Saturday, March 24, 2007

Gluten Free on a Budget

In the past year, I've had to do a lot of thinking about how to bake gluten-free on a budget. Cooking gluten-free is one thing. You make a lot of vegetables and soups, and you use starch to thinken sauces instead of flour. With meat, you can be careful about what you sprinkle on and marinate with. But baking? There is really no way to avoid spending money on things you wouldn't otherwise buy. Some of the gluten-free flours can be pretty expensive, too. Then there are the recipes that call for four flours and three starches, plus some kind of binding agent. It can get complicated and expensive pretty fast if you aren't careful.

So here are the best tips I have come up with in the past year.

1. Pay your taxes. The cheapest way I know of to keep costs down when going gluten-free is to make enough money to pay taxes. Buying gluten-free flours and Pamela's Ultimate Baking mix can actually help you get your tax money back! The thing is, when you have a medical condition that requires you to spend money, that money is tax deductible, at least in the United States. (I assume there is a similar deal in Canada, but I guess I'll find that out next year.) All you need is a note from your Doctor and a list of what you bought. Then you compare the cost of what you are using to the cost of wheat flour, and you have your tax deduction. So, for brown rice flour that costs $3.49/lb when wheat flour is $0.79/lb, you get a $2.70/lb tax deduction. This works out well for people who pay taxes. Those of us in the starving student income bracket already get all our tax money back and no additional deduction is going to change how much money we have to spend on food. What else can we do to keep baking costs down?

2. Check your sources. I try to avoid natural foods stores whenever I can. The natural foods section in the grocery store near me charges more than $4/lb for tapioca starch. The Asian Grocery downtown charges $0.79/lb. They also sell white rice and sweet rice flour at the same price. They are all coming from Thailand where they don't process much wheat, so they are celiac-safe, even for really sensitive people. Check your cultural groceries to see if they have ingredients you could be getting cheaper. The Thai sources have been safe for us, but the Jowar flour from the Indian store had some cross-contamination.

3. Make good choices. Once you are getting the best price you can find, usually by going to an asian or Indian Grocery, you have to decide what flours you are going to bake with. I recently learned how to use brown rice flour to my advantage and I was consistently pleased with the results. Unfortunately, I can't consistently spend $3.49/lb on flour and bake enough muffins to keep the Maestro in snacks for pre-school. I had to make a compromise and switch to white rice flour. I'm not as happy with either the nutritional content or the texture of the muffins I end up with, but I'm not going as far into debt to bake them. I typically use a sorghum/tapioca mix, or a sorghum/tapioca/white rice mix in my baking. I'm pretty satisfied with the cost of the tapioca and sorghum, but I wish I had a cheaper source of brown rice flour.

4. Stick with the tried and true. There are lots of recipes that call for a wide variety of ingredients. I just don't make them. If there is a recipe that calls for Amaranth flour, potato starch, chick-pea flour, or something else I don't have, I just make something else. I can't afford to tie up capital in 15 different ingredients. Sometimes this requires more experimentation to come up with a version I am happy with, but I have felt pretty successful with the flour mixes I have settled on. If you want to settle on a pototo starch/chick-pea mix, be my guest. Just settle on it, and don't stray from that if you want to keep your costs down. Otherwise you'll end up with 3/4 of a bag of Millet flour (or something, or several somethings) you never use for anything else.

5. Decide what is worth spending more money on. Of the binding agents I have seen, xanthan gum is the most expensive. Guar gum seems to run about half the price, but you have to use four times as much because it isn't as effective. Kuzu Starch also works well and is less expensive than either xanthan or guar gum. It is not nearly as convenient to use, however. What is that worth to you? You have to decide.

6. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Brown rice is $0.99/lb where we live. If we had a grinder, we could make our own brown rice flour for much less that Arrowhead Mills sells it. At $2.50/lb savings, it would only take 40 lbs of flour to pay off a $100 mill. Luckily for me, the government has been saving some of my money for me (see item 1). When they give it back to me, one of the things we plan to do is get a good mill. Any suggestions on what model we should get? I know some of you have mills already.

There were a couple of posts about the economics of being gluten-free, and cooking in general, recently. Mike, at the Gluten Free Blog had this to say about budgets. Shauna had this to say about the economics of food.

Does anyone else have any good strategies for keeping costs down?


  1. I haven't perused Asian markets, but I have noticed that Whole Foods is cheaper than the natural aisle at a normal grocery store.

    I often buy in bulk from Amazon Grocery - free shipping too.

    Keeping a spreadsheet where you can compare prices is useful too.

  2. There is something similar to the US tax credit in Canada. Sadly, you would be ineligible. It requires the golden test; positive biopsy results.

  3. Wow, I wish I had know that I should have been saving my receipts for the last year!!!! That is great news about the tax credit. In England they actually give you a prescription for gluten free foods I have heard.
    I buy all my flours (except brown rice flour) at the Asian and Indian markets in town. So much cheaper! I too have been thinking about a mill for making my own brown rice flour.

  4. Oh, too bad that I'm moving to Canada for my job -- the job that will have me paying taxes finally.

    We don't have a Whole Foods here, or a Natural Foods. We have a couple of natural foods stores that are actually more expensive for many things than the regular grocery store natural foods aisle.

  5. Thanks for this - I have been working for months on a very long article on this topic, which I'll be posting soon - The one thing you mentioned that i hadn't included was the tax deduction issue. Great ideas.

  6. tax idea is super great! thanks for the post!

  7. you can use a coffee grinder to grind smaller amounts of spices and flour. A coffee grinder runs 10 bucks. I use it to grind up nuts and rice to make flour. Coffee grinders are actually sometimes sold under the name of "spice grinder" so it is the same thing.