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Dec/Jan 2010 Issue
Gluten-Free Flour Power
Living Without's guide to choosing and using gluten-free flours.
From beans and grains to tubers and seeds, there’s a rich and wonderful array of delicious and nutritious flours waiting for you.
Keep in mind that baking gluten-free requires using a mix of flours. If you’re new to gluten-free baking, start with our standard blends or purchase an all-purpose commercial blend at your local natural food store. Once you’re comfortable with the nuances of a basic gluten-free blend, try introducing new flour varieties slowly into your repertoire. In time, you’ll be able to customize recipes to your individual preferences.
Knowing the properties and uses for alternative flours sets you on track for selecting the ones best suited for each baking application. As you learn how to use these flours, you can remake your favorite foods without compromising taste and texture. In fact, you can add essential vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber to your baked goods, fortifying your diet in flavorful ways.
Beans and Legumes
Bean flours are high in protein, fiber and calcium. Varieties include chickpea (garbanzo), bean (navy, pinto and red) and soy. Garfava flour is a blend of flours made from garbanzo, fava beans and Romano beans. These flours work well with foods, such as breads, pizza and spice cakes. Try mixing them with tapioca flour, cornstarch and sorghum flour for a hearty, nutritious blend that lends structure and texture to your baking. Store them at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
How to use: Add up to 30 percent of a total flour blend. A small amount (¼ to ½ cup) added to pie crust or wraps makes these items more elastic and easier to roll out.
Watch out for: Certain bean flours, particularly garfava and chickpea, impart an aftertaste that some people find unpleasant. Offset the taste by using less than 30 percent in a flour blend in recipes that contain brown sugar, molasses, chocolate or spices. Bean flours are not well suited to delicately flavored goods, like sugar cookies and biscotti.
Pea Flour and Green Pea Flour, the newest additions to the line-up of gluten-free flours, have many benefits similar to bean flours but without the strong aftertaste. High protein content lends structure to baked goods without adding any distinct flavor. Store at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
How to use: Add up to 30 percent pea flour to a basic gluten-free blend.
Watch out for: Green pea flour imparts a green hue to the final baked product, great for Easter or St. Patrick’s Day but not suitable for bakery items you want to be white. Too much produces goods that have a starchy taste.
Amaranth An ancient food used by the Aztecs, this flour is made from the seeds of the broad-leafed amaranth plant. Amaranth seeds are also puffed into kernels for breakfast cereals. High in protein, calcium and iron, amaranth flour adds structure to gluten-free baked goods and helps them brown more quickly. To store, refrigerate in an airtight container.
How to use: Works well in recipes that contain brown sugar or maple syrup. Because of its distinct taste, use it sparingly, about 10 to 20 percent of a flour blend or no more than ½ cup per recipe.
Watch out for: If too much is used, baked goods may have a bitter aftertaste and may brown too quickly.
Corn Flour Milled from corn kernels, this is finely ground cornmeal that comes in yellow and white varieties. One form of corn flour is masa harina (milled from hominy) used in making corn tortillas. If corn flour isn’t available, you can make your own by grinding cornmeal into a fine powder in a food processor. High in fiber with a slightly nutty taste, corn flour is a good source of fiber, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron and thiamin. To store, refrigerate in an airtight container.
How to use: Blend with other gluten-free flours, preferably rice and sorghum, buckwheat or amaranth for hearty baked items. Use it for tortillas, waffles, pancakes, breads and desserts. Great for cornbread and as part of a breading for deep-fried foods
Watch out for: Don’t confuse U.S.-made corn flour with the so-called “corn flour” (really cornstarch) used in Great Britain.
Corn Starch A flavorless white powder that lightens baked goods to make them more airy. It is highly refined and has little nutritional value. Store in a sealed container in a dry location.
How to use: Can be used in place of arrowroot or potato starch. It makes a transparent thickener for gravies, soups and sauces. It’s an important part of many all-purpose gluten-free flour blends.
Watch out for: The British term for “corn flour” is really cornstarch.
Cornmeal Larger particle sized than corn flour, cornmeal lends excellent texture to foods and has a nutty, slightly sweet taste. Cornmeal comes in yellow and white varieties and in fine, medium and coarse grinds. Great for cornmeal cakes, breading, cornbread, Johnny cakes, Indian pudding and Anadama bread. Select finer grinds for baking and for polenta. Use coarse meal for breading. High in fiber, iron, thiamin, niacin, B-6, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. Refrigerate to extend shelf life.
How to use: Blend with corn flour or a gluten-free flour blend. In most recipes, it should be no more than 25 percent of the flours used. However, some cornbread recipes call for just cornmeal.
Watch out for: Select the grind appropriate for your recipes. Using too much cornmeal or a grind that’s too coarse produces a gritty texture.
Millet An ancient food, possibly the first cereal grain used for domestic purposes. It imparts a light beige or yellow color to foods. Easy to-digest millet flour creates light baked goods with a distinctive mildly sweet, nut-like flavor. High in protein and fiber and rich in nutrients, millet adds structure to gluten-free baked items. It is excellent for flat breads, breads, pizza and other items containing yeast. Store in the refrigerator or freezer in a tightly sealed container.
How to use: For best results, use no more than 25 percent millet flour in any flour blend.
Watch out for: Short shelf life. Millet can quickly become rancid and bitter.
Oat Flour and Oats High in fiber, protein and nutrition, oats add taste, texture and structure to cookies, breads and other baked goods. If oat flour is not available, you can make it by grinding raw oats in a clean coffee grinder or food processor. Quinoa flakes can be substituted for whole oats in most recipes. Store in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dry place or freeze to extend the shelf life.
How to use: In most recipes, oat flour should be less than 30 percent of a flour blend.
Watch out for: Most oats grown in the United States and Canada are rotated with wheat crops, making cross contamination a major concern for people with gluten intolerance. Select oats that are marked “gluten free.” People with celiac disease should consult their physician before using oats.
Rice Flour Most often used gluten-free flour. It’s available as brown rice (higher in fiber), sweet rice (short grain with a higher starch content) and white rice. The texture varies depending on how it’s milled—fine, medium or coarse. Fine grind is used for cookies, biscotti and other delicate baked goods. Medium grind, the most readily available, is suitable for most other baking. Coarse grind is best for cereal and coatings. Finer grinds produce the best texture in baking. Easy to digest and blend, white rice flour has a bland taste. Brown rice flour is slightly nutty. Brown rice flour should be stored in the refrigerator.
How to use: Relatively heavy and dense, rice flour works best in recipes when it’s combined with other flours, especially those that are high in protein to balance texture and build structure.
Watch out for: Too much rice flour (unless it's super-fine grind) can produce a grainy taste and texture and can make baked goods crumbly.
Sorghum Flour Also called milo or jowar flour, some believe this flour tastes similar to wheat. Available in red and white varieties, it has a slightly sweet taste and imparts a whole-wheat appearance to baked goods. Sorghum flour is high in protein, imparting all-important structure to gluten-free baked goods. It’s also high in fiber, phosphorous, potassium, B vitamins and protein, and is a great choice for pancakes, breads, muffins and cookies. Sorghum flour is ideal for darker-colored, heavier baked goods, like brown bread or ginger cookies. Store in an airtight container at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
How to use: Should be no more than 25 to 30 percent of any gluten-free flour blend.
Watch out for: Darker in color than many other flours, it’s not a good choice for baked goods that should look white.
Teff Flour Milled from one of the world’s smallest grains, teff is a key source of nutrition in Ethiopia. It’s available in dark and light varieties. High in protein, fiber and calcium, teff imparts a mild, nutty taste to cookies, cakes, quick breads, pancakes and waffles. Combine teff flour with Montina in an all-purpose flour blend to produce high-fiber bread with a whole-wheat taste. Refrigerate for longer shelf life.
How to use: Should be no more than 25 percent of any flour blend.
Watch out for: Too much can overpower delicate recipes.
Buckwheat Despite its name, buckwheat is not a wheat. It is a fruit from the poly-gonaceae family, which also includes rhubarb and sorrel. Buckwheat has a strong, robust flavor that combines well with other gluten-free flours. A great source of balanced protein and eight essential amino acids, this flour is high in fiber and B vitamins. It’s available in light, medium and dark varieties. Light buckwheat flour is usually preferred for baking. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator to extend shelf life.
How to use: For breads and rolls, use up to 1 cup per recipe to impart a taste and texture that comes close to whole wheat. Use less when baking delicate cookies or pies.
Watch out for: Too much can overpower a baked product.
Montina Flour is made from perennial Indian rice grass, a dietary staple of Native Americans before the introduction of maize. Recently rediscovered and now grown in the western United States, this protein-rich, fiber-rich flour has a wheat-like taste and hearty texture. Blend with an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend to add fiber, nutrition and protein to baked goods. It’s an excellent choice for use in dark baked goods, like spice cakes and gingerbread. Refrigerate in a tightly covered container.
How to use: Add up to 30 percent Montina flour to your flour blend to produce bread with a whole-wheat taste and texture.
Watch out for: Too much can overpower other flavors. Its whole-wheat appearance may not suit delicate, light cookies, cakes or sandwich breads.
Wild Rice Flour is not made from rice but a wild aquatic grass originally grown in lakes, particularly in the Minnesota area. Wild rice is now produced in man-made paddies and, therefore, it’s more plentiful. Rich in folate, wild rice has a long shelf life because it is dried and slightly fermented. This flour’s very dark brown to black color adds a rich hue to pastries and other baked items. It has a hearty, interesting flavor and texture. It's best used as part of a flour blend for pancakes, muffins, scones and cookies. Use it to thicken casseroles, sauces, gravies and stews.
How to use: Add up to 25 percent to a basic flour blend.
Watch out for: Like Montina flour, wild rice flour imparts a distinct flavor and adds a dark appearance to baked goods. Not suited for delicate pastries, such as sugar cookies, white cakes or biscotti.
Almond Flour and Almond Meal impart a sweet, nutty flavor to baked goods. High in protein, fiber, vitamin E and healthy fat. Make your own almond flour by finely grinding blanched nuts in a clean coffee grinder. Don’t over-grind; almond flour can turn into almond butter very quickly. Leaving the skin on the almonds will darken the flour and the final baked product. Almond flour adds structure and texture to cakes, cookies and cupcakes. It is popular for Passover baking. Almond flour can be substituted for oats in oatmeal cookies for people who cannot eat oats.
How to use: Add up to 25 percent to a basic flour blend or use up to 50 percent or more in cakes leavened with eggs.
Watch out for: Not suitable for people allergic to nuts. Because of its high fat content, almond flour and meal can go rancid quickly. Store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer and use within a few months.
Chestnut Flour Made from ground chestnuts, this flour imparts a nutty, earthy flavor to baked goods. High in fiber and low in protein, it is used widely by Italian bakers and cooks in everything from pasta (tagliatelle and gnocchi) to cakes, pancakes, breads and muffins. Because chestnut flour is low in protein, it should be combined with a high-protein flour, such as bean, amaranth or soy flour, to ensure baked goods hold together. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
How to use: Add up to 20 percent to a basic flour blend.
Watch out for: Too much chestnut flour can impart an unpleasant earthy taste. Don’t confuse chestnut flour with water chestnut flour, a starchy white powder with different baking properties.
Coconut Flour A low-carb, high-fiber flour with the subtle, sweet fragrance of coconut. Usually well tolerated by people who have multiple allergies. People on low-carb diets often bake with 100 percent coconut flour.
How to use: For best results, add up to 15 percent to a flour blend.
Watch out for: Too much can create a very dense end product. If using 100 percent coconut flour, recipes usually call for extra eggs to create height and airiness.
Flaxseed Meal is high in fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Make your own flaxmeal by grinding flaxseeds in a clean coffee grinder. (Whole flaxseeds are not digestible.) Store in the refrigerator or freezer.
How to use: Add 2 to 3 tablespoons per recipe for baked goods or sprinkle on yogurt or cereal for a nutritional boost. A mixture of flaxseed meal and warm water is used as an egg replacer in vegan and egg-free baking. (See Substitution Solutions for egg replacement options.)
Watch out for: Flaxmeal produces a flecked appearance in bakery items. Too much flaxseed or flaxmeal can have a cathartic effect on some people. Introduce it into your diet slowly.
Salba Also called chia, salba seeds come from the Salvia hispanica plant. Hundreds of years ago, Aztec warriors would tie a bag of these seeds to their belts to sustain them during their conquests. The seeds were so important in Aztec culture that they were used as money. Considered a super food due to high levels of multiple nutrients and protein, salba is flavorless. Unlike flax, salba seeds do not have to be ground in order to be digested.
How to use: Can be added by the tablespoonful to everything from yogurt to baked goods. A mixture of 1 tablespoon salba and 3 tablespoons warm water (let stand, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes until thick) can replace one egg in vegan and egg-free baking.
Watch out for: High in fiber, salba can be cathartic to some digestive systems. Introduce it slowly into your diet.
Hemp Flour A protein-rich whole-grain flour that imparts a nutty flavor to breads, muffins, cookies and pancakes. It is an excellent source of protein containing all essential amino acids and is very high in dietary fiber.
How to use: Add ¼ to ¨÷ cup to a basic flour blend.
Watch out for: Too much produces a gritty texture and an unpleasant earthy taste.
Mesquite Flour Ground from the pods of mesquite trees, this pleasantly sweet flour is rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc. Combine it with other gluten-free flours to add a molasses-type flavor to baked goods. Best added to darker bakery items, such as brownies or gingerbread.
How to use: Add up to 25 percent to a basic flour blend.
Watch out for: Too much imparts a distinctive taste that can compete with other flavors in a recipe.
Quinoa Milled from a grain that’s native to the Andes Mountains, quinoa is a seed that has a delicate, nutty flavor that’s similar to wild rice. This flour is easy to digest. Quinoa contains high levels of calcium, protein, complex carbohydrates, phosphorous, iron, fiber and B vitamins. Quinoa flakes are an excellent replacement for oats in cookies, breads, cakes and rolls and a delicious addition to granola. Store in the refrigerator or freezer.
How to use: Mix with other flours, up to 25 percent of total blend, to increase the nutritional value of baked goods.
Watch out for: Too much can overpower the flavor of bakery items. Whole quinoa should be rinsed first to remove the bitter-tasting natural oil that sometimes lingers on domestic varieties.
Tubers and Roots
Potato Flour Made from dehydrated potatoes, this fine yellow-white powder is high in fiber and protein. It can be used in place of xanthan gum or guar gum in gluten-free baking. It lends a soft, chewy mouth-feel to baked goods, homemade pasta, breads and pizza crust.
How to use: Add 2 to 4 tablespoons per recipe. Reduce or eliminate the gum ingredients accordingly.
Watch out for: A little goes a long way. Too much potato flour will create a gummy product. Don't confuse potato flour with potato starch, which is used in much larger quantities in recipes and has different baking properties.
Potato Starch Made from the starch of dehydrated potatoes, this white powder is often used as a one-for-one substitution for cornstarch in recipes. It has excellent baking qualities, particularly when combined with eggs. Contains no protein or fat.
How to use: Gluten-free recipes often call for ½ to ¾ cup potato starch as part of a flour blend.
Watch out for: Potato starch tends to clump, so it should be stirred for accurate measuring. Don't confuse it with potato flour, which is used in much smaller quantities and has different baking properties.
Root Flours (Arrowroot, Sweet Potato Tapioca) Made from root plants, these flours/starches are usually well tolerated by food-allergic people, even those with multiple allergies. Their high nutritional properties enhance baking performance and give bakery goods a chewy texture and increased browning capabilities. Arrowroot flour is pleasant-tasting and versatile, good for making breads and bagels. Sweet potato flour, which has a yellow-orange hue, imparts its color to baked items and has a taste that complements recipes containing chocolate, molasses, spices and such. Tapioca flour (also called tapioca starch), is made from the cassava (manioc) plant. It's a good choice in breads, tortillas and pasta.
How to use: Root and tuber starches should be part of a flour blend, up to 25 percent. Arrowroot starch and tapioca flour/starch are also used as a thickener in gravies and other sauces.
Watch out for: Too much of any of these flours can produce a gummy result.
Basic Flour Combo
For a basic flour mix that works nicely for all-purpose use, click here. While there, check out our recipes for simple flour blends that provide high protein and high fiber. Turn to "Ask the Chefs," for a formula for blending alternative flours.