Have you noticed the prevalence of gluten free (GF) foods lately? They're for sale at grocery stores, specialty shops, cafes and restaurants. I covered what gluten is in a previous article titled "Understanding Gluten," but let's dive into the GF craze that's been sweeping the nation. Why avoid gluten? Well, not everyone needs to, but if you suffer from celiac disease (an auto-immune disease) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, avoiding gluten is a must. Because GF foods are wheat-free, they're great alternatives for those allergic to wheat too. Increased awareness of celiac and related issues within the medical community has led to more people being properly diagnosed. That means a growing demand for GF foods. It's taken a long time, but we're finally getting close to a legitimate and readily available supply of GF foods for the average American shopper.
If you read my article on understanding gluten, then you probably realize it's incredibly challenging to create baked goods that have the same texture as conventional (i.e. wheat-based) baked goods. That's why, almost 10 years ago, I was excited to sample some GF foods that had been made by some of my food science classmates. At the time, the food industry had barely dipped a toe into the GF foods market, so the selection of GF ingredients was slim. If you needed your baked goods to be GF, you had to make it yourself at home. At that time, rice flour was the best available substitute for wheat flour, so that's what my classmates used to make their GF cookies and crackers. To my disappointment, their texture was dense, crumbly, and worst of all--sandy. Not to mention they tasted surprisingly rice-y. That day, I realized I had taken wheat's pleasant nutty flavor and pliable texture for granted. I felt lucky that I didn't need to eat GF. But that was 10 years ago.
Luckily, times have changed. Now, there's an entire wall of gluten-free options in my grocery store, with more scattered throughout the other aisles. And the best part? They're DELICIOUS, and getting better every day. What 10 years ago would have been a wall of rice-y sadness is now filled with new and innovative combinations of GF grains, seeds, beans, and gums that better mimic the texture and flavor of wheat-based goods. Not that rice is bad; it still has a place in the market. But now, the food industry is starting to branch out and upgrade the quality and selection of what's offered.
That's thanks in large part to small, specialized manufacturers leading the charge. Companies like Bob's Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills provide a wide variety of GF flours, baking mixes, and other ingredients so home cooks can create better GF meals and baked goods. Sam Mills now offers 100 percent corn pastas that have a beautiful golden color. Although it sometimes doesn't cook perfectly evenly, it's still head and shoulders above Annie's rice pasta in flavor, texture and appearance. And for those who need to eat GF but don't have the time or inclination to cook, there are some stunningly delicious options out there. The most impressive of which has got to be Lucy's. They sent me three different flavors of their cookies to try: Chocolate Chip, Cinnamon Thin (their version of a snickerdoodle), and Maple Bliss. I was totally BLOWN AWAY. Lucy's delightfully crispy cookies taste almost indistinguishable from conventional cookies! They have struck the perfect balance between their GF flours and bean powders. They have a delightful texture and chewing experience, without the strong bean-y flavor that's common in some other GF baked goods. In fact, these cookies are actually BETTER than several brands of store-bought conventional cookies.
In case Lucy's' ability to overcome the gluten hurdle wasn't impressive enough, don't worry, there's more. Their cookies are also peanut, tree nut, milk, and egg free. Whaaat??? No eggs or dairy? That means NO BUTTER, people! Conventional cookies are made up of wheat flour, butter, eggs, sugar and a nominal amount of baking soda, salt and vanilla flavoring. How can cookies made without three of the four major ingredients possibly work, let alone be delicious?? Luckily, I was able to interview Dr. Lucy Gibney, MD, the founder of Lucy's, via email. It was awesome. Check out the full interview here. Here are a few highlights:
Amanda: Tell me what sets your cookies apart from other GF cookies. Is anyone else trying to do what you're doing?
At the time we launched in 2007, no one else was doing anything close. Since then a few brands have popped up with some of the same ingredients, but they aren't exact copies. Ours are much better!
In general, we use the very best ingredients available. Our flour blend is magic. We use very high quality vegan margarine. We use organic cane sugar, which is so beautiful and smells great. I love to open the big vats of ingredients and experience the look and aroma. You name the ingredient and I can tell you why ours is the best! Other than that, we do our own baking and have very high standards for each artisan batch.
Amanda: Rice is a go-to grain for many people who can't use wheat, but I notice you don't use any. Why is that?
Lucy: Rice has been a popular alternative to wheat for two reasons, low cost and easy access. We chose not to use it because of the grainy texture it adds to baked goods. Our blend matches the texture of wheat flour and we wanted to do that for our consumers. Yes, the cost is higher but we think it's worth it. As a result, our product price tends to on the higher end, yet customers know the quality is there.
Amanda: What ingredients did you have to add to approximate the texture of a wheat cookie (extra leaveners, gums, starches, acids, salts, etc)? What other components did you need to use that are different than the average wheat cookie?
Lucy: Besides the need for a balanced flour blend, I also use xanthan gum to help with the elasticity usually in wheat. And, as noted before, we use a very high quality margarine and sugar. These really make a difference.
Amanda: How difficult was it to flavor these cookies? The ones I tasted were amazing, but how did you prevent off flavors (particularly bean-y and soybean) from coming through? Did you have to cover them up, or limit the amount of that ingredient (or some combination of methods)?
Lucy: It's all about blending. Some of the flours do have a strong taste so I adjust and tinker the amounts of those ingredients to keep the flavor in check.
Amanda: Why no dairy or eggs? It seems like enough of a challenge to simply cut out wheat! What inspired you to cut out dairy and eggs too, and what challenges did you face in getting the texture you wanted? How did you overcome those challenges?
Lucy: Well, this one goes back to the allergies. My son is allergic to wheat, barley, milk and eggs. Also peanuts and tree nuts.
So, the baking challenge was big. No wheat, butter, milk or eggs. As I started the trial and error process, I tried gluten free recipes and vegan recipes, thinking that I would learn how each dealt with the lack of certain ingredients and their function. Ha! Unfortunately, what I came to understand is that gluten free baking depends on milk and egg products. And, vegan recipes really need the protein and elasticity provided by wheat flour. So, when I produced failure after failure I proved that doing without all of these ingredients was nearly impossible!
So, I mentioned that I'm persistent and driven! I simply became determined to figure it out! I really wanted my son to have delicious treats just like other kids. I grew up eating the wonderful baked goods my Mom made. I wanted the same for my child.
I kept trying recipes and different approaches, different flour blends, different "egg substitutes", different fats. Finally found a favorite for each. Then I just went back to my Mom's old recipes and adapted them using my new tricks.
Amanda: Why do the cookies come out crispy? Would it be possible to make a chewy version? If yes, how; if no, why?
Lucy: We wanted a crispy cookie for a few reasons. One is that most Americans prefer crispy. Also, a crispy cookie does much better as a shelf stable product. To keep a chewy cookie fresh on a grocery shelf certain ingredients would be needed that we didn't want to add. We would have needed artificial ingredients or natural ones with a taste profile that we don't want. We were looking for a cookie that tastes like a cookie! Just a normal cookie!
If you like a more moist cookie, my Mom and several others have told me that you can sprinkle a few drops of water on the cookie and microwave it for a few seconds and it becomes warm and soft, like fresh-baked!
Here's the ingredient declaration from Lucy's Chocolate Chip cookies, so you can see some of the innovative ingredients they're using to take GF cookies to the next level:
"Dr. Lucy's Flour Blend (Gluten-Free Oat, Garbanzo, Potato Starch, Tapioca, Sorghum and Fava Flours), Organic Cane Sugar*, Vegan Chocolate Chips, Gluten-Free Oat Flakes, Soy Milk*, Brown Sugar*, Palm Fruit Oil, Canola Oil, Olive Oil, Filtered Water, Flavoring and Citric Acid from Non-GMO Corn, Crushed Soy Beans*, Sunflower Lecithin, Nondairy Lactic Acid, Baking Powder, Baking Soda, Potassium Bitatrate, Vanilla Extract*, Salt, Xanthan Gum, Calcium Carbonate, Annatto Extract Color, Cellulose Gum. *Indicates Organic"
If you're a sucker for soft-baked cookies and live in the NYC area, try out This Chick Bakes for jumbo soft-baked GF cookies. I picked up the ginger molasses spice cookie in a shop in NYC and really enjoyed it. Its flavor was a bit more bean-y than Lucy's, but the softness and spices were impressive! This Chick Bakes uses dairy and eggs in her recipes, so if you're avoiding allergens or keep a vegan diet, stick to Lucy's. Happy eating!
1. Gibney, Lucy. Interview about Lucy's Cookies by Amanda Greene. Email. July 1, 2013. http://www.decodingdelicious.com/lucy-gibney-md-interview-lucys-cookies/.