When I first started baking gluten-free, I was pretty overwhelmed by all the different flours! But time and practice have taught me a lot and I want to share some of the helpful things I’ve learned about these different powdery substances with you.
It’s almost never the case that you can simply swap one of the below flours for wheat or glutenous flour in a recipe, because gluten is the very thing that binds foods like bread, pie crust and other baked goodies together.
But with a little finesse and willingness to experiment (usually with smaller recipes so you don’t waste if it doesn’t go as hoped) you can combine a couple or a few of the ones below to get the texture, flavor, balance and consistency that’s just right.
Of course there are more – and if you’ve used one I haven’t mentioned, please leave me a comment and let me know your experience with it. I’d love to check it out!
Almond Meal Flour: I’ve had good luck using just almond meal flour in cookie and muffin recipes that had a lot of binders like egg and oil. I’ve also used it as part of a mix of other flours, as it adds a lovely moistness and a light almond flavor. Most almond meal is made from blanched almonds, which is what gives it its pale yellow color. In a pinch, you can make your own by blending almonds in the blender or food processor.
Arrowroot Powder(may also be labeled arrowroot starch, or arrowroot flour): I use arrowroot powder in place of cornstarch frequently. It is a tasteless thickening agent that works well in soups, sauces and puddings. Overheating can cause it to lose some of its binding properties, so for best results add it closer to just before boiling.
Brown Rice Flour: Brown rice flour is a great flour to mix in with other flours like teff, buckwheat or sorghum (see white rice flour below – different qualities than B.R.F.).
Brown Rice Flour – Superfine: Basically brown rice flour that’s been double milled to give it a silky-smooth texture, this flour may be hard to locate in stores. You can find it online though. It actually does a great job of emulating wheat flour – even better than sorghum or buckwheat. You’ll most likely want to add a binder (like xantham gum) to recipes like sugar cookies or other recipes where the texture is paramount.
Buckwheat Flour: Native to Asia, this distinctive-tasting flour is commonly used to make things like crepes, soba noodles and pancakes. It adds a wonderful texture to muffins and cakes as well, though you will want to acquaint yourself with its flavor before adding too liberally. For best results in gluten-free baking, mix your buckwheat flour with a starchier flour like cornstarch or tapioca flour for a good roll-out dough.
Chickpea Flour (also known as besan, garfava flour or garbanzo bean flour): chickpea flour gives a wonderful texture to gluten-free baked goods like muffins, pancakes and cookies, and works much like sorghum or buckwheat. It’s traditionally used in foods like falafel, pakoras and boodi. Because it’s a bean, the flour does have a distinctive odor which becomes fairly unnoticable when cooked with other ingredients. If you have trouble finding it, you can make your own from dried chickpeas (not canned – they’re already cooked) – and grinding them in your food processor or coffee grinder.
Coconut Flour: Incredibly absorbent, this is not a flour you can substitute for wheat (or any other flour) in the same quantity by any means. I’ve added merely 3 T to a muffin recipe and gotten the same result I would have had in an entire cup of wheat flour. Coconut flour has a lovely natural sweetness and wonderful texture, and is high in fiber and low in carbohydrates.
Corn Starch: Cornstarch is a thickening agent that works well in soups, stews and sauces and can be used like tapioca flour (to add starch) to other recipes. It is usually combined with equal parts water (forming a “slurry”) to dissolve before adding, so it doesn’t clump. This is one to check for the “gluten free label, as some facilities that make cornstarch also process other gluten-containing grains and foods. You will not have great results if you combine cornstarch with acidic liquids (such as lemon juice). If you’re freezing your leftovers, opt for arrowroot in place of cornstarch, as it holds up better in the freezer.
Flaxseed Meal: With plenty of antioxidants, omega 3’s and 6’s, flaxseed meal (ground flaxseed) has a distinctive nutty flavor and is best in baking when added as an additional flour, rather than the main feature. More a binder than a flour, mixing 1 T of flaxseed with 3 T water can replace an egg. I add flaxseed meal to pancakes, bread, muffins and even my green smoothies to boost their nutritional content. I store mine in the freezer to retain its nutrients.
Millet Flour: A tiny seed-like grain, millet can be white, grey, yellow or red. Millet flour is most often made from the yellow variety, and makes a slightly dry flour. It works well when mixed with heartier flours like teff, hemp or almond meal. I most recently used it in a pie crust recipe, where it was called for in equal parts to almond meal, potato starch and tapioca flour. I’ve made my own before when I couldn’t find it pre-ground by simply grinding millet in my high-speed blender.
Oat Flour: With all the nutritional benefits of oats, oat flour is a good addition to baked goodies and works a lot like sorghum flour. It may be slightly denser, like a wheat flour but it is extremely versatile and moderate in flavor. Be sure to look for a “gluten free” label on this product.
Potato Starch (potato flour): Powdery fine, and with a similar texture to tapioca flour, potato starch has been used by the food processing industry for years as a general thickener, binder, texturizer, anti-caking, or gelling agent. It works like cornstarch in thickening gravies, sauces, soups and stews. It also works well in gluten free baking, and can be worked into a dough (like a pie crust) like flour.
Sorghum Flour: A staple grain in Africa, sorghum has been studied for its numerous health benefits (phytochemicals that may help manage cholesterol, antioxidants and phenols that may improve diabetes and insulin resistance). It is a great substitute for wheat flour in many recipes especially when combined with more dense flours at about 15-20%.
Sweet White Rice Flour: Made from starchy, short-grain white rice, this flour is traditionally used in Asian cooking to thicken sauces or added to desserts. It will add moisture and density – not the best when used alone, unless a sticky result is desired.
Tapioca Flour: Made from the root of the tropical cassava plant, this pure starch works as a thickening agent in sauces (and freezes well). It can also be used successfully with other, more dense flours in baking like brown rice, sorghum, millet, and buckwheat. It is sometimes easier to find tapioca pearls than tapioca flour, and they can simply be ground in your high-speed blender to make tapioca flour.
Teff Flour: One of my personal favorites, teff is the smallest grain in the world and is remarkably high in protein. You can grind your own in the blender/food processor. It works well in a variety of recipes, and has a nice nutty flavor.
In traditional baking, the gluten protein coagulates ingredients, binds and thickens doughs and batters, traps air bubbles, and makes baked goods light and fluffy. Guar gum and xantham gum both serve to coagulate, or bind batters and doughs together in gluten-free baking – but xanthan gum primarily help starches combine to trap air, and guar gum helps keep large particles suspended in the mix. See below for a handy chart from Bob’s Red Mill for how to gauge amounts of each.
Guar Gum: Made from a tropical Asian seed, guar gum works best in cold foods like ice cream or pastry fillings. Foods with high acidity (like citrus) may cause guar gum to lose its binding properties (use xantham gum for better result in those types of recipes).
Xantham Gum: Made by a micro organism called Xanthomonas Camestris, xantham gum works best in baked goods and yeasted breads. Its ability to keep oils from separating is why you’ll often find it on food labels. Be careful when working with it, as it leaves an extremely slimey residue on everything it touches.
**Also of note: I store all of my flours in the refrigerator (some in the freezer) to retain their freshness and nutrition content.