Gluten-free Sourdough

Things are going well in our CSNN Victoria classroom, which I’ve been running since September. The Victoria students enrolled in our one-year holistic nutrition program are approaching the midway point in their studies, in which food is central in many ways. We’re one of three classrooms across Canada that includes a culinary workshop program to help students apply some of the nutritional principles in the kitchen, and I’ll be teaching three of these.

So I was delighted to find a Gluten-Free Sourdough workshop last week to help me build my repertoire for next Spring’s “Alternative Breads & Crackers” session. I don’t eat gluten-free myself, but try to moderate my intake of wheat and other gluten-containing foods, which can easily dominate the everyday diet in our convenience culture.

Gluten is of course a major issue in holistic nutrition, both for celiacs and others with various degrees of gluten sensitivity.  For non-celiacs with food-related health concerns, a period of abstinence from gluten can often help soothe inflammation, but it’s a decision not to be taken lightly. Gluten-free products are typically very high in carbohydrates and low in fibre, and the manufactured versions tend to be very expensive, low in protein and vitamins and high in processed and artificial ingredients.

Last week’s workshop was led by a talented young baker, Kaitlin Chamberlin, who has been perfecting her skills at coaxing good flavour, nutrients and texture from a vegan and gluten-free sourdough loaf. She’s succeeded remarkably well and her breads are popular at local markets. They do cost nearly double what gluten loaves do, however, because gluten-free ingredients are expensive.

Why sourdough? Because any bread benefits from fermentation and a slow, natural rise. The native yeasts that populate grains convert the starches, phytic acid and (in the case of gluten) toxins to more digestible forms. Sourdough gluten-based breads keep their flavour, texture and moistness longer than yeasted breads. Gluten-free breads of any kind are more delicate and perishable, and their texture begins to decline quite quickly.

Start with the starter. Any sourdough begins with a sourdough starter, a mixture of flour and water that takes its power from local yeasts inherent on the grain. For this reason, you’ll want a certified organic flour, which hasn’t been treated with pesticides or fungicides that will inhibit the fermentation. You’ll also need filtered water, free of chlorine (which is a sterilizing agent, so not desirable when you are culturing microbes). Kaitlin’s starter was a mix of brown rice, millet and sorghum flours; she added water kefir to give it an initial boost (although this should not be needed).

Our first act was to refresh the starter. You need to feed it before baking so that it’s fresh and lively, and so that you have plenty left for future bakes. We added a dollop of flour (in this case rice flour) and a splash of water, mixing to a texture, as Kaitlin put it, akin to “wet hummus”. Similar texture to pancake batter, I’d say. The starter will need 4-6 hours to revive and grow bubbly, aquiring a boozy aroma; timing will depend on the strength of the initial starter, temperature, and of course  how chemical/toxin-free the raw ingredients are.

Mixing the dough. Once the starter has achieved a bubbly friskiness, the ingredients can be assembled. For this loaf, we used a flax “egg”, a psyllium “egg” and extra filtered water; mineral-rich salt (microbes need minerals too, so choose a good, natural sea salt) and a gluten-free flour mix. Kaitlin recommends sorghum, quinoa and millet for nutrition, flavour and lightness, buckwheat for colour and flavour, tapioca for fluffiness. She finds chickpea flour too heavy and rice or coconut flour too sandy, so she doesn’t use large quantities of those. She mixed it into a firm dough, able to hold its shape while rising, and then passed the bowl around so we could familiarize ourselves with the texture.

Baking the bread. Kaitlin slashed the loaf to allow even baking. Without the slash, the oven spring – the burst of leavening when the dough hits the oven – can cause the bread to bake unevenly, with lumps emerging randomly. A deeply slashed loaf rises through the cuts and looks more uniform. To bake, she recommends the highest temperature your oven will go (500f+ or 260c+) in which you heat a pizza stone or similar, plop the risen loaf on the stone, and bake for around half an hour.

My first loaf, as pictured above, was a success, and the method was forgiving of my errors of carelessness. My first error was to add too much flour, which meant I had to add more water, but the texture seemed fine. I shaped the loaf and set it to rise on a wax-paper-covered board, in a big plastic bag. After about 10 hours in my (chilly) house, when it looked ready to bake, I realized I was a day ahead of when I needed it, so I popped it in the fridge overnight, still covered. The next day I let it warm up before slashing and baking. Very nice flavour, texture and appearance.

The day after, it was less wonderful, the crumb developing a bit of wetness. I had used brown rice flour as part of the mix, as that’s what I had on hand, so that might have been part of the problem. I tried toasting it, which took about double the time of wheat bread, and the interior was still quite moist, but it was acceptable and held its texture well. It’s in the freezer now awaiting further experimentation – I’d like to try a grilled cheese sandwich for example, or reheat it for a meal.

Too much work, or prefer to buy your bread? The term “sourdough” is almost as abused as the term “natural”. So here is a helpful list of pointers to find out if what you’re buying is really sourdough, from Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters website (Whitley’s book of the same name has an easy to follow recipe for making your own brown rice flour sourdough starter):

  • the bakery keeps its own sourdough starter (if it doesn’t, it must be using dried sourdough powder)
  • the bread is made from scratch on the premises (i.e. is not ‘half-baked’ or re-heated)
  • the baker knows what sourdough is and is happy to discuss the process and the time it takes
  • the bread has no added baker’s yeast – or any additives, though this is hard to establish since the most problematic enzyme additives are classed as ‘processing aids’ and don’t have to be declared on the label
  • it tastes good and is easy on the digestion.

Back, with blueberries

2015Sep30BlueberryCheesecake Summer was insanely busy, and now it’s all but over. I’ve got a freezer full of berries, and a visitor with a birthday, so I thought I’d make a welcome raw blueberry cheesecake.

An excellent recipe, tried and true: gluten– and dairy-free and just as delicious as the more conventional counterpart. Perhaps more so, as it’s light and fresh-tasting. Not difficult, just a slog getting all the ingredients pureed to the right consistency.

I’ve made this several times and can’t think of a nicer and more impressive dinner party dessert which is safe for those with allergies (aside from nut allergies of course) and gluten/dairy intolerances. A celiac I made it for once declared it an excellent breakfast (she took the leftovers home) and said how grateful she was to be served a real dessert, as she’s usually fobbed off with sorbet or fruit.

Speaking of gluten intolerance, I was interested to read this article, which discusses  Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a condition that responds well to a gluten-free diet, and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). The article suggests that people with NCGS may in fact have diagnosed themselves with IBS, and are self-treating by avoiding gluten. (This study, somewhat similarly, suggests that a diagnosis of IBS may prevent prompt and necessary treatment for gluten sensitivity.) All food for thought and further research. Meanwhile, let us eat (cheeseless) cheesecake!

Gluten problems? Don’t stop eating it!

17628204I happened to attend a talk recently, given by a registered dietician who’s worked closely with the Canadian Celiac Association, and wanted to share what she knew about gluten intolerance and allergy, and to warn those with a suspected sensitivity NOT to stop eating wheat.

This particular dietician holds in high regard a book, Gluten Freedom, by an author I’d been impressed with when I heard him speak last year: Alessio Fasano. He’s a pediatrician with a background in celiac research. He first sought and then delivered the research that disproved the popular medical wisdom of the 1990s which held that celiac disease was virtually unknown in North America. By testing existing Red Cross blood samples, he determined that 1 in 133 were undiagnosed celiacs; relatives of celiacs numbered 1:22, comparable to rates already known in Europe.

The fundamental problem for humans is that a class of gluten proteins found in wheat, rye and barley, the gliadins, are indigestible by humans. We lack the enzymes to break them down properly. For most of us this is not a problem, but it is for celiacs, those with wheat allergies, FODMAP sensitivities, or the real but so far undiagnosable (lack of a known biomarker) non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Celiacs produce antibodies in the presence of gliadins, triggering an autoimmune response that destroys the villi which line the digestive tract and allow nutrient absorption. For this reason, celiacs often suffer weight loss, mineral depletion and associated problems such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis. Often they have acid reflux, anemia, dental problems, skin conditions or other autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s.

Such conditions and symptoms do not set celiac disease apart medically from many other conditions, and celiacs may be asymptomatic, so diagnosis takes on average about 12 years. And the autoimmune response to gluten may be triggered at any age. Some estimates are that 85% of celiacs are undiagnosed; the real number could be higher still. Medical researcher Joseph Murray MD from the Mayo Clinic tested blood samples from soldiers in the 1950s, compared them with 21st century samples and found a fourfold increase in celiac markers in 2009.

Diagnosing celiac disease, wheat allergy, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a FODMAP sensitivity (which may also feature gluten among the trigger foods) requires blood testing, to determine the presence or absence of antibodies (tTG-IgA in celiacs; IgE in wheat allergies), plus genetic markers (HLA DQ2 and DQ8 in celiacs) followed by a biopsy of the small intestine for celiacs.

So.. the dietician’s advice not to stop eating gluten had to do with the celiac screening process. If you have symptoms that are relieved by avoiding (gluten-containing) trigger foods, that solves one problem. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether you are one of the large number of undiagnosed celiacs. If you might be, you must eat gluten (3g/day, about 1.5 pieces of bread) for at least 3 weeks before having the blood tests and biopsy. If you have stopped, the inflammation dies down and healing will begin. So the test results will be off. Also, if you go off gluten and then return, you may trigger a more severe reaction leading to much worse symptoms. You may not be compensating for the nutrients you had lost if your villi were damaged, or which you previously obtained from gluten products (there are recommended supplements) such as fibre. Staying on gluten also reduces the number of tests and re-tests needed, and puts you firmly on biopsy waiting and cancellation lists, and means a speedier diagnosis = the better to make those long-term changes if needed.

Also, if you are found not to be celiac, you might fall into a luckier category and be needlessly depriving yourself by embarking too soon on a gluten-free diet. Wheat allergy might leave room for other gluten-containing foods; FODMAP-sensitive people tend to have episodic symptoms and may tolerate alternate forms of wheat such as spelt; and non-celiac gluten sensitive people may (or may not) be able to tolerate small amounts of good quality gluten products, given proper preparation methods and food enzymes. As anyone who’s tried it knows, going off gluten can be an expensive, isolating and frustrating experience, so here’s hoping it isn’t necessary.

Bottom line? Celiac disease is worth checking out if you have gluten issues, as it robs your body of important nutrients with a strong effect on future health, is curable (by diet), has a genetic aspect (family members need to know) and if left untreated gives you a much shorter lifespan with more chronic health conditions and susceptibility to autoimmune disorders and a couple of nasty forms of cancer.

I’ll have more to say about wheat allergy, FODMAP and non-celiac gluten sensitivity in a future post.

Gluten, gluten, gluten

Buckwheat bread
Buckwheat bread

It seems everywhere you turn someone’s talking about gluten. You shouldn’t eat it, you should eat it, wheat is evil, it’s not wheat’s fault, gluten intolerance is real, gluten intolerance is all a big health scare… what’s a soul to think?

Whatever you think, and whatever your position on gluten, here’s a buckwheat bread recipe if you want to try a gluten-free alternative that doesn’t involve complicated flour mixtures and starter cultures. It was recommended by Sandor Katz during his talk at the fermentation workshop I’ve blogged previously.

I’m not sure it’s going to win any competitions (beauty or otherwise) against a goodBuckwheat Bread2 sourdough wheat bread, and it does of course taste quite buckwheaty (being only buckwheat & water). BUT: its texture is good, it’s moist and firm, and makes very good toast. Best of all, it’s very simple to make. You just soak the groats (not kasha, which is toasted) overnight, drain, blend and let sit to ferment for 24 hours, then bake.