By: Laura Albert
Food allergies are off the charts these days! It’s incredible how many people’s bodies are rejecting the basic essentials of foods that use to be staples in a backcountry kitchen. Things like peanut butter, GORP (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts), snack mixes, granola bars, powdered milk, pasta, and so on are having to be manipulated to accommodate people’s food allergies. But nothing has been harder to accomplish than gluten free.
Gluten is a family of proteins that are found in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt. Most people can handle gluten just fine. But there is a growing population of people whose bodies either cannot process these proteins or are just plain allergic to them. Being “Celiac” has a variety of levels and symptoms, but it all revolves around an inability for the body to process the proteins found in these specific grains.
But what does that mean for backcountry cooking? It means that baking mixes, pastas, and a great many pre-made freeze dried meals are unavailable for those who are Celiac. Because not only do the main ingredients have wheat products in them, but also so does the filler or the spices within those meals have some kind of gluten product in them.
So it is just to be beans and rice then for meals? I soooo reject that! I love cooking! And cooking in the backcountry already provides such a great challenge for me that adding gluten free deliciousness is just an added bonus!
See, I love food. No, I mean I LOVE good food! I’m seriously of the “camp” that if I’m not eating it in the frontcountry, there’s no reason to eat it in the backcountry. So here are a few ideas and tips to eat gluten free and gourmet in the backcountry.
1) Meal Plan
For the same reason that you plan your route in the backcountry, you also want to plan your meals. This will help with saving money, but also saving time while trying to cook your meals. Planning and measuring the correct amount for the time you are in the backcountry, and number of people will save you time, save you weight in your pack, and also help you avoid cross contamination. For help on how to plan ahead and prepare, check out the links below.
2) Use Certified Gluten Free Products
There are many Gluten Free options out there, but in my experience not everything that claims to be “gluten free” should be considered equal. Here are a couple of my favorite brands and what I use them for:
Better Batter is a company I love to use! Not just for the superior baking mixes, but also what they are about. Their batters are allergen free including some of the more rare food allergies that are out there. So it is really ideal for a bunch of food allergies in your group including lactose and celiac. I use their All Purpose Flour Mix, Pancake & Biscuit Mix, and their Fudge Brownie Mix for backcountry cooking.
I use the All Purpose Flour Mix for making pizza dough, gnocchi pasta, alfredo sauce, and dumplings in soup. And the pancake mix for biscuits, pancakes, muffins & scones. One thing I do recommend to add to all of these mixes for backcountry use is powdered egg. Really makes them fluffier and respond like a dough with gluten still in it. *If you have someone with an egg allergy, milled flax hydrated works, although not as well.*
Thai Kitchen/Simply Asia has noodle packs that are like ramen noodles, only gluten free and in fun flavors like lemongrass, garlic & vegetable, ginger, and others. It’s a great alternative that’s quick and easy like ramen. There are also rice noodle ramen packs that are a bit more expensive, but still really good by Lotus Foods.
When looking at G-Free pasta, not all pasta is created equal. There are some that are easy enough to enjoy in the front country, but when using them in the backcountry, it is a hot mess! There are lots of great brands out there, but I have found that unless you are making a dish that purposefully uses rice noodles, stay away from them for Italian style meals. The noodles end up being slimey from the starch residue and it is not fun to clean up that gray water.
Try to stick with a quinoa noodle or something that isn’t a rice noodle like Ancient Harvest brand. It will provide your body with energy that lasts longer and is a lot friendlier to the taste buds to clean up. Again, be sure to check labels that the product is in fact manufactured in an allergen free environment!
Getting enough protein in the backcountry can be tricky. Most people use products like falafel, tvp, and similar items. Falafel, while a yummy greek variety to meals, is full of wheat! So that’s out. TVP (textured vegetable protein) can also be a good option, but again I would urge extreme caution for the gluten free cook. Wheat can be included in some brands. So what can I use then? Well, Soy Curls work really well for additional protein and getting your muscles some good stuff. They are gluten free and work well in a variety of contexts. Pro Tip: Just be sure to hydrate them enough.
Your spice kit will make or break you. Spice mixes, while they seem easy and a great option, often use wheat as a filler. So it can be a bad time if you find that out the hard way! Be sure to really research your spices or even go so far as to make your own mixes! It’s not too hard and well worth any effort you put into it. And be sure to use Gluten Free Tamari sauce instead of soy sauce.
3) Don’t Be Afraid to Be Creative
Sometimes, there just isn’t a granola bar, snack, meal mix, spices or whatever that will suit your needs. This is where the old adage “Necessity is indeed the mother of invention” comes into play. Because honestly, most of my best success were really due to thinking outside the box using the resources I had at my fingertips at that moment. That’s how I made gluten free gnocchi pasta – potato/flour pasta that look like little dumplings and are so yummy!
Making gourmet gluten free food in the backcountry doesn’t have to be an epic saga of woes. It can be fun, inspiring, and empowering! But taking the time to look at the ingredients you have and putting together an idea is well worth the effort and bit of time it takes to get it all set up. Your stomach may be yelling at you to get on with it, but trust me. Your taste buds and your expedition team will be singing hallelujahs the whole time you are eating!