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How to Get Started with Gluten-Free Cooking

Sign hanging on the door of a bakery that reads "Gluten Free"
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

The gluten-free diet is growing in popularity. Some people can’t ingest gluten due to having celiac disease, whereas others forgo it because they feel better without it. Whatever the reason, it’s important to know what can and cannot go into gluten-free cooking.

We’re here to tell you that cooking without gluten isn’t as hard as you think. And the food can taste just as good. Don’t believe us? Try it for yourself with some of the great recipes below!

What is Gluten?

If you’re not familiar with the matter the whole business of gluten-free can seem confusing. Gluten is a protein that is found in specific grains, like wheat, barley, and rye (to name a few). It has a glue-like substance, which helps bind food together, giving baked goods a fluffy and light texture. That part is pretty straight forward. Where it can get a little confusing, however, is that gluten is found in tons of stuff that isn’t bread (or related to bread). Because of gluten’s useful “sticky” protein structure, it’s also added to many different kinds of packaged foods, sauces, and condiments, such as soy sauce.

But don’t worry, the world of gluten-free is blooming. You won’t be left eating a plain bowl of rice.

The Difference Between Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity

So why do people cut gluten out of their diets? The primary reasons are celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Here’s a look at both.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder. The immune system kicks into high gear to attack any gluten that enters the system. Sadly, healthy cells lining the small intestine end up getting damaged in the process. This can lead to a range of health problems, including chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, bone or joint pain, tingling in the hands and feet, and more.

Gluten sensitivity, also called gluten intolerance, is a bit different. This is when people have symptoms associated with eating gluten but don’t experience the full autoimmune response of those who have celiac disease. People with gluten sensitivities complain about bloating, diarrhea, and other abdominal discomforts.

While some debate the validity of gluten sensitivity, we’re not here to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t eat gluten. Whatever your reason for avoiding gluten, it can be a challenge cutting it from your diet, but it’s by no means impossible.

Ingredients to Avoid

The most common place you’ll find gluten is in traditional high-carb foods, such as pizza, pasta, and bread. However, there are plenty of foods with added gluten, so you have to be vigilant in your cooking process to avoid cross-contamination. This also means not sharing cutting boards, knives, pots and pans, and stirring utensils if you’re also cooking dishes that contain gluten.

Most packages will now say gluten-free on the label. But if in doubt, here’s a quick reference to get started:

  • Grains: Wheat (including variations such as spelt, durum, Kamut, and farro), rye, barley, bulgar, couscous, farina, semolina, and oats (even though oats don’t contain gluten, they are contaminated due to processing—you can get gluten-free oats, though)
  • Barley malt: This ends up in a lot of foods under various names, such as malt extract, malt syrup, or malt vinegar. It’s hidden in products you wouldn’t think contain gluten, such as Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, and Lindor chocolate truffles. Some companies will label a product as gluten-free because it contains a tiny amount of malt, but these products should still be avoided.
  • Sauces and dressings: Always check the label on soy sauce, chicken and vegetable broths, salad dressings, pasta sauces, cheese sauces, soups, basically anything that has flavoring. Wheat extract is a common additive, as well as other gluten-containing flavors.
  • Packaged goods: Pasta (we recommend this popular gluten-free pasta), flavored rice dishes (even though rice is gluten-free, the flavor packets usually contain gluten), crackers, chips (even if made with corn or potatoes, they may have added seasonings, such as malt vinegar).
  • Processed cheese: Processed cheese, such as American cheese, may contain artificial ingredients and preservatives, which are used to help improve color, appearance, and shelf life. Always check the labeling since these additives may not be gluten-free.
  • Meats and fake meats: Although most meat products are gluten-free, watch out for sausages and seasoned meat patties, as well as veggie burgers, seasoned tofu products, and tempeh (certain brands contain barley, whereas others are gluten-free).

What to Buy

You may feel limited by what you can cook, but remember that many foods are naturally gluten-free, such as pure meats, eggs, whole beans, vegetables, fruits, and unseasoned nuts. Natural cheeses, such as cheddar, mozzarella, and feta are usually gluten-free if no special flavorings or additives are included.

Think about what you usually like to eat and go forth with creating a gluten-free replacement. There are so many products, books, and tutorials out there, making it easy to recreate anything into a gluten-free version. Pancakes, waffles, muffins, cookies, lasagna, pizza, crepes—it’s all possible.

Stock up on pre-packaged flour mixes for all your baking needs. We recommend starting with the Pillsbury or King Arthur flour blends, or this fantastic 1:1 flour mix from Bob’s Red Mill (meaning if a recipe calls for one cup of regular wheat/white flour, you can use one cup of this mix as a replacement).

If you want to make everything from scratch, here’s a list of some flours to use: rice, sorghum, tapioca, coconut, potato, garbanzo, almond, millet, quinoa, and amaranth. Xanthan gum is often added as a binder to keep things from getting too crumbly, and can also be used to thicken gravies.

Some popular whole grains to have on hand include rice (basmati, short grain, long grain—they’re all good), millet, quinoa, buckwheat, and teff. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, and squash are great additions to your gluten-free meal.

Experimenting With Recipes

Gluten-free grain-free vegetarian pizza made from mashed cauliflower and almond flour, topped with sun dried tomatoes, olives, goat cheese and fresh arugula
Madeleine Steinbach/Shutterstock

If you feel overwhelmed on starting your gluten-free cooking journey, don’t worry. You’ll find the things that work, and it’ll become second nature before you know it.

Remember to read every label and look for the symbol that states “gluten-free,” a wheat sheath crossed out like a no-smoking sign. If in doubt, look up the ingredients. You don’t want to include any trace amounts of gluten if you’re cooking for someone with celiac disease.

Make sure to keep all cooking tools and supplies separate if gluten items are cooked in the same space—even small traces of gluten can make someone sick.

Here are some easy ideas to help get you inspired.

Breakfast

Some tasty options include oatmeal (make sure to purchase gluten-free oats), pancakes, eggs with gluten-free toast, and some delicious blueberry muffins using Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 flour mix.

Lunch

You can make all your favorite salads, just skip the croutons (or try these high-protein croutons instead). Sprinkle on some feta cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, or strips of grilled chicken, tofu, or tempeh (always check the label as some brands are made using barley and aren’t gluten-free).

Quesadillas made with corn tortillas, or grilled cheese on gluten-free bread are other quick options.

Snacks

If you want to make something for the kids to snack on, try these popular graham crackers. You can also make your own granola bars, which are perfect for adding to lunch boxes.

Dinner

You can experiment with your favorite recipes. Try making a meatloaf, mac-n-cheese, or this easy pizza crust recipe using the King Arthur all-purpose baking mix.

If you want to keep things super simple, you can cook a pot of rice, bake some potatoes, whip up a colorful stir-fry, bake a whole chicken, the list goes on. Adding flavors is easy if you stock up on things like gluten-free soy sauce.

Cornbread is always a favorite dinner addition, paired with a hearty chili recipe.

Are you still feeling stuck? Here are four weeks of easy gluten-free dinner ideas to help keep you from getting too bored.

Dessert

When it comes to sweets, it’s hard to give up the fluffy world of gluten. But don’t give up hope! We’re here to tell you that you can satisfy any sweet tooth while staying 100% gluten-free.

You can keep it simple with a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe, or go all out with a triple layered chocolate cake—yum!

If you’re looking for simple recipes that are gluten-free and vegan, consider exploring raw desserts, which use nuts and dates as a base, instead of flour, dairy, and sugar.

The book Gluten-Free Flavor Flours is a great beginner guide to baking with non-wheat flours, such as oat flour, sorghum flour, coconut flour, and almond flour. Your taste buds will be grateful!

Remember that yummy additions to dessert time, such as ice cream and whipped cream, are usually gluten-free (just look out for flavors like cookies’n’cream or cookie dough). So there’s no need to feel deprived when it comes to indulging in sweet treats.


Whatever your reason for exploring gluten-free cooking, remember it’s not as hard as you think. It might take a bit of research, and patience with reading labels, but after a while, you’ll have it down.

Good luck, and may your taste buds be forever spoiled.

Jill Chafin Jill Chafin
Jill Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »

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