Ask restaurateurs which foods contain gluten, and most will probably point to the usual suspects—pasta, bread, and other ingredients containing wheat, barley or rye. However, even seasoned professionals can miss gluten in common ingredients that appear to be gluten-free, either because a gluten-containing source is added to improve consistency or texture, or because of cross-contact during preparation. Restaurateurs can head off potential problems by knowing which ingredients are likely to contain unexpected sources of gluten and following best practices for preparing gluten-free dishes.
Because the consequences of gluten contamination can be severe for people with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity, the gluten-free community and their advocates have taken an active role in researching potential sources of gluten in popular ingredients. In most cases, gluten-free diners walk into a restaurant knowing what questions to ask to determine whether dishes are safe to eat. Your staff can also do their part by knowing the answers to questions about how dishes are prepared and whether they include any ingredients derived from gluten-containing sources. When in doubt, the best practice is to know where to find answers to reassure diners that your restaurant has the expertise and systems in place to safely prepare gluten-free dishes.
While demand for gluten-free dining continues to grow, misconceptions about preparing and serving gluten-free dishes still abound. A case in point is the widely held belief that cooking food prepared with beer at 500 degrees removes all gluten proteins along with the alcohol. In truth, cooking dishes at high temperatures does not “burn off” gluten and advertising these items as gluten-free places diners with dietary restrictions at risk, regardless of cooking temperature.
Kitchen tips to follow
Even when the ingredients are gluten-free, the risk of cross-contact due to preparation methods is very real unless the kitchen staff is trained in the correct food handling procedures. Pasta is one common source of cross-contact because restaurants often boil gluten-free pasta in the same water they use to boil traditional varieties that contain gluten. When preparing gluten-free pasta, always use clean water and separate pots and pans. The same principle applies to gluten-free French fries, which should always be prepared using oil that has never been used for breaded or battered items unless they are gluten-free as well.
Training staff which ingredients require extra diligence will reduce the likelihood of serving the wrong thing to your gluten-free guests. For example, anything that contains malt is likely to contain gluten, because most malts are derived from barley. This includes dressings and marinades made with malt vinegar. Your staff should also pay close attention to any dishes that contain soy sauce, because most varieties are made with wheat. When preparing Asian dishes or serving soy sauce as a condiment to provide that umami flavor, make sure you offer brands made without wheat to your gluten-free patrons.
Often chefs assume that soups are a safe bet for gluten-free menus, as long as they are made with vegetables and meats that don’t contain gluten. However, if your kitchen staff is using flour or roux to thicken soups, your dish could cause serious problems for gluten-free patrons. Eggs are another potential trouble source, because restaurants will often use pancake batter to make their scrambled eggs and omelets light and fluffy.
Other ingredients to keep an eye on include meat substitutes like seitan, which is made almost entirely of wheat. Veggie burgers and imitation crab are also likely to contain gluten, because manufacturers like to use flour as a binding agent.
To ensure your dishes don’t cause any issues, train staff to carefully read ingredient lists and use products that aren’t derived from gluten-containing sources. In addition to wheat-free soy sauces, offer real crab as a substitute for imitation and serve milkshakes without malt as an alternative to malteds. When preparing soups, use gluten-free thickening agents like corn starch or rice flour. A good rule of thumb when serving veggie burgers is to prepare your own and use gluten-free flour as a binding agent. Another option is to use products that are certified as gluten-free by an organization like GFCO.
Serving gluten-free dishes can generate additional revenue for your restaurant while meeting the needs of an underserved market, but it’s important to be aware of ingredients that contain hidden sources of gluten. Training staff to read ingredient lists and follow safe food handling procedures will prevent unintentional mistakes and make your eatery a trusted establishment for the gluten-free community.
Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Program Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). Yeakle has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged her to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts. In June 2016, Yeakle decided to use her background and education to help the gluten-free community by working with GIG.