Review: Against the Grain Products

Hello, world – long time, no post! I’ve had some work-related busyness to attend to, and lots of it.  After such a long time without a job, I’ve been throwing myself into my job and into my business with gusto (yes, I have two jobs now).  Which is excellent for my self-confidence and pretty good for my pocketbook, but not so great for my free time.

Or my baking.

While I have been doing some cooking over the last few months, it hasn’t been nearly as much as I’d like.  More often than not it involves me throwing whatever flours we have left into a bowl and stirring in baking powder and eggs, and baking the concoction.  It has turned out badly more often than it’s turned out well.  I did manage to put together a gluten free Irish soda bread that I’d like to share eventually (it needs one more round of tweaks) to eat with our corned beef and cabbage last weekend (did you know Trader Joe’s carries the most amazing corned beef?  And it’s gluten free!).

But really?  I’ve been doing a lot of on-the-fly eating (today, for example, is going to be a salad-bar-at-the-University-because-it’s-all-I-can-eat-at-the-dining-hall day).  It’s not particularly good for me, and more than once I’ve ingested something that flat-out doesn’t agree with me.  Since I realized that gums aren’t my friends (fairly early on in this process) I’ve only gotten really really sick a few times (gluten doesn’t seem to hit me nearly as hard as gum, at least not in the short term).  But it’s really disheartening to spend ten minutes explaining something to a waiter, painstakingly go through all the ingredients, be assured that the chef washed his or her hands and did my cooking in a separate bowl/pan, and still feel the effects.

Pity party aside, I’ve found some pretty amazing places.  Lots of places wouldn’t think to cook meat sprinkled liberally with flour and soy sauce.  Lots of places offer gluten free pasta, even when it’s not actually on their menu.  There’s even an Italian-style gelateria here in town (not quite as good as I remember in Italy, but when we asked if they used gums in their gelato, the person on the phone said, “I don’t know, let me go check with the guy who makes it…”  A few minutes later she came back and confirmed.  No gums!).

And of course if you look hard enough most menus will have naturally gluten-free items.  Meats with veggies and potatoes on the side.  Spaghetti squash “pasta.”  Big gorgeous salads.  Most of the time when we go out (which has been more often than I’d prefer, to be honest) I’m totally fine.  In fact, I know a few places where the waiters remember me and go out of their way to make sure I’m happy (Kitchen 4140, I’m looking at you!  We’ll be back soon, I hope!).

With all the work I’ve been doing, my time has been squeezed.  I’ve been lucky – the Whole Foods near my work has started to carry gluten free products that I can actually eat.  Just two days ago I picked up a package of gluten free matzo crackers (I happen to be one of those weird people who absolutely LOVE matzos, and it was one of the things I was mourning!) and a gluten free cake mix from Israel that I’m dying to try.  But the Sprouts market near my house has cut back considerably on the products they carry, and, even worse, a few of the products (*grumbleArrowhead Millsgrumble*) have been reformulated to put gums back in to the ingredients (great reminder to always, always check ingredient labels!!!).

Thanks to my local Whole Foods, I’ve been able to locate two new gluten free breads.  One, by Silver Hills, I’ll review at a later date (I’m still hoping they start carrying it on a consistent basis, in both GF varieties).  The products I’m reviewing today are by Against the Grain.  And just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t been compensated in any way for this review (I bought all the products myself, with my own money, and haven’t been in contact with the company in any way).

This family-owned company operates out of Vermont.  I love their website; they really believe in their product and it shows.  They use a minimum of ingredients (just 6, total, in their baguettes, for example).  They work with local farmers.  They pay good wages.  Anyway, I really like this company.

To be honest, I wish I could be as excited about their bread.

Let’s put it this way: I actually don’t think I like tapioca starch very much at all.  That kind of makes a big difference.  I didn’t really realize it at first, but tapioca starch tends to leave a sort of flowery talcum powder taste – and texture – in my mouth.  I understand that this is actually a rather common thing; my mom even commented on it when I made a gluten free pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving last year, using the tapioca starch I had on hand.  But a lot of people don’t mind it – or even like it.  So don’t completely write this bread off.

All of that said, I’m still eating this bread.  And it works.  So let’s talk about the good things.

First off, the texture is really fabulous.  I’ve tried the Baguette, the Vermont Country Rolls, the Cinnamon Raisin Bagels, and the Pizza.  More on each later.  Every one of these has a really lovely flaky texture.  These are essentially Brazilian cheese rolls (even the baguette), but they have been able to come up with a less gummy, more fluffy bread with lots of structure and tons of air pockets.  The pizza bakes up crispy.  The bagels toast up gorgeously.  In a world of rock-hard, dense gluten free breads, the texture is the number one best thing about Against the Grain’s products.

On the subject of flavor, as much as I’m not crazy about the tapioca starch, there are some good points.  For one thing, the pizza has a lovely fresh tomato sauce and the cheese tastes good.  My husband doesn’t like most mozzarella, and he commented about how wonderfully cheesy this cheese was.  I think it’s because they work with local farmers.  For another, the less-plain rolls/bagels actually do have pleasant back notes.  My local Whole Foods hasn’t started carrying the Pumpernickel yet (waiting!), but the Vermont Country Rolls have enough other ingredients in them that they don’t actually taste very much like tapioca starch.  The cinnamon raisin bagels scared me (I love cinnamon, but hate cinnamon-raisin bread), but they don’t taste much like raisins (they are actually my favorite of the products, because they’re just lightly sweet and slightly cinnamon-y).

Of course, for anyone who is gum-free (like me), be careful.  Both the Vermont Country Rolls and Cinnamon Raisin Bagels are dairy free.  Which is wonderful for people who are allergic to dairy.  But the coconut milk that is used has guar gum in it.

Sigh.

I decided to get and try these because, I reasoned, the amount of guar gum from the coconut milk in each bagel or roll had to be tiny. And so far, I have not reacted to it.  But knowing it’s there, I won’t be eating these every day.

As for eating the plain baguettes, I’ve found I like them better if I have a very strong flavor on them.  Corned beef, hot dogs, turkey with lots of honey mustard…  The tapioca starch flavor can be ignored if there are other things going on.  Just don’t expect these to make pleasant peanut butter sandwiches.  Unless you like the taste of tapioca starch.

Like most gluten free products, Against the Grain’s line does benefit from toasting.  And as I mentioned earlier, the breads do toast up quite nicely, with a much fluffier texture than any other GF bread I’ve found.

In short: If you can find their breads or pizzas, give Against the Grain a try.  You might find that the tapioca starch flavor is just too much for you, but under the right circumstances they offer a pleasant alternative to dense GF breads, and one of the only commercial options for us gum-free folk!

Edited on 3/26 to add: Sadly the second time I ate a bagel I reacted.  Badly.  So it goes to show me that no amount of guar gum, in coconut milk or otherwise, is processed well in my system.  Sadness!

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