Gluten in Sauce: 5 Sources You Might Overlook

Last updated on November 12th, 2022

Staying gluten free can be tough, especially when it seems like gluten’s hiding everywhere. You pass on the bread basket and eat gluten-free pasta, but you need to look out for gluten in sauce, too. Keep reading to discover how gluten gets into sauces, plus pick up tips on making your sauces gluten free at home.

square dishes of sauces on white background

Gluten in Sauce: Malt Vinegar

Malt vinegar is made with barley grains, and traces of gluten remain after the fermentation process. Customarily paired with fries and sea food, malt vinegar sometimes shows up as an ingredient in sauces and dressings, too. If you spot the word “malt” in a meal description or ingredients list, read it as “gluten.”

Watch out for malt vinegar in:

  • Worcestershire sauce
  • BBQ sauce
  • Cocktail sauce
  • Malt aioli
  • Steak sauce
  • Certain brown sauces

Look for sauces made with other types of vinegar instead. At home, substitute apple cider vinegar or lemon juice for malt vinegar in recipes.

Gluten in Sauce: Soy Sauce

Whether traditionally fermented or industrially made, most soy sauce contains gluten from wheat berries. If you don’t have access to the bottle, assume that soy sauce includes gluten.

gluten free tofu teriyaki with green and red peppers
Gluten-free tofu teriyaki with green and red peppers.

Watch out for soy sauce in:

  • Hoisin sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce
  • Mumbo sauce

Look for sauces made with gluten-free soy sauce or tamari.

Gluten in Sauce: Roux or Flour Slurry

A roux is equal parts fat and flour cooked together before adding liquid and other ingredients to a sauce. A flour slurry combines liquid and wheat flour, and is usually added to the sauce at the end. Both techniques add gluten to a sauce that might otherwise be gluten free.

baked sweet potato mac and cheese
This mac and cheese is thickened with sweet potatoes rather than a traditional roux.

Watch out for flour in:

  • Gravy
  • Au Jus
  • Alfredo sauce
  • Baked mac and cheese
  • Nacho cheese sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Brown sauces
  • White sauces

Thicken sauces with a cornstarch or arrowroot slurry instead.

Gluten in Sauce: Pasta Water

Resourceful cooks make use of starchy pasta water for a variety of reasons in the kitchen. A touch of pasta water makes sauces more velvety or silky. The gluten helps unify ingredients in dishes such as cacio e pepe. And a splash of pasta water thins out sauces that are too thick.

uncooked spaghetti in pot of water

Watch out for dishes that might be prepared with pasta water such as:

  • Marinara
  • Alfredo
  • Carbonara
  • Cacao e pepe

Rice pasta will leave a concentration of arsenic in the cooking water. At home pour rice pasta water down the drain and prepare sauces with an arrowroot or cornstarch slurry instead.

Gluten-Free Living
Restaurants often save time by partially precooking pasta and then finishing it to order in a pot of constantly boiling water. If the meal needs to be gluten free for medical reasons, gluten-free pasta needs to be cooked in separate water with separate utensils.

Gluten in Sauce: Crumbs in Condiments

Some component of a sauce may be naturally gluten free, but are common places for breadcrumbs to hang out.

Watch for crumbs in ingredients like:

  • Butter
  • Cream cheese
  • Nut butter
  • Jelly
  • Mustard
  • Mayo

If you share a kitchen with gluten at home you should have separate condiments. Be sure dishes aren’t prepared with cross-conataminated ingredient.


Gluten finds its way into sauces both deliberately and unintentionally. It unifies ingredients and adds desired textures and flavors. It also sneaks into sauces through cross contact from otherwise gluten-free ingredients.

Read ingredient lists when you can, communicate with wait staff when you eat out, and make replacements at home. These three steps will help you avoid inadvertently eating gluten in sauces.

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