Mel, selected from Natural Solutions magazine April 25, 2010
By Matthew Kadey, RD, Natural Solutions
Going gluten free doesn’t have to mean forsaking your favorite flour-filled foods. Thanks to the growing popularity of gluten-free flour, baking and cooking without wheat is easier than ever. Alternative flours also have higher amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber than white and wheat flours, increasing food’s nutritional value while adding new tastes and textures. Whether you’re avoiding gluten or simply looking for a healthier cookie or savory crust, here are five flours to tempt your tongue and nourish your body.
Baking or cooking with this flour, made from pulverized, blanched almonds, is a surefire way to add extra bone-building calcium to your diet: A half-cup serving has 12 percent of your daily requirement–six times the amount of that in “light” whole-wheat flour. Almond flour is also high in vitamin E and monounsaturated fat, which can help keep cholesterol levels in check. Increasing vitamin E intake may also slash lung cancer risk by more than 50 percent, according to a 2008 study by University of Texas researchers.
If you can’t find the flour in stores, buy blanched almonds, available at most natural food markets, and grind them to a fine powder in a coffee grinder or food processor, says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of Gluten-Free Quick & Easy (Avery, 2007). “But don’t overgrind,”she cautions. “Almond flour can quickly become pasty almond butter.”
Try it: Fenster says almond flour’s rich taste works well in shortbread, biscotti, cookies, piecrusts, fruit crisps, scones, and flourless cakes. “I often add as much as 1/3 cup of almond flour to bread recipes for a heartier texture.” You can also use the flour to dredge fish, chicken, or pork before panfrying.
Made from finely milled broken rice-kernel hulls, this pantry staple has a milder taste than most gluten-free flours. “When possible, choose brown-rice flour over white for the extra potassium, calcium, iron, B vitamins, fiber, and protein,” says Marlisa Brown, RD, author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free (Demos Medical Publishing, 2009). One cup of brown-rice flour has three times more vitamin B6 than whole-wheat flour; this oft-ignored B vitamin may slash colorectal cancer risk by half, according to a 2009 Harvard study.
Try it: Great for mixing into bean burgers, rice flour is also ideal for making muffins, breads, pizza crust, and homemade crackers and pasta. Not everyone loves the flour’s sandy texture, though, and if that includes you, try replacing a quarter or more of rice flour in recipes with other flours, “particularly those high in protein to balance texture and build structure,” Brown says. To thicken gravies and sauces, gradually add a small amount of rice flour while stirring over low heat until it reaches desired thickness.
Half a cup of hempseed flour boasts twice as much protein (about 20 grams) and three times more cholesterol-busting fiber than whole-wheat flour. This unique option also contains all essential amino acids, making it a good source of protein for vegetarians. Compared to other flours, hempseed contains more alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that may reduce the risk of heart attack, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Oleo Science.
Try it: Hempseed flour’s nutty, earthy flavor adds a distinct taste to pancakes, waffles, energy bars, oatmeal cookies, and nut breads. But too much of this hearty flour can produce an unappetizing, gritty texture. Brown suggests replacing 25 percent of the white or wheat flour found in recipes with hempseed and experimenting from there.
Indigenous to Ethiopia, the tiny teff grain is high in protein and trumps other flours in terms of iron: One half-cup serving provides up to a quarter of the daily recommendation for the mineral, essential for delivering oxygen to cells. A 2007 Penn State University study found that even a moderate iron deficiency in women can hinder memory and learning.
Try it: In Ethiopia, teff is used to make injera, a traditional sourdough-like flatbread. For more Americanized baking, blend teff’s sweet, almost malty flavor blends into brownies, chocolate cupcakes, waffles, quick breads, muffins, and gingerbread cookies. In recipes for these foods, substitute teff for as much as a third of the called-for flour. “Because of its darker color, teff should be limited to darker foods,” says Fenster. (Read: No white cakes.)
Although many gluten-free flours are nutritional stars compared to traditional options, quinoa is a true standout. Regarded as a source of strength by the Incas, easy-to-digest quinoa contains all essential amino acids, along with a hefty dose of fiber, zinc, folate, and iron–and 40 percent of your recommended daily intake of magnesium in a half-cup serving. A 2009 study of more than 64,000 women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that subjects with higher magnesium intakes were at lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Try it: If banana bread, shortcake, and carrot muffins could speak, they would tell quinoa flour, “You complete me.” But its robust, nutty flavor can overpower baked items, so start by substituting the flour for no more than a quarter of the total volume of flour called for in a recipe. â€œIn small amounts, quinoa flour produces a wonderful, delicate, and tender crumb,” Fenster says.
Baking Tips for Gluten-Free Flours
Gluten contributes important qualities such as structure and rise to baked and cooked foods, so simply replacing white or wheat flour cup for cup with a gluten-free alternative is not recommended. To avoid frustration, “start with recipes designed for gluten-free cooking until you get the feel for how they work,” says Marlisa Brown, RD, author of Gluten-Free, Hassle Free (Demos Health, 2009). When you become familiar with gluten-free flours’ characteristics, take the next step and experiment with a store-bought gluten-free flour blend, such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour. You can also make your own blend by following Brown’s simple recipe: Combine 1/2 cup brown-rice flour with 1 1/2 cups sorghum flour, 1 1/2 cups potato starch or cornstarch, 1 cup tapioca flour, and 1/2 cup high-protein flour, like quinoa, hempseed, or almond. Use the blends, cup for cup, in any recipe that calls for traditional flour.
How to Buy and Store Specialty Flours
1. Buy in bulk bags to limit cross-contamination with gluten flours. Visit busy natural foods stores where there’s plenty of foot traffic to ensure frequent product turnover.
2. To preserve freshness, don’t mix newly purchased flour with old flour. The average shelf life for unrefrigerated flour is six months.
3. Store flour you can’t use immediately in a tightly sealed container in your refrigerator or freezer, where it can keep for one year. Refrigeration is especially important for flours made from ground whole grains, nuts, or seeds–they have a greater tendency to go rancid because their oils and proteins aren’t stripped away by processing. For everyday access, store small amounts of flour in mason-style jars in a cool, dark place.
4. Placing a bay leaf in flour canisters will help protect against infestation from pantry insects such as weevils. (The bay leaf will not affect flour’s flavor.)
5. When using flour that has been refrigerated or frozen, be sure to bring it back to room temperature before measuring. Cold flour can thwart rising, resulting in a heavier, denser baked item.