I grew up eating a diet primarily composed of “beige foods.”
You know what I’m talking about — breads, cookies, pancakes, crackers, and noodles. The kind of carb-heavy, often brown, food you can mindlessly chow on without filling up.
And to no one’s surprise, a diet like that caught up to me. After eating this way for many years, I not only began to realize I desperately needed more vegetables to round out my diet, but after extensive blood work to explore why I always felt so uncomfortable, it was clear:
I had a sensitivity to gluten.
Cue the panicked, “What on earth will I eat now?!” response.
What would breakfast be without boxed cereal, muffins, or toast with jam?
What about dinner without pasta?
Birthdays without cake? Gasp!
You may have gone through this very panic yourself. As research sheds light on how some people’s bodies react to gluten, many of those people are opting to reduce or eliminate it from their diets.
In an effort to take control of my situation, I dove head-first into research and soon discovered that gluten makes its way into the food supply not only via familiar wheat products like breads, pasta, and cereals, but it’s also hidden in a surprising number of inconspicuous foods like soups, sauces, and even candies.
But that’s the stuff you likely already know. Where people often get stuck is how to avoid all this gluten and still eat “normal” foods.
That’s what I’ve dedicated my work to — creating delicious plant-based recipes, free of gluten, that you’ll be thrilled to share (like the ones found in the free cookbook at the bottom of this post). And today, I’ve put together this resource to help you do the same, without using the highly processed flours and gums found in many gluten-free recipes.
My hope is that you bookmark this post to pull up whenever you’re looking to convert any of your favorite recipes into gluten-free masterpieces for yourself or someone else.
But first, let’s take a minute to understand why gluten-free is talked about so often.
Understanding Gluten-Free: Fad or Fact?
You’ve likely heard of celiac disease (the auto-immune disorder that attacks the small intestine) and gluten sensitivity.
Even if you don’t have celiac disease yourself, you probably know someone who does. Estimates claim that roughly 1 in 133 Americans have the disorder. Estimates also reveal that a large percentage of Americans who have celiac disease are undiagnosed or are walking around misdiagnosed with other conditions. It’s also been reported that millions of Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (like me).
While the internet articles battle out “fad” or “fact,” odds are, whether you’re personally affected by gluten issues or not, at some point you’ll likely have to cook for someone who does.
The good news is that gluten-free cooking isn’t an impossible challenge. Just as you learned to cook without animal products, you can just as easily learn to cook without gluten. What I thought would be an existence of culinary deprivation turned out to be one of flavorful abundance.
Gluten-free cooking and baking is a simple matter of becoming acquainted with new ingredients and new techniques. As you make these adjustments, your menu rotation only expands with possibilities.
How Gluten Works in a Recipe
In the simplest terms, gluten, which comes from the Latin word for “glue,” is a protein found in wheat, barley, spelt, farro, kamut, farina, bulgur, durum, triticale, couscous, bran, products packaged in facilities that also process wheat, and even oats. Oats shouldn’t contain gluten, but unfortunately they’re highly susceptible to crop and facility contamination.
Gluten is responsible for a few important things:
- Binding ingredients in a cooked or baked recipe.
- Adding moisture, chew, and texture to a final cooked or baked recipe.
- Trapping air in baked goods.
- Providing elasticity in a recipe, usually baked goods.
And when baking, gluten creates an elastic protein “net” in doughs and batters. This net traps air that’s created by leavening (either biological yeasts or chemical baking powder and soda), and it ultimately creates lift and bubbly crumb in baked goods.
There are gluten-free replacements for all of these needs — the kind that add incredible flavor and texture to your favorite meals without compromise.
Here are a few general suggestions you can use to confidently prepare a meal suitable, comforting, and delicious for all dietary inclinations sharing the table.
A Quick-Reference Guide to Making Any Recipe Gluten-Free
Here are my favorite whole-food and minimally processed ingredients for making any recipe gluten-free and so delicious, discerning consumers will never suspect it’s gluten-free. Now, many gluten-free recipes, particularly baked goods, use highly processed flours, digestion-compromising gums, and other bizarre ingredients. Those work great, but I’m sharing some more whole-food alternatives to those here so you can expand your culinary toolbox.
Bookmark this page, and use it as a quick-reference guide next time you need to convert a recipe.
Here are links to take you to exactly what you’re looking for:
Crumbs and Toppings for Added Texture
If you’re looking for the perfect finishing to your dish, but aren’t sure where to turn now that breadcrumbs are out of the question, look no further!
Almond flour: Blanched almond flour has a buttery, rich flavor that reminds me of the boxed crackers and snacks I used to live on. When combined with a pinch of sea salt and coconut oil, almond flour makes incredible crackers, breadcrumb replacements, and crunchy toppings for casseroles and lasagnas. Blanched almond flour is almond-skin free and yields a lighter crumb than almond meal. Almond meal works fine if that’s what you can find or make at home — it’s just denser and heavier in final recipes.
- Topping casseroles, baked dips, and lasagnas: Use a fork to combine 1 cup blanched almond flour + 1 tablespoon coconut oil + ¼ teaspoon salt. Sprinkle on top of your prepared recipe and bake until golden and crunchy.
Thickening Agents for Sauces and Fillings
Without gluten, it can be challenging to achieve the satisfying viscosity we all hope for in a gravy, sauce, or pie filling. Below are some suggestions for doing just that. Your gluten-free potatoes and gravy, apple pie, or even hearty veggie stew will be the envy of all.
Arrowroot: Made of dried and ground tubers, arrowroot is a fine snow-like flour with excellent thickening power. It can be used for sauces and gravies, but it can also lighten the crumb when using denser flours like almond. It also helps create pliability in recipes like gluten-free crepes or pancakes.
- Baked goods: Try 2–4 tablespoons to hold moisture, help bind, and yield a buttery, delicate crumb.
- Compotes and pies: Dust over fruit, toss, and bake — the juices release during cooking and activate the thickening properties of the arrowroot.
- Sauce, gravy, or soup: Use like you would flour or cornstarch — make a slurry by stirring together 1½ teaspoons arrowroot starch/flour with ¼ cup water until dissolved, and whisk it into warm sauces and soups. The warmth activates thickening properties, while cooling finishes it.
Starchy additions: Blend ½–1 cup of these ingredients with 1 cup water (or veggie stock) and add to soups, stews, sauces, gravy, and stocks to add bulk and thicken:
- Cooked potatoes
- Cooked buckwheat groats
- Cooked short-grain brown rice (the stickiest)
- Gluten-free oats
Binders to Hold Everything Together
How to get your homemade veggie burgers, lentil loafs, and veggie meatballs to stick together is a mystery to many of us. But by using some of the suggestions below, you’ll be able to solve that problem once and for all.
Chia seeds: Chia seeds have binding and egg-white-like properties like flax without the fragility. You simply make a “goo” by soaking them in water. They’re great for binding in recipes like energy bars, as well as quick breads and muffins that need lift and a nice crumb. Some folks like to use the chia goo unblended, but in most cases, I prefer blending before adding to a recipe so there are no crunchy surprises in the final recipe. Unblended works best in a recipe containing nuts and seeds as the texture already welcomes the crunch of the seeds.
- Chia “goo”: 1 cup of water + 3–4 tablespoons of chia seeds stirred well makes a nice chia goo. Soak for 5–10 minutes before using.
- Baking: Try soaking 3 tablespoons whole chia seeds in 1 cup water (try soaking with the recipe’s liquid ingredients) per 3 cups flour in a recipe. Blend the mixture to make smooth. Adjust/reduce the total water amount called for in the recipe to reflect any additional water amounts you’re using.
- Cooking (e.g., veggie burgers, lentil loaf, etc.): Either try folding 1 tablespoon whole chia seeds per 2 cups of cooked veggies and/or grains or fold 3–4 tablespoons of blended chia goo into your other ingredients, then finish according to your recipe.
Chickpea brine: It may seem a little strange, but chickpea brine is the liquid from a can of chickpeas or left over from cooking garbanzos at home. It’s also known as “aquafaba” (bean water), and it makes an awesome gluten-free binder. This protein-rich liquid can be used in baked goods and non-baked goods. It can be whipped into egg-white-like peaks for vegan macarons, or used un-whipped to hold together veggie burgers, veggie meatballs, tots, and other recipes that call for an egg or breadcrumbs. It bakes up beautifully, adding gorgeous golden brown color and bouncy crumb without any bean flavor in the final product. Chickpeas in general have such great binding properties you can even make tofu with them.
- Baked goods: Try adding ¼–½ cup un-whipped chickpea brine liquid per 3 cups flour in a recipe. Adjust/reduce the total water amount called for in the recipe to reflect the chickpea brine amount you’re using.
- Cooking (e.g., veggie burgers, lentil loaf, etc.): Try folding ¼ cup of un-whipped chickpea brine per “egg” called for in a recipe, or per 2 cups of veggies and/or grains, then finish according to your recipe.
Psyllium husk: Psyllium husk is a fiber — the same found in most fiber replacements — that has incredible gluten-like binding power when it comes into contact with moisture. It comes in whole husk or ground into a powder, and its flavor is undetectable in a final recipe. Psyllium holds a lot of moisture in a recipe, so a little goes a very long way.
1 tablespoon ground psyllium husk powder is equal to 1 tablespoon + ½ teaspoon of whole psyllium husk. Use whatever you can find — they both work great.
- Baked goods: Add 1 tablespoon per 3 cups of flower to your recipe.
- Cookies: Add ¼–½ teaspoon.
- Cooking (e.g., veggie burgers, lentil loaf, etc.): Add ½ teaspoon per 2–3 cups vegetables and grains.
Starchy additions: These ingredients can also help bind:
- Cooked potatoes
- Cooked buckwheat groats
- Cooked short-grain brown rice (the stickiest)
- Gluten-free oats added to recipes instead of breadcrumbs (when breadcrumbs are in the mix, not a topping)
A note about “flax eggs”: Many plant-based, vegan recipes, especially baking recipes, use flax seed, ground flax, or something called “flax eggs” (which are flax seeds soaked in water) to bind in lieu of gluten. Flax, and the oils in it, are highly susceptible to nutritional degradation, even toxicity, when exposed to heat and light. It’s why it’s usually sold in light-proof packaging from the cool refrigerated section in a grocery store. For that reason, I prefer using one of the methods above, but flax is always an option.
Added Moisture to Baked Goods
Apple sauce: When baking quick breads, muffins, cakes, and cookies, applesauce used in combination with a strong mix of gluten-free flours will add mild sweetness, moist texture, and a toothsome quality to a recipe.
- Try ½ cup apple sauce per 2 ½–3 cups flour in a recipe.
Banana: Just like with apple sauce, mashed banana in combination with a strong mix of gluten-free flours, will add mild sweetness, banana flavor, moist texture, golden finish, and a toothsome quality to a baking recipe.
- Try ½ cup mashed banana per 2 ½–3 cups flour in a recipe.
Starchy additions: These ingredients can add moisture to breads and veggie burgers:
- Cooked potatoes
- Cooked buckwheat groats
- Cooked short-grain brown rice (the stickiest)
Quick Reference: Gluten-Free Flours for Every Purpose
Wheat flour does the heavy lifting in most baked recipes, and we can leverage the unique properties of a variety of flours to replicate its power.
When making battered, baked, or pan-fried recipes, try these gluten-free, whole-grain flour combinations instead of the bleached flours, strange gums, and suspicious replacers that many gluten-free recipes and products contain.
- Panko replacements: Try crispy (not puffed) brown rice cereal crushed by hand or in the food processor. Use it solo or in combination with blanched almond flour.
- Veggie burgers, fritter batter, and coatings for pan-fried recipes: Use chickpea flour solo, or in combination with brown rice flour.
- Cookies: A 3:1:1 combination of blanched almond, brown rice, and sorghum flour to replace flour. Add a little bit of binder like psyllium, chickpea brine, or chia seeds.
- Crackers: Blanched almond flour solo, or used in a 3:1:1 combination with sorghum and/or brown rice flour. All you need is flour, a pinch of salt, a little fat from oil like coconut oil, and a touch of water.
- Flatbread: 100% chickpea flour makes an incredible flatbread. Just whisk with oil and water and bake in a skillet in the oven.
- Muffins/cake: 1:1 ratio of blanched almond flour plus gluten-free oat flour or sorghum flour. Add a binder like psyllium, chickpea brine, or chia seeds, and add some mashed banana or applesauce for more binding power and texture.
- Quick bread: 1:1 ratio of blanched almond flour and sorghum flour. Use a binder like psyllium, chickpea brine, or chia seeds, and add some mashed banana or applesauce for more binding power and texture.
- Yeasted bread: 1:1:1 ratio of gluten-free oat flour, brown rice flour, and sorghum flour. Also use a binder like psyllium, chickpea brine, or chia seeds.
Gluten-Free Grains, Explained
What’s a life without lasagna? Or couscous? Or a comforting porridge on a snowy winter day? Well, you never have to find out thanks to the substitutions below.
Note that toasting these gluten-free grains and flours before cooking and baking adds extra depth of flavor — it’s not a must, it’s just a game-changing extra step to try.
- Amaranth: Amaranth’s sticky, comforting properties when cooked make it an excellent replacement for warm breakfast cereals like farina. When using in a gluten-free flour blend, keep it to 10–15% of total flour — it adds a lot of moisture and heaviness to baked goods.
- Brown rice: Use this rice to substitute couscous, to add texture and binding power to recipes like veggie burgers, and for warm cereals and puddings. It’s a terrific flour used in combination with others for cookies, crackers, and breads. Use short-grain brown rice when you need that binding sticky factor — like sticky sushi rice.
- Buckwheat: Despite “wheat” being in the name, buckwheat is gluten-free. It has a tasty, almost gummy texture when cooked, which makes it a great binder and textural addition for veggie burgers. It’s also a satisfying base for warm cereals, creamy dishes like risotto and casseroles, and makes a great gluten-free replacement for dishes that call for farro or barley. When ground into a flour, its nutty, earthy flavor is a nice addition to a flour blend for breads and pancakes.
- Millet: Small and yellow, millet works well as a substitute for couscous and dishes that call for barley or farro. It’s delicious in cereals, and makes a great flour used in combination with others for cookies and breads.
- Oats: Inherently gluten-free, but frequently contaminated with wheat during growing or processing, so be sure to source oats from a trusted, certified supplier if sensitivity is a concern. It has a toothsome, high-moisture texture when cooked, which makes it a great binder for veggie burgers, and a satisfying base for warm cereals. Its slightly sweet flavor makes it an excellent flour for breads and other baked goods.
- Quinoa: Used as a flour, it’s definitely recommended that you toast it first to round out and diminish the pronounced grassy, astringent flavor before baking. Cooked quinoa makes delicious warm cereals, rice replacements, casseroles, and toppings for salads. It’s very versatile and takes on virtually any sweet or savory spices, sauces, and seasonings quite well.
- Sorghum: Sorghum works well as a substitute for couscous and dishes that call for barley or farro. It’s delicious in cereals, and makes a great flour used in combination with others for cookies and breads.
- Teff: This tiny grain makes a beautiful, nutty flour for bread, crepes, and pancakes. When cooked, teff is a deep, rich porridge perfect for breakfast and farina substitutions.
Gluten-Free Pasta: Finding the Right Noodle
There are more and more alternatives to wheat noodles added to grocery store shelves every day — this is great for both gluten-eaters and gluten-avoiders because it adds more variety to our meals, period. Many manufacturers are offering creative, protein-rich products like chickpea-, lentil-, and bean-based noodles in a range of shapes including macaroni, lasagna, elbows, spirals, and spaghetti.
Bean and lentil noodles are colorful orange, green, rich gold, or black, and tend to be dense and richly flavored. Enjoy them with ingredients you’d eat beans and lentils with. Brown rice noodles tend to be the closest in flavor and texture to traditional wheat noodles — they can be confidently served to any eaters without them detecting a difference. Try them all though, so you know what’s best for you and your people.
- Asian-inspired noodle dishes: Try 100% buckwheat soba, sweet potato noodles, or brown rice noodles.
- Lasagna noodles: Try brown rice, lentil, or chickpea lasagna noodles. Or you can skip the traditional noodles and shave zucchini, summer squash, sweet potato, or butternut squash paper-thin and lengthwise to layer between sauces instead.
- Spaghetti noodles: Try spiralizing (you know, the kitchen gadget) or using a veggie peeler to shave carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, zucchini, or yellow squash. Or cook up a spaghetti squash and drag a fork across the insides to loosen “noodles.
Fear Not the Gluten-Free
When I first heard I had a gluten sensitivity, I thought I’d never be able to eat many of my favorite recipes again.
But it turns out you can make the same delicious, hearty meals by simply replacing some of the ingredients. Now don’t get me wrong… There have been plenty of replacement flops I’d rather not talk about.
But through experimenting, I’ve found which replacements work best in each scenario.
You can do the same (and I hope this cheat sheet will save you loads of time)!
To get started and see for yourself how delicious gluten-free options can be, I’ve created a short cookbook of six of my favorite comfort food recipes.
These recipes will give you a sense of what you can achieve with the replacements above, and the confidence to start converting your favorite recipes on your own.
Next time you need to cook a gluten-free meal, fear not. It’s just a matter of finding the right replacements.