People seem to shun gluten for a number of reasons. A doctor may diagnose them with celiac disease and tells them to avoid all proteins deriving from wheat and similar grains. Some may not have a full-blown disease but suffer from intolerances or allergies. Some are looking to cut out or down on refined carbs. And some are heeding the siren call of self-proclaimed nutrition experts telling them that gluten is the root of all evil and that cutting it out will cure everything from cancer to mental illness. In all cases, they have to make a choice: Suffer a World Without Bread, or buy the gluten-free alternatives. After Karen Freer was diagnosed with celiac in 2007, she found the former unthinkable, but the latter wasn't exactly attractive either:
"I was bummed out, because I missed bread. I didn't like the gluten-free breads out there, so I started making my own bread. My friends said they'd buy it, gluten-free or not. That's when I started Free Bread."
Karen bought an oven and a mixer, got a gluten-free certificate, and began to get her products into stores. In 2012, she teamed up with Sarah Black, an industry veteran who was a founder of Tom Cat Bakery and had just left her job as head baker at Fairway Markets. They found space in a Long Island City food incubator and began to expand and perfect their line of loaves. Like all gluten-free bakers, they faced the challenge of making a product that had the taste and texture of real bread with a list of ingredients that had very different properties than traditional grains. Today, they sell their rolls in Whole Foods and other markets, and also to fill breadbaskets at restaurants like Le Bernardin and Telepan.
The flagship of the Free Bread line is its Moxy roll, the name derived from millet, oats, and flax seed. Karen developed it to fill her craving for "hearty, whole grain bread, something with a little tooth in it." Like all gluten-free products, the list of its ingredients is long, including various kinds of rice flour, tapioca and arrowroot flours, olive oil, egg, molasses, agave nectar, xanthan gum, yeast, and salt, in addition to millet, oats, and flax. The bread has nutty, wheaty aroma and a satisfying density to the chew, very similar to those German whole-grain health breads. For a newbie, the only drawback is the price—$8.49 for a pack of three large rolls at Whole Foods. Welcome to the world of gluten-free, where loaves cost a lot more because their ingredients are lot more expensive than simple flour, water, salt, and yeast. (Free Bread will soon be selling more reasonably priced packs of sliced Moxy Pullman loaves.)
In addition to being gluten-free, Free Bread products are also nut-free, so they couldn't make their version of a traditional dried fruit and walnut loaf—unless they got rid of the nuts. Voila the Cranny Pep ($8.49 for three rolls). Even denser than the Moxy, this dark, slightly sweet bread is made from a half dozen exotic flours (garbanzo bean, teff, arrowroot, tapioca, coconut, and sorghum), dried cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spices, molasses, agave nectar, eggs, olive oil, xanthan gum, yeast, and salt. With its chewy texture and cranberry-spice flavor, the Cranny Pep makes a great breakfast bread and probably would be a good base for cheese as well.
Finally, Free Bread's Jalaa! ($8.49 for three rolls) fills the gluten-free cheese bread niche. The cheese is a sharp cheddar given an added zing from a liberal dose of jalapeno peppers added to the dough. This is the lightest and fluffiest of Free Bread's products. I suppose you could top it with even more cheese, but I prefer to toast it and cover it with a liberal spread of good butter.
All of Free Bread's loaves are made without chemical mold inhibitors and other preservatives. (I generally don't advise freezing breads, but at gluten-free prices I give you absolution.) They're available at Whole Foods and many area health food and gourmet markets and in an increasing number of restaurants.
About the author: Andrew Coe is the only reporter covering the city's bread beat.