Gluten-free on a budget

Eating a gluten-free diet is much easier than it was just a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s any cheaper.

Buy just a few grocery carts full of $8 bread, $13 pizzas and $6 tortillas, and you’ll start wondering if it might be less expensive to just eat out.

Gluten-free eaters in the U.S. spent $10.5 billion on specialty products in 2013, up from $7 billion in 2011, and prepared food items cost 30 to 50 percent higher than their conventional counterparts.

“That’s why people almost die of sticker shock,” says author and gluten-free expert Karen Morgan.

Although only three to five million Americans have celiac, the autoimmune disease whose only treatment is a gluten-free diet, nearly 30 percent of us — by choice, by self-diagnosis or by medical direction — are trying to cut back or avoid gluten in our diets, according to a 2013 study by the NPD Group.

Just this year, the Food and Drug Administration implemented new regulations that call for more oversight of gluten-free labeling, which makes it easier to trust the labels on gluten-free goods in the stores.

At first, many of those who go gluten-free on a budget often stick to inexpensive, yet highly processed products made with rice or corn, but many grow tired of not having wider options that don’t cost twice as much as the gluten-filled option.

“People feel so limited when they are first diagnosed,” Morgan says. Corn and rice are the first safe spaces you find after you’re diagnosed, but you can’t exactly live on tortilla chips and white rice.

Gluten-free dishes don’t inherently cost any more than gluten-filled dishes; it’s the shortcut ingredients and prepared products, like breads, muffins, bagels, doughnuts or tortillas, that take such a big bite out of your food budget.

It’s a frustration that can lead some into the kitchen to find a solution.

Cooking from scratch, no matter what dietary restriction you are trying to follow, will reduce expenses. Just getting in the habit of making more of your own meals can take some time getting adjusted to, Morgan says, but that’s the first step to making your food budget more manageable.

But because the most expensive items are often staples like pastas, breads and baked goods, to really cut down on your expenses, you’ll have to start experimenting with non-traditional flours, starches and blends that will help you make items at a quarter of what they’d cost in the store.

Since 2008, Morgan has been teaching cooking classes and educating eaters through her website, Blackbird Bakery (blackbird-bakery.com), but her own moment of discovery that gluten-free food didn’t have to be drab happened more than a decade ago when she was working as a pastry chef at a bed and breakfast in France.

During her four-month stint at the boutique hotel, she secretly served gluten-free pastries that guests applauded, literally, without knowing they were gluten-free.

Knowing that she could make pastries that were even better than what her French patrons expected was one major breakthrough, but so was what she discovered in the hotel’s pantry: two dozen kinds of wheat flour, of different grinds and protein content.

“Here, we have cake, all purpose and bread flours, and that’s it. There they have a specific flour for croissants or baguettes,” she says.

Morgan’s just-released second book, “The Everyday Art of Gluten-Free: 125 Savory and Sweet Recipes Using 6 Fail-Proof Flour Blends” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95), confronts the eternal gluten-free eater’s dilemma head on: How to make comfort food staples, not just baked goods, that are free of wheat, rye and barley but that taste as good if not better than what you were used to eating before you made the switch.

Gluten-free baking is an even more specific science than traditional baking, so Morgan knew that she’d need more than one “master” blend to create the range of foods she wanted.

Over the past seven years, she’s perfected six flour blends that are suited for everything from cookies and muffins to pizzas and cake. Morgan sells prepackaged blends ($8 per 1 lb. package) through her website and several outlets around Austin, including Con’ Olio and Springdale Farm’s farmstand, and she also shares each of the six recipes in the new book.

To cut down on costs of making these blends yourself, Morgan recommends hosting blending parties with a group of friends who each bring a flour or two to contribute.

Morgan says that finding a community of gluten-free eaters will help with the emotional side of making this transition, but those newfound friends can often provide insider info on sourcing ingredients that will help save you money in the long run.

Some specialty flours can cost $12 a pound, but others can be found for just a few dollars, especially if you’re shopping at Asian markets.

(A note about bulk flour: Morgan doesn’t recommend buying from bulk flour bins for people who need to avoid cross-contamination. If you’re trying to cut down on your gluten but are not allergic or cutting it out completely, then bulk flours are an OK option. Otherwise, stick to the packages, usually no smaller than one pound, that are fully sealed.)

Morgan calls sorghum flour, glutinous rice flour, brown rice flour and tapioca flour (also called starch) the fantastic four flours. With these as your building blocks, you can go far, but you’ll need her “MVP” ingredient: guar gum, an alternative to xanthan gum that acts as a rubber band between the protein and starch molecules in the dough.

The flour-like ingredients, which can also include cornstarch, almond flour, potato starch and tapioca starch, help create a signature crumb, texture or flavor to whatever you’re making, and each flour blend is more versatile than its name suggests.

The doughnut and fritter flour, for instance, is key to her son’s favorite macaroni and cheese because it was developed to be cooked in hot fat or oil. The pasta dough can be sweetened for pie crust, and the bread dough can just as easily make pizza dough as a sandwich loaf.

Gluten-free flours are more drying than traditional, so they need more moisture and less fat. With this knowledge, you can start to experiment using the flour blends in your favorite cookie, bread and even non-baked recipes that call for flour, such as gumbo, fried catfish or chicken and dumplings.

To put this in perspective, if a favorite family cookie recipe calls for 1/2 cup of milk, a version with Morgan’s cookie blend might require 3/4 cup milk and a tablespoon or two less butter.

A digital scale will also help as you transition into serious gluten-free baking and cooking because gluten-free starches, meals and flours vary so widely in weight that a half cup of one can weigh twice as much as a half cup of another.

Last, Morgan says home bakers can take a cue from large food manufacturers by freezing their gluten-free creations so that they aren’t having to bake from scratch every weekend.

Just the thought of a freezer full of homemade (and gluten-free) waffles, cinnamon raisin bread, sandwich bread and chocolate chip cookie dough that cost a fraction of what they would in the store might be enough to motivate you to start experimenting with once-foreign ingredients that, as Morgan would attest, can literally change your life.

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