Gluten-free goodness: Local companies bake with gluten-free flour

The Forum of Fargo Moorhead

FARGO - After one bite, Paul Mehl tossed the $7.99 loaf of gluten-free bread in the trash. It was the first loaf of wheat-free bread the celiac-sufferer tried, and it wasn’t good.

“For me to throw something away, it’s got to be bad,” Mehl, of Fargo, says.

Other people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities share Mehl’s frustration, he says.

Gluten-free goods are often tasteless, gritty or totally unlike their wheat-flour counterparts, Mehl says. His brother, Matthew Mehl, who also has celiac disease, jokes that eating Styrofoam might be better than some gluten-free foods.

Nine people in the immediate Mehl family have celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. There’s no cure for celiac disease, but eating a gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Paul Mehl’s spent the last five years perfecting the gluten-free flour that’s sold by his family’s company, Mehl’s Flour Company. He wanted to find a flour that’d be indistinguishable from wheat flour so people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities could enjoy breads and baked goods, like birthday cake.

The former “research and IT guy” baked 25,000 loaves of bread while he was developing the flour. He says it was a challenge to find the correct blend of ingredients that’d make gluten-free flour identical to wheat flour.

“Regular bread is God-made. God made wheat to have all these properties that control the rising, the water control, texture, etc.,” he says. “Gluten-free doesn’t. We have to get all these things to work together, so if I’m going to develop a flour, it might be a one-month process of making tiny adjustments until we get things that work.”

Andrea Chang and Kristina Lau, owners of Fargo cupcake bakery Bakeology, developed gluten-free cupcakes for their business. The duo makes as many gluten-free cupcakes as traditional wheat flour cupcakes.

Like the Mehl family, Bakeology’s main goal was to make gluten-free cupcakes that are identical to traditional wheat flour cupcakes.

“You’re trying to achieve something that you want people to taste and not think, ‘This is gluten free,’ ” Chang says. “You want them to taste it and say, ‘This is a really awesome product.’ ”

Chang and Lau have experimented with different gluten-free flours to create their own secret blend. They say premade mixes from grocery and specialty stores are useful for home bakers who may not have the time to experiment with blending their own flour. Lau recommends trying different gluten-free blends and looking at the ingredients to see which differ in the flours.

After baking with a few, people will start to figure out what they like and don’t like, she says. 

The flours aren’t as neutral as traditional all-purpose wheat flour and often have a prominent texture and taste, she says. The flours also absorb moisture differently, and the Bakeology women find that they need to add more gluten-free flour to their batter to get a texture similar to traditional baked goods.

“With gluten-free flour, you’re always trying to find that balance so people don’t taste it and say, ‘Mmm, brown rice flour or bean flour,’ ” Chang says. 

Gluten-free flours can also have a gummy or grainy texture, Lau says.

“It can be a turnoff,” she says. “Once you find the flour that works for you and your taste and your preferences, it really isn’t that intimidating to use because you can take your favorite recipes and just sub the flour.”

Mehl’s gluten-free flour is subbed one-for-one in recipes. He says it was important to find a flour people could use in family recipes without altering them.

“The big thing is we want to find a way that people can continue to use those recipes. That’s been the whole framework that we’re trying to fit,” Mehl says.

Another concern when baking gluten-free goods is cross-contamination. Mehl’s Flour Company operates in a certified gluten-free facility, and Bakeology takes care to not cross-contaminate gluten-free cupcakes with wheat flour cupcakes.

“If anything touches something with wheat, it’s no longer gluten-free,” Lau explains.

Some restaurants or bakeries may not want to carry gluten-free products because of the risk of cross-contamination, Mehl says.

“If an employee mishandles it, it will hurt the restaurant,” he says. 

Mishandling could be as simple as an employee cutting gluten-free bread with the same unwashed knife they use to cut wheat flour bread.

Despite some restaurant and bakery hesitations, Mehl and the Bakeology team say gluten-free products are becoming more readily available.

“Every year there are better products that come out. There are a lot more options compared to five years ago,” Chang says. “That’s still probably not enough, but it’s better.”

As demand for gluten-free items increases, both companies hope to offer their products at lower prices. Currently, gluten-free cupcakes ($3) at Bakeology are 50 cents more than regular cupcakes to cover the cost of the special flour blend and extra labor. A loaf of Mehl’s Flour Company gluten-free bread retails for about $5, and Mehl would like it to cost less than $4 eventually.

Both companies also say that people with and without celiac disease have enjoyed their products. People who don’t have dietary restrictions often eat the gluten-free cupcakes and don’t know they’re gluten-free, says Lau of Bakeology.

“People don’t even see it as an issue. They just go for the flavor,” she says. “If it tastes good, why would you care if it’s gluten-free?”

Mehl’s confident that people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities will eventually be able to eat all of their favorite foods in gluten-free form.

“When I say it’s possible to make anything gluten free, I really mean that,” he says.

The researcher-turned-baker is already enjoying the fruits of his labor. His gluten-free pizza crust and bread are family favorites, and now when he takes a bite of his gluten-free bread, he eats the whole thing.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Where to buy

Bakeology: Cupcakes and cakes; Unglued, 408 Broadway, Fargo.

Mehl’s Flour Company: All-purpose gluten-free flour blend, bread mix and gluten-free baked goods. Available on and at the following locations: Sydney’s Health Market, 810 30th Ave. S., Moorhead; Hugo’s, 3250 32nd Ave. S. Grand Forks; The Organic Cupboard, 207 Broadway St., Enderlin, N.D.; Just Grains, 22 4th St. S. in Moorhead, will also carry Mehl products. The gluten-free bakery is slated to open sometime this summer.