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
cornstarch.

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.” 

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