritionist,” Adams says. “They can help you break down existing recipes and determine the components that must be removed to make it gluten free.”

Maintaining consistency

Be mindful of gluten-free preparation, warns Michael Atanasio, manager of food and nutrition at Overlook Medical Center, in Summit, N.J., who offers gluten-free items like pizza, lasagna, cakes, breads and pastries. “All substitutions should be made in a way that is palatable and similar to their familiar form. For example, chickpea flour is denser and requires more liquid, so it’s not always as easy as pound for pound.”

For his gluten-free pizza dough, Huppert uses chickpea and tapioca flour, with gelatin and xanthan gum to stabilize the yeast. “It’s a looser dough, so it cooks differently. We had to play around with it, but found that if we cook the crust first, like a parbake, and then finish it off to order, it works well.”

Thomas Sewell, executive chef with Sodexo at Florida Blue, in Jacksonville, agrees:

“Developing our gluten-free cookie recipe was challenging because most recipes called for several different types of flour,” he explains. “That was too complicated so we decided to only substitute rice flour and cornstarch, and with a few tweaks in preparation, it worked fine.” Some tricks Sewell learned: freeze the dough overnight to ensure it holds its shape and lower oven temperature by 25 degrees to avoid a grainy texture.

Flavor profiles are typically not discernible with substitute items, Kveragas says, but browning is more difficult and textures may vary. “When gluten-free alternatives are not similar in texture, I compensate with additives like seeds or toasting ingredients,” Atanasio says. “I also add other elements, like sweet and tart, to distract other senses.” Proper training is paramount.

“[Gluten-free ingredients simply don’t cook the same way], so you need to train your staff on how the items should look,” Sewell says.

Cross-contamination concerns

“Our biggest challenges are maintaining proper labeling and cross-contamination in our self-serve areas,” says Kveragas, who uses designated prep areas, cutting boards and cooking appliances for gluten-free items.

“However, we are an all-you-care-to-eat unit that has risks of cross-contaminations because of its self-service nature,” Kveragas explains.

Adams puts purple handles on all service utensils used in the gluten-free station. “Items are stored in separate locations, cooked in gluten-free only equipment, prepared in a specific gluten-free area and held for service in a separate location.” 

More From FoodService Director

Managing Your Business
line kings girl goat open kitchen

Open kitchen concepts satisfy guests’ curiosity and desire for transparency. But there are some caveats. Here’s how to create a positive experience for both staff and customers when the walls are down.

Train to serve

With the back-of-house up front, everybody gets hospitality training. “Our cooks understand the food and what they’re doing incredibly, but translating that to guests requires [soft] skills that need to be honed,” says Marie Petulla, co-owner of two restaurants in Southern California.

Dress for a mess

At Girl & The Goat in Chicago, chef-owner Stephanie...

Ideas and Innovation
bus advertising jagermeister

Because many locals use the bus system, we paid for some full bus wraps to advertise [job openings within] our dining services program. The buses go all over campus where students can see them, and to apartments where the public can see them. To top it off, the cost wasn’t much more than newspaper rates.

Ideas and Innovation
herb garden wall

In high-volume operations, few look at herb gardens as the end-all-be-all budgeting solution. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a return on the investment. The value, operators say, is in the message herb gardens and herb walls send—that an operation uses ingredients that are fresh, sustainable and healthy. Here’s how the growing areas have paid off at three operations.

A cafeteria wall at Miles River Middle School in South Hamilton, Mass., houses three rows of hydroponic lettuce spearheaded by an interdisciplinary group of health, science, math, technology and foodservice employees...
Ideas and Innovation
regions hospital exterior

One of our new concepts, YumMarket, is a play off our YumPower brand that we have out in the community. We use YumPower in K-12 schools, and there’s a kiosk in a nearby minor league ballpark. We feature only better-for-you choices, such as fresh-made pizzas, sandwiches and healthy grain salads. We want people to know we are taking care of people here the same way we are in the overall community.

FSD Resources