I love it when my posts are inspired by conversations with friends. This one was started by a conversation in which a friend asked, “What is gluten, anyway? And why would I want food without it?” Excellent question! This is what I told him.
Gluten is a general term for the long protein chains formed in products with flour. More of them are produced when the flour is mixed with water and agitated (kneaded, stirred, etc.). It is present in anything with wheat flour (and also rye, barley and some oat things). Long chains of gluten create a chewy texture. Remember that baguette you had this weekend? It was chewy because of the gluten.
In baking, gluten can be a tool for bakers to manipulate the texture of whatever you are creating. When making bread, you intentionally encourage gluten when you knead the dough to create its chewy texture. When you make muffins or cookies, the reason you add the flour last is to discourage the gluten from forming long chains and making them chewy. This gives the cookies/muffins a soft texture rather than a bread-y one. This is also why you don’t knead quick breads. Think about it — if you made banana bread that had the texture of sandwich bread, you’d probably be wondering what went wrong. It’s supposed to be crumbly and soft.
Are you ready for this? I illustrated gluten!
Gluten interacts with different fats differently, too. When cold butter is cut into flour with a pastry cutter (or a fork), it remains in chunks and separates the strands of gluten. This results in a flaky dough, but not necessarily a soft dough (and the colder the butter, the longer it takes to melt in the oven, resulting in bigger/better flakes). Shortening is the opposite. It will create a soft dough but will not separate the gluten to make flakes. Therefore, the best pie crust will contain a mixture of both butter and shortening.
Gluten-free diets are not usually a question of nutrition, they are based on a gluten sensitivity or a specific disease, such as Celiac.
Gluten is fairly easy to avoid when cooking savory things. If you’re trying to make dessert for a friend who can’t have gluten, I find it’s best to stick to things that lean more towards candy rather than baked goods. For example, no-bake cookies, which are made in a process that is more like candy making than cookie making, are gluten free. Same story with Rice Krispy* treats (and therefore, homemade marshmallows). Caramels and caramel sauce are gluten free. Barks, like peppermint bark or peanut brittle, are gluten free.
If you want to make a gluten-free pie crust, I would recommend trying one of the many recipes out there that uses a crust made of pulverized nuts, like pistachios or cashews. These are actually pretty common solutions for gluten free folks, vegans and raw food dieters.
*A friend whose kid is allergic to gluten actually pointed out to me that Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (insert copyright mark here) do not list flour as an ingredient, however they do contain a gluten ingredient that has to do with packaging – my best guess is that like many shredded cheeses, the cereal contains a flour product to keep the little pieces from sticking together. SO, if you’re making rice krispy treats for someone who can’t have gluten, buy off-brand.