What is gluten free flour?
I have been asked many times ‘what is gluten free flour?’ and I have to admit, it is a difficult question to answer. The world of gluten free flour is complex and can feel a little confused. You can take every packet of ‘gluten free flour’ that has ever been produced and set the ingredients side by side and each one would be completely different.
You see… there is no such thing as one ‘gluten free flour’. Gluten free flours are a collection of ‘powders’ made from ground seeds, grains, fruits, nuts and even insects, each with its own unique properties, from taste and texture, to nutritional content and how it will react when used in baking and cooking. It is not as simple as being able to grab one gluten free flour, or even one gluten free flour blend to bake successfully. And at times, knowing which flours to pick and combine together for which recipe can all become a little overwhelming.
In this post, I hope to help you to make sense of some of the qualities of the different gluten free flours you may come across. I also hope to show you just how easy it is to start experimenting and to make your own gluten free flour blends at home.
Flour before Coeliac Disease
Before becoming a Coeliac family in 2011, baking was pretty straight forward. In the cupboard, we had bags of plain flour, self-raising flour and bread flour…. either brown or white. Okay, that may be a little simplistic, but wheat flour was a given in the kitchen and pretty much every recipe relied on its qualities, not least the gluten it contained. That gluten (a protein) is a remarkable and reliable thing. It provides structure, support, airiness and elasticity and gives infinite possibility to what can be baked. But for Coeliacs, it is also poison!
As soon as gluten has to be avoided, baking suddenly becomes an alien world. It seems there are dozens of individual gluten free flours out there, but none of them comes close to the glutenous qualities of wheat flour and (regardless of what you are making) they rarely work effectively alone. And that’s where the gluten free flour mix comes in…
What is a gluten free flour mix?
A gluten free flour mix is exactly what it says… a blend of a few (or many) individual gluten free flours, carefully selected for the unique properties they bring, which when used together in a recipe, will work as needed for the bake to be successful.
Now you would hope that going to the supermarket and grabbing that pre-mixed bag of ‘gluten free flour’ from the shelf would be the answer to your prayers wouldn’t you? Sadly, this seems not to be the case. In my experience, each bag produces different results. Indeed, I have yet to find any one single bag of commercially blended flour that works for all recipes.
Sure, some are better than others both in terms of their nutritional content and their reliability. The Free From Fairy for example, makes a nutritionally-balanced rice-free flour blend which is pretty versatile. But in the nearly 10 years that I have been baking gluten free, I have yet to be 100% happy with any single flour blend that I have purchased. Even the best of them need extra individual flours added to make some recipes work.
To be fair, there does appear to be an increasing variety of better buyable blends out there. But the ‘worst’ commercially available gluten free flour mixes (which incidentally, are usually the cheapest and the ones mainly stocked by the big supermarkets) tend to be heavily weighted towards the use of rice flour. Frustratingly, too much rice flour has a tendency to produce a dry, crumbly, gritty texture, with minimal nutritional value.
Concerns about rice flour
There is also a growing body of evidence and information that rice flour in large quantity may even be harmful, with the concern that it contains arsenic from water and soil contamination. Arsenic being a poison, is not a great thing to be eating.
Bog-standard boiled rice carries less of a risk because of the process of boiling in water, particularly if the rice has been soaked for several hours before cooking as advised in this BBC health article. Rice flour however, is not boiled, but is produced by grinding rice before it is cooked.
At low levels, the damage may be minimal, but for Coeliacs, it is all too easy to find that your diet has switched from damaging wheat to toxic rice (in any number of forms) and if you don’t find ways to lessen the intake, you could be causing harm. If you buy ready-made commercial bakes, flours and bake mixes, take time to read the packaging… you may be shocked at how much rice you are consuming. You can find information on arsenic in rice in this article written for the BBC by Dr Michael Mosley, this article in Nature World News and a wealth of information through the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.
Why make your own gluten free flour mix?
Because of my dissatisfaction with the texture and results of most commercially-available flour blends, I have always mixed my own gluten free flour to meet the needs of each recipe being made. Whilst some recipes have demanded uniquely-tailored flour blends, I have also developed a couple of standard ‘all purpose’ gluten free flour mixes which I use across most recipes.
So too much rice flour aside, why make your own gluten free flour mix?
The biggest reason I think, is that it gives you versatility and control over the quality, texture, flavour and success of the bake and importantly, the quality of the nutrition in your diet. Given the amount of baked goods we consume, it seems an important consideration that we make those foods count. Many flours prove themselves to be fantastic sources of protein, healthy fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Surely that has to be better than empty carbs?
Which Basic Blend for Which Bake?
For cakes and biscuits (and particularly for recipes that I developed earlier and before I had got fully to grips with the nuances of gluten free baking), I tend to use Blend A below, which also gives a crumb that is lighter in colour. You might want to check out Gluten Free Alchemist favourites which use this mix, like my gluten free Chocolate Cake; gluten free Vanilla Sponge and amazing gluten free Gingerbread House.
When it comes to the carb ‘staples’, like bread and pastry, I increasingly use my gluten free, rice-free flour blend B as my base flour, to ensure the best nutritional quality as well as texture. You can see its amazing results in this incredible gluten free Wholemeal Brown Bread recipe, its vegan cousin – Vegan Gluten Free Wholemeal Bread, my gluten free (optional vegan) Maple Shortbread and my Cherry Bakewell Scones.
The recipes for my two base gluten free flour mixes are shared below. For many recipes I use one blend alone and for others I add additional gluten free flour ingredients to improve the texture and result of the bake. I’ll be honest… I can be a bit obsessive about trying to make gluten free bakes as close to or better than their ‘wheat-filled’ cousins. But I make no apology. I firmly believe that we should make as few sacrifices as possible just because we are gluten free.
Thus, to achieve great results, flour blending (to a greater or lesser degree) becomes a fact of life for the gluten free baker. If you want to reach the dizzy heights of a good gluten free bake, home-blending a gluten free flour recipe is (in my view) the best way to go.
Is it Easy?
Whilst I appreciate that not everyone has a willingness or will to spend time weighing out and mixing flours together, it is really not as time-consuming as it sounds. Trust me… if it was, I wouldn’t be doing it! I hate faff! But once you have found a gluten free flour mix that you are happy with, it is easy to stock up on the base flours and simply mix up batches of 500g to a kilo whenever your blend gets low. I weigh mine straight into an airtight container and shake vigorously to mix. It’s that easy and gives you absolute control over what’s in there.
flour blending not for you?
If flour blending is something that is not for you, then it is fine to find a commercial blend that you feel happy with. Many of the recipes on Gluten Free Alchemist should work with a standard commercial blend, but as they have been specifically developed using the flours as stated in the ingredients lists, I am unable to verify the results with other flour blends. If the blend you use has a greater ratio of rice flour in particular, you may need to add a little more liquid, but the best advice is to judge for each recipe as you learn what works best.
If you are looking for a rice-free commercial blend, there are a couple now available. The Free From Fairy produces a Wholegrain Gluten Free, Rice Free Flour Blend (either plain or self-raising), which can be found via her website. Bobs Red Mill also produce two rice-free flour blends – an All-Purpose Baking Flour and a Paleo Baking Flour (which is almond-based). I have not tried the Bobs Red Mill flours, but can vouch for the Free From Fairy blend working well.
The Gluten Free Flour Larder
I admit to being a little OCD about gluten free flour and could be considered a bit nerdy when it comes to understanding it.
When first diagnosed Coeliac, I spent hours researching individual flours and how to combine them to make the most of their unique qualities. In careful combination, they can be magic and will leave you wondering how you never discovered them before or why you have never tried blending them at home for your own gluten free bakes.
My gluten-free flour larder is a veritable treasure trove for the ingredients of gluten free alchemy. Tub after tub of powdered grains, nuts and seeds lined up… each with different characteristics, flavours and textures… many nutritionally superior to traditional wheat flour. How you use and combine them will dictate the lightness, denseness, texture, flavour, crispness, moistness and richness of the finished bake.
Of course, I am not suggesting everyone should have as many flours in their larder as I do, but if you are still reading this post, I guess you are seriously considering the possibility of either using a home-blended gluten free flour mix, or even more exciting… creating your own gluten free flour recipe. That’s fantastic!
Arm yourself with some basic knowledge about the qualities of the different gluten free flours (most of which I outline below) and be ready to experiment and risk a few baking disasters along the way. You are about to open the door into a world of culinary adventure…
Where to source gluten free flour
Whilst there are many different gluten free flours available, there are a few basics which I use more often than others. The ones I use most frequently (tapioca starch flour; cornflour (starch); sorghum; white teff, buckwheat; potato starch flour; white rice and brown rice) are the ones that you too may choose to source (although there are many other options you may prefer). I also use a lot of oat flour, but I grind this from gluten free oats myself at home to save money.
As with any other gluten free products, be sure to buy base flours which are certified gluten free if you are Coeliac or needing to avoid gluten for health reasons.
Many of the key gluten free flours can be found or ordered into good health food, nutrition and whole food shops. To find them I would recommend doing a bit of a google search on your local area to see what your options are. I also use a couple of amazing local farm shops which often have an unexpectedly good range. Interestingly, I rarely find what I need in places like Holland and Barrett, mainly because many of their products (at least in the standard stores) are not certified as Coeliac-safe.
If you can’t source the flours you need on the ground, check out the internet for suppliers. Ocado has a reasonable range of some of the basics, as does Healthy Supplies (one of my favourite on-line ingredient stores), Pure Gluten Free (limited to absolute basics, but certified as safe) and Shipton Mill. There will be plenty of other on-line sources though, so check around.
Dependent on where you live, some of you (if diagnosed Coeliac) may be really lucky and still be able to order some of the flours on prescription. This option has however pretty much been removed with updated prescribing rules.
For those of you who do give gluten free flour blending a go, I’d love to hear about how you get on. Ping me a comment or an e-mail or tag me into your creations.
Gluten Free Starchy flours
Brown & White Rice Flour
Rice flour is often used as a staple base flour in gluten free products and particularly in commercial flour blends and bakes, not least because it is very cheap. Made from finely milled rice, it is fairly versatile, easy to obtain and easy to digest (although because the body breaks the starch down quickly, this can cause spikes in blood sugar if eaten in large quantity).
Rice flour is best mixed with other gluten free flours, to balance its nutrition as well as its baking qualities. It can give a dry and slightly gritty texture and taste very bland. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests rice flour contains arsenic (see above) and thus when eaten in large quantity and on a regular basis, may be harmful to health. It is my view based on what I have read that whilst it still has a place, it should be used in moderation within the overall diet. Brown rice flour is considered to be wholegrain, but also potentially more harmful.
Another essential gluten free flour in the larder is potato starch flour (which is different from ‘potato flour’). Made from washed, dried potato starch, it is a white, fine powder with a slightly clumpy appearance. Potato starch readily absorbs liquid and has a neutral flavour and a good binding ability. Because of these qualities, it can be an important addition to a gluten free flour mix, although is nutritionally limited and is thus best used sparingly and in combination with other flours. Given that it is quite a ‘heavy’ flour, it should be well balanced against other lighter starches (such as corn or tapioca starch).
Tapioca Starch (Flour) – Paleo
A fine, white flour made from the dried starch extracted from Cassava (manioc) root. Tapioca Starch (flour) is extremely versatile, although is nutritionally lacking. It is much lighter than potato flour, but has excellent absorption and binding qualities, making it particularly great in a gluten free flour mix for cakes and biscuits. It will also add a little ‘stretch’ to bakes such as breads, although used in too high a ratio, will give a chewy result. Tapioca starch has a slightly sweet flavour and combines easily with other flours. On its own, it works well as a thickener for gravies and sauces or as a flour coating.
Whilst tapioca starch is best balanced with other wholegrain or protein-rich flours (both for nutritional value and texture), it can also be used as a lone flour when making specific bakes such as these somewhat addictive Pandebonos (also known as Pão de Queijo) or South American Cheese Bread.
Corn Flour (Corn Starch)
Corn Starch, is made from the finely powdered starch of the maize grain. Found in the baking aisle of supermarkets, this very light and versatile gluten free flour is an essential lightening ingredient in most cakes, biscuits and pastry. Because it does not absorb liquid to the same extent as potato and tapioca starches, its qualities also help to provide a crisper bake. It does however, have a tendency to be dry and powdery, and needs to be balanced alongside other, more moisture-retaining flours (such as potato starch or ground almonds).
As corn flour (starch) is virtually tasteless with superb thickening qualities, it is perfect for use in sauces. It is perhaps best known as the base flour of custard.
Glutinous Rice Flour
Glutinous Rice Flour (from a short-grain variety of rice) is also called sticky rice or sweet rice and is mainly grown in East and Southeast Asia. In Japan it is called ‘Mochiko’. Despite its name, it does not taste sweet, nor does it contain any gluten, but when cooked it becomes particularly sticky or gluey, giving excellent binding and structural qualities. It is low in fat and rich in carbohydrate and is widely available in Asian and Thai supermarkets.
When glutinous rice is ground into flour, it is white and very fine in appearance. Because it has a much higher starch content than other types of rice, it is a good addition to the gluten free larder for use as a thickening or binding agent in soups and sauces. It also works extremely well in a gluten free flour mix formulated for pasta, breads, pastries and cakes as it not only aids the binding process but also holds in moisture, without adding any ‘graininess’ to the bake. It was an important ingredient for texture when I developed the base to my gluten free Jaffa Cakes.
Arrowroot – Paleo
Arrowroot is a white, starchy, flavourless flour, extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant, best known for its amazing thickening properties. When heated in liquid, arrowroot converts to a completely clear gel which doesn’t break down when mixed with acidic ingredients, which makes it perfect for thickening fruit coulis. It is good substitute for corn flour (corn starch), although in the UK tends to be less easily available in bulk.
Cassava Flour – Paleo
This is a white, starchy gluten free flour made from the grated, dried root of the cassava plant – a root vegetable native to South America (also known as yuca). Cassava flour is almost entirely carbohydrate and is neutral in flavour and easy to digest. A recent addition to my larder, I am just starting to learn about the qualities it brings to the gluten free flour mix, but it is said to be a flour that can be substituted directly for wheat flour in many recipes.
A native Italian ingredient, with a slightly sweet taste, polenta is made from ground cornmeal. It is traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to fish and meat in a similar way to mashed potato. In its finely ground form (and particularly when combined with other flours and ground nuts), it adds a slightly dense, nutty bite to baked foods. Try to source the fine-milled polenta rather than the coarser version for baking, or the texture may be very gritty (unless your recipe specifically calls for a coarse-mill).
Sweet Potato Flour – Paleo
Sweet Potato flour is not cheap, but definitely has its place in the gluten free flour hall of fame. It tastes milder than the stark sweetness of a baked sweet potato and works particularly well in muffins, flat breads and wraps. It also of course, makes a great addition to a gluten free flour mix, although is best kept at a lower proportion to avoid it over-dominating.
Sweet potato flour is a great source of vitamin A and fibre and contains no fat or cholesterol. Moreover, it is low on the glycemic index (it beats ‘normal’ potato hands down) making it perfect for keeping blood sugar in check.
The wholegrain & protein flours
Buckwheat Flour (structural)
Despite its name, buckwheat flour has no relationship with wheat, but is a grain produced by grinding the kernels of the buckwheat plant (a relative of rhubarb) into a fine powder. It is a good nutritional flour with a high protein and fibre content. It is also low on the glycemic index and is packed full of antioxidants, minerals and vitamin B.
Buckwheat has a strong nutty, but slightly bitter, musty flavour which can become a little dominant used in bakes. For this reason, you may prefer to mix with more neutral flours. Nonetheless, it is a versatile gluten free flour which and adds colour, earthiness and a wholesomeness to breads and cakes and is often found in gluten free pancake recipes, batters and some pastas.
Although it is naturally gluten free, ensure your source is certified Coeliac-safe as there is a particular risk of cross-contamination from adjacent growing with gluten containing crops or milling equipment.
Quinoa Flour (pronounced Keen-wah) is milled from the quinoa grain and is a rare plant-based source of complete protein. It is packed with lysine and other amino acids as well as containing high amounts of vitamins B and E, calcium, iron and phosphorus. Being low on the glycemic index, it helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced.
Quinoa flour has a mild, nutty flavour, but combines well with other gluten free flours in all baked goods, but especially enhances breads, biscuits and savoury pastries. The high protein content supports structure and texture.
Quinoa Seeds (unmilled) can be cooked up as a delicious alternative to rice or couscous (which contains gluten) and makes a nutritious alternative to breakfast porridge. Check out my recipe for Quinoa Breakfast Bowl. Cooked quinoa can be enjoyed either hot or cold and can be stored in the fridge to eat over several days.
Oat Flour (structural)
Oat Flour is made from ground oats (and easy to make at home by grinding gluten free oats into a fine powder in a blender), this is another of my favourite flours and has a firm place in my larder. Whilst it is actually gluten free, it sadly is not tolerated by all Coeliac sufferers (due to containing a protein called Avenin which has a similar structure to gluten).
For those who can eat it, oat flour is a fantastically versatile cereal grain, which is a perfect addition to any gluten free flour mix, but particularly for bread, as it will produce a slightly ‘glutinous’, soft texture to the dough when mixed thoroughly. I have used it in many recipes, from this soft gluten free Oat Bread and this Baguette, through to these nutritious savoury Oat Pancakes. It also adds a wonderful oaty flavour and creamy, slightly chewy texture to the whole range of baked goods.
Because oats have fantastic slow-release energy properties (low on the glycemic index), they are also good for breakfast bakes (like my Cacao-Courgette Breakfast Cake) and smoothies, helping to sustain you through the morning. Oats and oat flour are high in protein, fibre, vitamin E, B-vitamins and calcium. There is some evidence that eating oats can also support the lowering of cholesterol levels.
Always be sure to source gluten free oat flour from a supplier certified gluten free however, to avoid cross contamination which may result from the growing and production process.
Sorghum Flour (structural)
Sorghum flour is produced from sorghum cereal grain, milled to a soft, fine flour. It is a wholegrain flour with wonderful nutritious qualities and is an important part of my rice free, gluten free flour mix (B). Sorghum is high-protein and high fibre as well as being a good source of iron, some B vitamins and phosphorous. With a slightly sweet flavour, Sorghum has a light texture with good binding abilities.
Used in high ratio, it may add a slightly grainy texture, so is best combined with other gluten free flours in baking. As it is quite dry, it requires added moisture, although this particular quality is perfect for making drier bakes such as crackers, biscuits and short-pastry. Sorghum flour is increasingly available in the UK, but be sure to check for gluten free certification.
Millet Flour (structural)
Millet is best known as bird seed, but is also a nutritious seeded grass which can be ground into another gluten free flour. It is used in many parts of the world for making beer, porridge, in stews and bakes. Millet is rich in B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron and some other minerals.
Depending on the cooking process, the texture of millet will vary. It can be creamy like mashed potato, fluffy like rice, porridgy like oats or add a nutty texture to bakes, crumbs and coatings. Millet has an earthy, slightly sweet flavour, but for extra nuttiness, the grains can be roasted before grinding (which is easy to do at home with a high powered blender/grinder). When added to flour blends for baking, millet will add a crisp, dryness to the end result. It is worth noting that millet has a short shelf life.
Masa Harina (white & blue)
This is a coarser maize flour traditionally used in Latin American cuisine. Masa Harina comes in white and (rarer) blue form. Traditionally, you use it to make authentic corn tortillas and tamales, which (in the UK) can be difficult to find. I make my own tortillas, using a 70-30 (white to blue) flour ratio, because somehow, they just taste richer and yummier!
Masa Harina works well for making flat breads including gluten free chapatti recipes alongside Gram and other flours. Masa Harina is reasonably nutritious and contains high levels of vitamin B6, thiamine, manganese and magnesium as well as being a good source of fibre. It is easy to buy on line from Mexican ingredient suppliers for the best variety and value.
Teff Flour (structural)
Teff is another fantastically nutritious wholegrain gluten free flour, which is milled into both white and brown flours. It is massively rich in calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C, as well as being a superb source of protein and fibre. Native to Ethiopia, Teff is a staple in the diet of Ethiopians, being used to make a spongy, fermented sourdough flatbread called Injera.
Teff has quite a strong flavour and is also quite heavy. Brown Teff is richer, with a slightly malty, earthy, nutty flavour, whilst white Teff is slightly sweeter and milder. However, combined with lighter flours and some starches, it works extremely well as part of a gluten free flour mix particularly for bread bakes, vegetable cakes and muffins, wholegrain and fruit cakes, as well as chocolate and other ‘darker’ cakes and biscuits. Blended with other, milder gluten free flours at a lower ratio, it adds both flavour and texture as well as nutrition to the gluten free flour blend.
Teff is what makes my favourite Version 2 of my Wholemeal Brown Bread perfect!
Amaranth flour is made from grinding the seeds of the amaranth plant, however the seeds themselves can also be used whole or flaked in a variety of ways. An unsung hero of the gluten free world, because of its versatility, it can be found in some breakfast cereals; can be used as a meal accompaniment in a similar way to rice or couscous (note couscous contains gluten); can be sprinkled on salads when sprouting; used to make ‘pop corn’ or when ground, added to a gluten free flour mix to make bakes.
Amaranth is extremely nutritious, being very high in protein (including the amino acid lysine), fibre and is also a good source of essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron and vitamin E. It is best used in savoury dishes or blended with other, milder flours as it has a strong, slightly peppery flavour which can overpower.
Flax (also known as Linseed) has a high Omega 3 content (although not as high as Chia) and is grown either brown or yellow/golden. Although flaxseed is often overlooked, in its ground form it is a fabulous addition to gluten free flour mixes for breads, pastries and other baked goods. It has the most amazing binding properties and can be used in vegan recipes to replace eggs (known as ‘flax eggs’). Flax seeds can also be sprinkled whole into the mix (or directly onto loaves, muffins, cereals, breakfast bars etc), to add a nutty bite.
Flaxseed has a low carb-high fibre content, is stuffed full of antioxidants and supports the lowering/balancing of cholesterol levels in the body. Be aware that once opened, flaxseed can go ‘rancid’ if not used quickly, although its shelf life can be extended by refrigeration.
Whilst hemp comes from a plant from the cannabis species, it should not be confused with the marijuana variety. In fact, hemp flour is a high protein, high fibre gluten free flour rich in vitamins and minerals (particularly calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, the B vitamins and vitamins A, D and E). It is also a great source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Dark in colour, hemp flour has a deep nutty flavour, which lends itself to gluten free flour mixes making savoury breads, crackers and pasta.
the bean and legume flours (high protein)
Soybean flour is full of protein and is produced from ground, roasted yellow soya beans. It retains moisture well and has good thickening properties, which makes it a good addition to bread mixes, pastry and sauces. It has a strong flavour however, which is not to everyone’s taste.
Gram flour (also known as garbanzo bean flour, chickpea flour or besan) is produced from ground chickpeas and is an essential ingredient in Indian and other cuisines from the Indian subcontinent. It will usually be the flour used to make pappadoms, onion bhajis and North African socca flatbread. Gram flour offers a good texture and wholesome flavour to flat breads and batter.
Gram flour has a good protein content and is also high in carbohydrate and fibre. It also provides good quantities of calcium, magnesium, folate, vitamin B6 and potassium to the diet.
Fava Bean Flour
Fava Bean Flour is the flour made from ground Fava beans (also known as Broad beans). It has a distinctive earthy flavour, which is best matched with savoury dishes. Nutritionally, it has a high protein content and is also a good source of iron and fibre. Fava bean flour is generally used in combination with garbanzo/gram flour for gluten free baking, however is not easy to source in the UK and thus is not a regular in the gluten free flour blend.
the nut flours
Ground Almonds (also known as almond meal) – Paleo
Ground almonds (coarse) are not cheap, but are well worth having in the gluten free larder and can quickly become a mainstay in gluten free baking, especially for cakes, muffins, pastries and biscuits. Milled from raw almonds, almond meal has a higher oil content than non-nut flours, so will help to make cakes rich, moist and decadent. Cakes made with almonds seem to improve with age. I can’t get enough of their sweet, nutty bite which seems to make the difference between a good bake and a great bake. Check out my Rhubarb Upside Down Cake made with an almond sponge, my gluten free Funfetti Cake, this beautiful Celebratory Orange Cake and these ‘Posh’ Jaffa Cakes (which only use a combination of ground almonds and almond flour).
In a gluten free flour mix, ground almonds add structure as well as moisture to cakes and bread, yet will also help ensure crispness in pastry and biscuits. They can also be used as stand-alone flour for some cakes and cookies, giving a wonderfully dense, moist, nutty texture (as with this Flourless Orange Cake, or these traditional Soft Italian Amaretti Cookies).
Almonds are high in protein, low in carbohydrate and contain fantastic levels of healthy mono-unsaturated fat and vitamin E. There appears to be a growing body of research that suggests they may also have fantastic cholesterol-reducing and other health-improving properties (see this article from BBC Good Food). Indeed, they have become an essential in the Gluten Free Alchemist larder.
Almond Flour – Paleo
Made from FINELY ground, blanched almonds, almond flour has all the nutritional value and qualities of its coarse-ground sister above. However, because it is more dense in volume, it needs to be weighed with care, as it cannot be substituted on a volume for volume basis with ground almonds.
A fine-ground powder, almond flour makes a wonderful addition to pastry recipes, is the base flour in many recipes for Macaron and makes delicious gluten free Almond Shortbread cookies.
Chestnut Flour – Paleo
Finely ground sweet chestnuts make a darker flour with a deep, rich, nutty flavour. Chestnut flour is high in protein and carbohydrates (with a medium glycemic index), but with a surprisingly low fat content. It brings an earthy quality and lends a delicious richness to bakes when added to a gluten free flour mix. In addition to increasing levels of vitamin B, iron, folate and fibre in a flour blend, chestnut flour will also support moisture balance and lightness in a bake.
Coconut Flour – Paleo
Made from dried, ground coconut meat, coconut flour is low in calories and sugar, but high in protein and fibre. It can be difficult to digest, but has a low glycemic index score, helping to stabilise blood sugar levels.
From a baking perspective, coconut flour is extremely dry and absorbent and is probably the flour I have found most difficult to work with as a result. It requires very high ratios of liquid to be added when baking (and benefits from extra egg to bind), without which the results are very dense and crumbly. Coconut flour can add a distinctly coconut flavour, but combined with other flours at a ratio of about 20% or less of the overall mix, will blend well and add good nutrition.
Having said this, coconut flour can be used as an independent gluten free flour, with one particular baker (Elana Amsterdam) using it with some degree of magic. You can find one of her sponge recipes used in these Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes made by my daughter.
Ground Hazelnuts – Paleo
Also known as the Cobnut or Filbert, Hazelnuts can be eaten shelled and raw, or can be ground (either raw or roasted) into a flour or paste. They are rich in protein and unsaturated fat and are also high in vitamin B6 and thiamine.
Ground hazelnuts have a sweet, creamy nutty flavour and are perfect for use in biscuits, chocolate-hazelnut spread, nut butter, cakes, pralines, crumbles and pastries. As with the addition of other nut meals and gluten free flour, they will not only add nutrients, but will provide structure and moisture to a bake. Some of my favourite bakes using ground hazelnuts include these Hazelnut Biscuits and these Nutella Thumbprint Cookies.
Peanut Flour (not Paleo)
Peanut flour has become more widely available in recent years and can be used instead of almond flour to give a more peanutty taste. It is very nutritious, having a high protein content and being a good source of mono-unsaturated fats (helping to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol), as well as being rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
Ground Pistachio Nuts – Paleo
Ground Pistachio (also known as pistachio flour) is another wonderful substitution to ground almonds, especially in cakes and cookies. With its beautiful green hue, ground pistachio is easy to make at home by grinding shelled raw (unsalted) pistachio nuts in the blender. Like other nut flours, pistachio is a good source of protein and fibre as well as healthy monounsaturated fat, vitamins A and C and several minerals.
At Gluten Free Alchemist, we love using ground pistachios. You will find (amongst others) gluten free recipes for Pistachio, Lime and Olive Oil Cake, deliciously moreish Nutty Pistachio Cookies, these pretty Roasted Pistachio Macaroons and even Pistachio Pastry and Pistachio Marzipan!
Tigernut Flour – Paleo
Technically, tigernuts are not nuts, but are from the root vegetable family, however I have included them under the nut section anyway!
With a sweet nutty flavour, tigernut flour is a gorgeous addition to the gluten free flour mix, especially for cakes, cookies and biscuits. It is fantastically nutritious, being rich in healthy monounsaturated fat, iron, potassium and vitamins A and C, as well as being a good source of fibre. Its natural sweetness also means you can cut back the sugar without feeling deprived. Sub for almond meal in recipes.
Banana Flour – Paleo
Banana flour is the fine powder made from green bananas that have been peeled, dried and ground. Although historically it has been commonly used in parts of the Caribbean and Africa as an alternative to wheat flour, in recent years it has been offered as another gluten free alternative in the mainstream. A relatively mild, but quite earthy flour, it does not taste of banana when used in baking. Apparently it makes great pancakes!
Banana flour has a high starch content, although this is resistant starch which is low on the glycemic index, meaning that it has positive benefits for keeping blood sugar stable. In addition, it also offers a great source of zinc, manganese, phosphorous and magnesium.
the binders and gluten-replacers
The use of a binder or gluten ‘replacer’ is essential to most gluten free baking as it helps to provide the elasticity and structure which is lost by removing gluten from the bake. Without it, your bakes (in particular breads, cakes and pastry) are likely to become dry, crumbly and very difficult to handle. The key binder-gluten replacers are listed below :
Although used in the non-food industry, xanthan gum is actually a natural gum produced by fermenting sugar and ‘friendly bacteria’. Although it adds little nutritional value (and indeed is not tolerated by everyone), used carefully, it can give dough and bake-mixtures a sticky consistency, helping to bind, thicken and give ‘stretch’ to a gluten free flour mix.
Guar Gum (made from guar beans) is more difficult to obtain, although it does the same job as xanthan gum.
Psyllium is the fibrous husk that comes from the seeds of the Plantago Ovata plant (native to India and Pakistan). A great source of soluble fibre and also provider of calcium, psyllium husk (used ground into a powder) is increasingly becoming my favourite gluten-replacer because of the magic qualities it brings, particularly to bread bakes. Psyllium husk holds moisture well and thus, when added to a gluten free flour mix, will add shelf-life and stretch, as well as supporting structure. Psyllium Husk helps to mimic gluten and works particularly well when added to recipes for yeasted and dough-bakes and pasta.
Ground Chia Seed – Paleo
Chia seeds come from a plant in the mint family which originates from central and southern America. Rich in Omega 3, fatty acids, protein, sodium, fibre and a host of other vitamins and minerals, Chia seeds have been identified as a ‘superfood’ for their nutritional qualities. They can also absorb up to twelve times their weight in liquid when soaked.
Nutty in flavour, Chia can be sprinkled into cereals, on yoghurts, salads, or added to energy bars. But it is when it is finely ground that it comes into its own in gluten free and also vegan baking. This is because chia binds extremely well (a good alternative to xanthan or guar gum) and can also be used as an egg replacer (by making ‘chia eggs’ with ground chia seeds and water). I find it tends to give a heavier result than using ‘flax eggs’ however.
To make a chia ‘egg’ mix 8g of ground chia seed with 45 ml/g water and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
Ground Flax Seed (also known as Linseed)
Flax seeds are another great binder addition to the gluten free larder, being a great source of omega 3 fatty acids and fibre. Added to breads and buns, ground flax seed adds flexibility and structure to the crumb.
It can also be used as an egg-replacer in vegan baking (at a ratio of 8g ground flax mixed with 30ml/g water per ‘flax egg’, left to ‘set’ for 10 minutes). Flax is by far my preferred egg-replacer as it maintains a higher degree of lightness in the final bake.
Gelatine & Agar Agar – Paleo
Gelatine and it’s vegan equivalent agar agar may not be immediately considered as options for gluten replacement, but when used carefully, their addition adds support and elasticity, particularly to bread. Indeed, I use it in my Oat, Teff & Millet bread which I used to make this show-stopping Bread Bouquet and also in my Revolutionary Brown Bread recipe and it’s Brown Bread bread-maker cousin.
What is gluten free flour? FLOUR BLENDING step by step
There are some basic principles that may help you in getting your head around blending gluten free flours at home.
When I originally started gluten free baking, I played with a standard set of (largely) white flours that were easily available and seemed to be common amongst gluten free flour blends posted across the internet. The resulting Gluten Free Alchemist Flour Blend ‘A’ below, which is a white flour mix, has served me well and I still use it in many of my bakes, particularly for cakes and biscuits. It produces a great crumb and a mild flavour and it will always be a part of my larder.
As my gluten free baking has become more sophisticated however, and I have become more nutritionally aware, I have sought to develop gluten free flour mixes which are more nutritionally balanced. This process has taught me much, and I am happy with my alternative rice free flour blend B, made with wholegrain flours. However, I am keen that having these options should never be limiting and I will frequently ‘play’ with new blends as I think might suit whatever I am making.
If you are a frequent baker, I would urge you to try a whole variety of gluten free flours for flour blending in your own kitchen. Not only is it fun, but you will inevitably find some amazing ‘new’ ingredients that you will love and that will enhance what you eat.
How do you create your own gluten free flour mix?
Basic rules and considerations
I am sure I am not alone in complaining about the quality of some commercially-baked gluten free cakes, biscuits, breads and more. They can be mouth-suckingly dry, crumbly, dense and brick-like. They often go stale quickly and taste gummy, grainy or chewy…(I see you nodding guys. I feel your pain!). The trouble is (and despite the price we end up paying) the cheapest flours are often chosen for the flour blends used to make them and that inevitably compromises the quality of the end result.
When it comes to gluten free baking, the texture, flavour, freshness and fragility of the final bake will be massively dependent on the choice of flours used to make it. The good news is that with so many different gluten free flours now available, the opportunity to experiment is endless.
When deciding what to put in a gluten free flour mix however, some basic rules and considerations apply :
Gluten is basically protein which in wheat flour bakes, provides structure as well as elasticity to the crumb, making those bakes soft, pliable, able to hold moisture, lasting and robust. Therefore, any good gluten free flour mix needs to do its best to mimic those qualities.
1. Include Protein-Rich Flours
Make sure you include a balance of protein-rich and whole grain flours in your gluten free flour blend (see list above). I use the word balance here with meaning. Too much protein and the bake can quickly become heavy, reluctant to rise and stodgy. Too little and it may become overly starchy, devoid of goodness, unwilling to hold together or gummy. But you absolutely need some in there for structure and support.
Think about the texture and flavour you want to achieve and try and match the protein flours that you have available to the desired result. For example – oat flour (if you can tolerate it) adds creaminess and texture; ground almonds and other nuts add nuttiness and moisture (which often improves with age), but will also give a slightly denser crumb; buckwheat, chestnut, soya and bean flours tend to have a stronger flavour which unless used sparingly, can come to dominate and mask the key flavours of the bake itself. In time, your flours will become your friends and you will learn how to use them to enhance.
2. Consider Colour & Flavour
Colour and flavour are also important to the end result. If you are making (for example) a ‘white’ vanilla cake, you don’t want to add a load of dark flour that masks either the cakes visual appeal or flavour. A combination of white starches with (perhaps) a balance of sorghum flour, white teff or ground almonds may produce a paler result. I tend to use my gluten free mix A and then add extra pale protein-rich supporters into the blend, recipe by recipe.
3. Be sure to Add Starch
Be sure to add starch to the mix. Best in combination, the addition of flours such as cornflour, tapioca, potato or arrowroot will add lightness and some degree of bind to the bake, enabling a better rise and more balanced flavour.
4. Think About Texture
Texture will also be governed by the flours you choose. In addition to the considerations in a) above regarding choice of protein-rich flours, you also need to choose your starch flours with caution. Too much rice (for example) and the texture will be rough and gritty. Too much potato starch and the texture will be heavy and stodgy. Think about the qualities of each flour you add to your gluten free flour mix.
5. Do You Need a Binder?
Most bakes need a specific binder added. If you don’t add a binder such as xanthan gum, flaxseed or psyllium husk, the risk is that your bake will crumble. The exception to the rule is perhaps where you have a bake which has a significant ratio of ground nuts, polenta or similar moisture-givers added or where you are specifically aiming for a very crisp crumbly result (as with some biscuits/cookies).
6. What About the Rise?
What does your bake need to rise? Gluten free flour mixes have to have extra help to give them the upward boost and that means giving extra consideration to the leavening agent (baking powder; bicarbonate of soda; yeast; kefir culture) that you use. Sometimes you need to combine leavening agents to support a rise (for example yeast and a little bicarbonate of soda in bread; yeast and baking powder in Hot Cross Buns; baking powder and bicarbonate of soda in Banana Cake). I know that the Free From Fairy in particular, has also been experimenting with using kefir alongside yeast in bread.
For a wholegrain-white starch balanced flour blend, I start with a broad 40 : 60 ratio (40% wholegrain flours : 60% white starches as listed below). This seems to be a safe starting point for a general blend.
If you want to aim for a more wholegrain gluten free flour mix, tip the balance further as far as a 70 : 30 ratio ( 70% wholegrain flours to 30% white starches).
Within those parameters, the freedom to experiment is yours. Play to your heart’s content to achieve the flavour and texture that you are most happy with and for the bake that you want to create. Once you have a blend or blends that you love and that work for you, write them down and mix them up into large airtight containers (shake vigorously to blend) and keep topped up for whenever you need them.
Gluten Free Whole-Grain Flours :
- Brown Rice
- Masa Harina
- Teff (brown & white)
Nut Flours (count as wholegrain)
- Almond – ground/almond meal
- Almond Flour
- Tigernut (not technically a nut)
Bean Flours (count as wholegrain)
- Fava Bean
- White Rice Flour
- Potato Starch
- Tapioca Starch
- Cornflour (starch)
- Glutinous Rice Flour (Mochiko)
- Cassava Flour
- Sweet Potato
- Banana Flour
If this sounds too much to bother with, I have happily shared my main gluten free flour blends below, in the hope that others may benefit from the many hours I have spent combining and testing at home.
HOW TO MAKE GLUTEN FREE OAT FLOUR
Gluten free oat flour can work out pretty expensive if you buy it ready-milled. The good news is that (providing you have a grinder or blender) it is really easy to make at home. Just be sure to make sure you source certified gluten free oats to avoid any possibility of cross-contamination from adjacent or same field growing or milling processes. They are now readily available in most supermarkets, many of which produce their own brands (found on the ‘free from’ shelf) at a reasonable price.
Use a food processor to grind gluten free pure oats until you have a fine powder. This will take about 10-20 seconds on full power (depending on the power and capacity of your blender/grinder).
You can grind on a weight for weight ratio for each recipe (same weight of oats as needed for required oat flour quantity). Or to save time, grind half a kilo or so in one batch and store in an airtight container so that you always have it there when you need it.
BASIC GLUTEN FREE ALCHEMIST FLOUR BLENDS
GLUTEN FREE ALCHEMIST FLOUR Mix A
This is my own GFA general baking gluten free flour mix, which I formulated over many months after first becoming gluten free. It is based on my then understanding the qualities of various gluten free flours, combined with lots of tweaking and testing. This blend is easy to produce at home as all the individual flours it contains are readily available in the UK. In bakes, I mostly add a little extra protein on a recipe by recipe basis in the form of ground almonds, oats or sorghum to ensure stability.
This flour blend has (for me) produced cakes, biscuits and other bakes which are light and have a texture and taste which rivals any gluten-based food.
I no longer add any xanthan gum to the base blend, as this also allows greater flexibility on choice of binder for each recipe.
Gluten Free Alchemist Flour BLEND A
- Kitchen scales
- large airtight container
- 200 g white rice flour
- 125 g brown rice flour
- 95 g potato starch flour
- 110 g cornflour (corn starch)
- 120 g tapioca flour (starch)
- Weigh all the ingredients into an airtight container.
- Seal the lid and shake well to mix.
GLUTEN FREE ALCHEMIST FLOUR MIX B : Rice Free Flour Blend with Wholegrain Flours
I am increasingly using my gluten free rice-free flour mix as the base for Gluten Free Alchemist bakes, although will usually add significantly more wholegrain flour to bread bakes both for structure and texture as well as flavour and nutrition.
COST : I have worked out the cost of blending my own rice free flour at home using Shipton Mill Organic gluten free flours (Sorghum, Teff, Buckwheat, Tapioca & Potato) + Coeliac UK certified gluten free supermarket Corn (starch) Flour. The mix is not only versatile but in comparison to other low-rice and rice-free flour blends is more than comparable. It is definitely cheaper to blend your own at home and requires minimal effort!
Costs as at January 2020 :
- Per 500g : £1.42
- Per 750g : £2.13
- Per Kilo : £2.84
- (per 100g : 28.5p
Gluten Free Alchemist Flour Mix B : Rice Free Flour Blend with Wholegrain Flours
- Kitchen scales
- large air-tight container
- 100 g sorghum flour
- 50 g white teff flour
- 50 g buckwheat flour
- 160 g tapioca flour (starch)
- 60 g potato starch flour
- 80 g cornflour (cornstarch)
- Weigh all the ingredients into an air-tight container.
- Seal the lid and shake well to mix.
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