Getting to Know Your Gluten-Free Flours

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube

Flour is perhaps the ultimate American food staple, and is as much a part of our culture as baseball, reality television, and cheap beer. Living gluten-free means having to forgo traditional wheat flour, but there are many other options for flour out there that are just as palatable and effective. These gluten-free flours enjoy much less notoriety than their gluten-containing cousins, so let’s explore what they have to offer from both a nutritional and culinary perspective.

Arrowroot flour is one good alternative to wheat flour. Coming from a tropical plant, arrowroot starch is a thickener that can be used in a similar way to corn starch. It has culinary advantages over corn starch in that it is milder in flavor, stands up well to acid, can be frozen without consequence, and thickens at a lower temperature. It is also easy to digest, but is pretty weak nutritionally in that it is almost pure carbohydrate and contains little or no protein or fat.

If you want a more nutritious flour alternative, amaranth seed flour is a great bet. The Incas and Aztecs recognized its health benefits thousands of years ago, and it was a staple crop for both cultures. Amaranth flour contains good amounts of B-vitamins, fiber, calcium, and vitamin C. It is also an excellent source of protein, something many gluten-free flours are lacking. It is a suitable alternative to wheat flour when baking, although palatability when compared to wheat flour might be lower. Amaranth has a taste similar to an unsweetened graham cracker.

Buckwheat, in addition to being a favorite member of the Little Rascals, is another good gluten-free flour alternative. Not related to wheat at all, buckwheat is actually in the same family as rhubarb and has a nice, rich earthy taste and robust texture. Asian cultures have been using it for thousands of years, and it makes a great noodle (known as a soba noodle in Japan). Nutritionally, buckwheat is very strong as well. It contains a good amount of quality protein (all 8 essential amino acids), as well as high amounts of fiber (often lacking in gluten-free flours), iron, and zinc.

Tapioca starch is another gluten-free alternative, often used as a thickener or a wheat flour substitute. It is extracted from the root of the cassava plant, native to Brazil but now grown in many tropical climates. It is most popularly used in America to make tapioca pudding (so delicious) and boba teas, popular among Asian cultures. Tapioca has a very mild taste, slight chew, and a very palatable and velvety texture. Nutritionally, tapioca starch isn’t rich in many nutrients other than carbohydrates, but does contain small amounts of fat, fiber, iron, and protein.

These are just a few of the many possible gluten-free flour alternatives that are available to you, the gluten-free consumer. Other better known alternatives include rice flour, potato flour, and nut flour (high in protein). Quinoa flour and oat flour are also great alternatives (oat controversy not withstanding), and are both great sources of many nutrients themselves including protein, fiber, iron, and B-vitamins. The important point to keep in mind is that just because you are living gluten-free does not mean that you need to live without baked goods. The difficulty lies in that many of these flours cannot be the entire substitute for wheat flour in a given recipe without sacrificing a lot of flavor, texture, and/or palatability. But combinations of these flours used instead of wheat flour can be the ticket to delicious, gluten-free food. This is where experimentation becomes so important. In the mood for an earthy, wholesome, and rich gluten-free pancake? Use buckwheat in combination with perhaps oat or potato flour. Want something lighter and more delicate? Perhaps some combination of tapioca starch and rice flour will do the trick. The point is that with a little basic knowledge of gluten-free flour alternatives and an adventuresome culinary spirit, cooking and baking possibilities are endless and the sky is the limit.