The world of flours seems to be growing year after year. Long gone are the days of two options: white flour and whole wheat flour. By my count, Bob’s Red Mill carries fifty-four different flours and meals. And these range from gluten-free to gluten-full, light to white to whole-grain, single grain flours and flour blends. Is anyone getting overwhelmed yet? How in the world does one pick a flour to use?
As many people are aware, there are flours that contain gluten (a protein found in wheat and similar grains and flours that are gluten-free (contain no gluten proteins but therefore aren’t able to create structure as easily as gluten-based baked goods). Gluten-full grains provide great structure and delicious flavors that can be enjoyed by anyone who is not affected by Celiac disease nor has gluten intolerance. Gluten-free grains may be enjoyed by anyone and provide many unique flavors, colors, and textures that many gluten-eaters haven’t yet discovered.
If you aren’t affected by food allergies, eat any and every grain flour you can! There is a whole wide and wonderful flour-full world out there. Grains and flours that contain gluten include: wheat & semolina, barley, Kamut®, rye & pumpernickel, spelt, and triticale. All-purpose, bread, pastry, and cake flours are typically varieties of gluten flours with differing amounts of protein that correspond to their specific purpose.
If you maintain a more strict diet, don’t fret, your options are far more expansive than you can imagine: nuts, beans and peas, amaranth, buckwheat, coconut, corn, flax, millet, oat, potato, quinoa, rice (white and brown and sweet), sorghum, soy, tapioca, and teff. All of these products are inherently gluten-free but they are not always tested for or processed in certified gluten-free facilities, so if you follow a gluten-free diet, make sure to check the labels.
Most gluten-containing flours are available as whole-grain flours (meaning they contain the bran and germ along with the standard endosperm) and white or light versions. Classifying flour as “white” or “light” indicates that all or most of the bran and germ have been removed. Why choose one over the other? Whole grain flours contribute rich flavor and color to a baked item as well as affects the texture (and don’t forget about all the fiber and vitamins and nutrients!). The gluten and starches in the grains’ endosperm create wonderfully pillowy structures that give us our much-loved sandwich breads, ciabattas, baguettes, cakes, and cookies. The bran and germ, when included (or not excluded), cut into the endosperm’s structures, thereby creating items with a bit less height and a more defined texture.
The best way to pick your gluten flour is to think about the finished texture. The lightest and most delicate items should be made with Super-Fine Cake Flour or Unbleached White Pastry Flour. Hearty heavy-duty breads work best with whole-grain flours like Organic Ivory Wheat Flour and Organic Dark Rye Flour. Most other items fall right in the middle and can use blends of any light, medium, or heavy flours. Coarse meals like Organic Pumpernickel Dark Rye Meal and Graham Flour can be added for extra texture and a coarser crumb.
Extra Special Add-Ins
If you are new to whole grain flours or just aren’t in the mood for 100%, try swapping out a portion of your standard white flour for some whole grain. An easy exchange is 25%. Use a blend of 75% Unbleached White Fine Pastry Flour and 25% Whole Wheat Pastry Flour in you next pie crust, or try Spelt Flour as a quarter of the flour in your next sandwich bread. Or just go for it and whip up a batch of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies! (see recipes below)
Just because you may not follow a gluten-free diet, don’t turn your back on all those gluten-free flours or you will be missing out. Gluten-free flours run the gamut in terms of flavors and textures. Gluten-free flours rarely work as stand-alone flour and the typical flour blend consists of two gluten-free flours and one starch. A good jumping off point is 1/3 of each, but as you become more comfortable and familiar with gluten free baking, you’ll run across and be able to create blends that better suit your personal tastes (more info is available here
Including links about how to use binders). To incorporate gluten-free flours with gluten-full, swap out the same 25% as you would whole-grain flours.
The most popular gluten-free flours are made from rice and sorghum and rice is milled as both whole grain and white. These grains contain enough protein to aide in structure and have mild flavors that don’t detract from the ideal finished product. For yeasted breads, bean flours are often used due to their high protein contents. Be forewarned, some people may notice a distinct bean flavor and aroma in raw doughs but it will dissipate after baking.
Using gluten-free flours are a great way to change up flavors and textures. Amaranth and quinoa add savory grain flavors while buckwheat, corn, millet, and oat can walk the line between both sweet and savory. Teff, buckwheat, and green pea and black bean flours can change up the color along with incorporating unique flavors.
Almond, hazelnut, and flaxseed meal, and coconut flour are all unique ingredients that require a bit more practice and information. All can be added as an extra addition and almond and hazelnut meal work well as stand-alone flour in certain applications (think macarons, flourless chocolate cakes, and paleo-centric baking). Flaxseed meal and coconut flour are a bit tricky. Flaxseed meal combined with water makes a gel-like substance that is a great substitute for eggs when used as binders and is wonderful to add to any baked good for a fiber boost. Coconut flour is extremely high in fiber and using it as the main ingredient in an item will call for using unique recipes unlike any traditional bakers have seen before. Adding a tablespoon or so of coconut flour to your recipe will help with liquid absorption and will add a delicate coconut undertone to the flavor. Before you go adding any more than that, check out some recipes designed especially for coconut flour.
Creating a Gluten Free Flour Blend:
- For an all purpose flour blend use a ratio of 1/3 light flour and 2/3 heavy and/or medium flour.
- For a pastry flour blend use a ratio of 2/3 light flour and 1/3 heavy and/or medium flour.
Substituting Gluten Free Flours for one another:
- As a general rule, substitute gluten free flours within the same “weight” group cup for cup.
- By substituting flours, you may experience a change in flavor and texture.
Gluten free flours are classified based on their protein content. Heavy flours assist in creating the structure of your baked goods, as do medium flours. Light flours aid in binding and moisture retention.
These recommendations should help you set out on your foray into whole grain baking. As you become more comfortable and as you investigate other resources, more and more ideas and flour blends will come your way. Some excellent new whole grain baking books have come out in the last few years, some even earing award nominations! Pick up a bag of whole grain flour that piques your interest and start baking!