Thanksgiving is the time of year when we pause and reflect on the blessings of the bountiful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 when the Pilgrims and Native Americans of New England sat down together to celebrate a successful harvest after the previous year’s meager crop.
The message of Thanksgiving is ‘gratitude’. On this holiday we give thanks for the food that nourishes our bodies and for the people we share our celebration with.
For the gluten-free Thanksgiving is one of the most challenging holidays. The Thanksgiving feast is a minefield of gluten – gluten in the stuffing, the gravy, the pumpkin pie, and even gluten in some turkeys that have been injected with a self-basting solution.
Here’s some tips on making it through a gluten-filled Thanksgiving Dinner unscathed.
Once again manufacturers have stepped up to the plate and are responding to the needs of the gluten-free. Butterball, one of the largest suppliers of processed turkeys is now certifying both their unstuffed turkeys and their gravy packets as gluten-free. This is a big change from the turkeys of yesteryear which were often injected with a solution that contained wheat as a flavoring.
Butterball’s website indicates that their fresh and frozen turkeys that do not include stuffing are gluten-free and their gravy products are made with rice flour and corn-based modified food starch, making them safe for consumption by the gluten-free.
Ordering Your Turkey from your Butcher
If Butterball turkeys are not available in your area then go to your grocer’s butcher counter a few weeks before Thanksgiving and order a fresh (non-frozen) turkey that has not been injected with flavoring solution or soaked in brine.
Be sure to let the butcher know that you have a food allergy and your turkey must be ‘natural’ – with no added ingredients.
If You Are a Guest
If you are a guest for Thanksgiving and can’t specify which turkey is selected or how it is prepared you have several options.
Most people stuff their turkey with a stuffing that contains wheat bread which contains gluten. This means that even if the turkey hasn’t been injected with a broth that contains gluten the probability that your slice of turkey will be cross-contaminated by some gluten-containing gravy or stuffing is very high.
BYOT (Bring Your Own Turkey)
Since Thanksgiving is all about thanks I like to make the day easier on my host. Prior to the holiday I purchase a deboned turkey breast from my butcher. On the morning of Thanksgiving I fry up the turkey breast with a few generous pats of butter, refrigerate it, and bring the turkey breast, pan and all, in a cooler to the celebration so that I can enjoy myself and not worry about gluten.
I ask the host to borrow a burner to gently reheat my portion (don’t try to microwave the turkey, the meat will become tough). Since there’s a lot of meat on a turkey breast I have enough to share with other guests who are gluten-free.
When it’s time to eat politely decline the stuffing, fill your plate up with vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a generous dollop of butter (skip the gravy – your host has likely made it with wheat flour) and enjoy a gluten-safe meal.
If You Are Traveling
If you are traveling and can’t bring your own turkey then ask your host to see the product label for the turkey to determine whether it has been injected with flavorings that contain gluten.
In the USA manufacturers are required to list major allergens which are currently defined by the USFDA as follows: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
In the USA food labels must list the major allergens. Look for the word "WHEAT" after the word "CONTAINS:"
If the ingredient label lists WHEAT then you must politely decline your host’s turkey.
If the ingredient label for the turkey lists MODIFIED FOOD STARCH and the turkey was processed in the United States then the food source for the starch will be corn (gluten-safe) and you can enjoy a slice of turkey.
For a tutorial on reading product labels you can purchase our cookbook Easy Delicious Gluten-Free Skillet Meals which gives instructions for determining if a product contains gluten or has potential to be cross-contaminated with gluten.
Cross-Contamination with Gravy and Stuffing
If you can confirm that the turkey was not injected with a self-basting solution that contains gluten then the best way to ensure you get a non-contaminated gluten-safe portion of turkey is to ask your host to cut a shallow slice from the top of the breast (don’t cut to the bone where the stuffing is). You can also ask for one of the turkey legs. Have the host serve your portion before they carve up the rest of the bird.
To be extra safe, remove the skin from your portion in case your host has basted the turkey with pan drippings that can be contaminated with gluten from the stuffing.
Once again, decline the gravy and the stuffing which will most likely not be gluten-free.
If All Else Fails Eat the Mashed Potatoes
If it appears your host’s turkey has been injected with a gluten-filled solution and you can’t bring your own portion then do what the vegetarians do on this day – enjoy what you can from the feast and focus on the social aspects of the day.
If you are preparing your own Thanksgiving Dinner then Trader Joe’s has your back. Trader Joe’s Gluten-Free Stuffing Mix is easy, economical, and it tastes pretty good for a gluten-free mix. I find it is less expensive than buying a gluten-free loaf of bread and making my stuffing from scratch.
If you will be moistening your stuffing with extra broth Trader Joe's also carries a turkey stock that has no gluten-containing ingredients.
You always have the option to make your own gluten-free stuffing. Just trim the crusts from a loaf of gluten-free bread, cut the gluten-free bread in cubes, and substitute for regular bread cubes in your favorite stuffing recipe.
If you like to make your own gravy from pan drippings then substitute cornstarch or rice flour instead of wheat flour as a thickener.
Trader Joe’s carries a turkey gravy that lists Modified Tapioca Starch and Potato Flour as thickeners, both of which are gluten-safe. The ‘natural turkey flavor’ lists ‘caramel color’ which can occasionally be made from wheat. Be aware that you do assume a risk as the product is not labeled as gluten-free.
If you are extremely sensitive to gluten then make your gravy from scratch using corn starch or rice flour as a thickener.
Once again you have several options when it comes to the traditional Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie. Most pumpkin pie mixes and most homemade recipes do not specify flour as an ingredient for the pumpkin filling so you are generally safe consuming the pumpkin filling.
The crust is the problem for the gluten-free. Traditional pumpkin pie crusts (flaky or graham cracker) almost always contain wheat.
To enjoy your pumpkin pie you can either pour the pie filling into a buttered custard dish and bake it without a crust (note that you will have to remove it from the oven sooner to avoid burning) or you can purchase a gluten-free pie crust mix or even a frozen gluten-free pre-made crust.
I like the convenience of purchasing a frozen gluten-free pre-made pie crust such as the Wholly Gluten Free frozen pie crusts found in the freezer section at well-stocked grocers.
If your grocer doesn’t carry pre-made gluten-free pie crusts there are a number of gluten-free pie crust mixes.
Bob’s Red Mill makes a gluten-free pie crust mix that you add butter, shortening, and water to. You can find it in the baking section of well-stocked grocers or order it online at Walmart or Amazon.