Meet the Flours – Alternative Flours

Holiday baking is in full swing.  For most baking, flour is a requirement.  An assortment of wheat flours and alternative flours line our supermarket shelves.  For most baking, all-purpose wheat flour is a good choice.  Why then, do we have so many choices? If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last few years, artisanal baking trends, baking blogs, and tv shows have pushed consumers to open their minds to options beyond using traditional wheat flour. With the popularity of clean living, functional food, ancient grains, and grain- or gluten-free lifestyles, we’re getting better at expanding our horizons when it comes to flours and using them to bake successfully.

In a previous blog, wheat flours for baking were discussed as well as the protein content of the various wheat flours and how they affect baked products.  Gluten is the protein most often associated with wheat flour making dough elastic and stretchy and trapping gas within baked goods to provide a light and airy structure. Baking with alternative flours that are gluten free or low in gluten can be challenging. This blog will focus on demystifying some of the various alternative flours and how to best use them with wheat flours, alone, or blended with other gluten-free flours for baking.

The variety of alternative flours ground from various grains, nuts, seeds, roots, vegetables and even fruits available to today is expanding and ever changing. While alternative flours are a must for those with gluten allergies, they are also a great option for adding nutrients to many recipes. Depending on need for a lower-calorie, higher protein or nutrition, resistant starch, gluten-free, or easily digested flour, there is an alternative flour to meet nearly anyone’s needs. Alternative flours are of three types—1) grained-based, containing gluten; 2) grain-based, containing no gluten; 3) nut-, seed-, root-, vegetable- or fruit-based, containing no gluten. 

Grain-based, Gluten Flours

In this group we find rye, barley, spelt,  khorasan,  emmereinkorn, and triticale, Like wheat, these grain flours are commercially-available as whole flours (containing the grain’s endosperm, germ and bran) or as refined flours (endosperm only).  While these grain-based flours contain protein and the gluten protein, they are low in gluten.  To be successful in baking, they need the help of wheat flour or other ingredients to give them structure.  They add nutrition, flavor, and interesting textures to baked goods when used. 

Rye flour is likely the most used of these gluten-containing alternative flours; it is sold in both medium and dark varieties.  Rye adds a nutty flavor to baked goods as well as enhancing the flavor of chocolate, ginger, caramel, brown butter, cinnamon, and other similar ingredients.  Rye’s chemistry is different than that of wheat, most notably in that it can retain much more moisture for a longer amount of time due to its complex sugar (pentosans) and enzyme (amylases) composition. When rye is added to baked goods, those products stay fresh longer than those made with all-purpose flour. [1]  Most commonly, barley is used as an add-in ingredient in a baked good for fiber.  Spelt contains enough gluten to be substituted for wheat flours yet some people who have an intolerance or allergy to wheat, find that they can tolerate spelt.  Khorasan and emmer are ancient grains. Einkorn is similar to durum wheat and turns baked products yellow due to its high carotene content. Triticale flour is a cross between durum, rye, and red winter wheat and must be used with a high-gluten wheat flour.

Gain-based, Gluten-free Flours

It’s important to note that a gluten-free grain doesn’t mean that it is gluten-free.  Flours or food products can still have trace amounts of gluten when made in a facility where equipment is shared with gluten grains.  This can be problematic with those affected by gluten intolerance or celiac so it is important to know and trust the source of gluten-free products. 

Most of the gluten-free flours do not do well on their own so are often blended for best flavor and texture in baked products.  There are a variety of 1:1 gluten-free flours (cup-for-cup swap of wheat flour to gluten-free flour in any traditional recipe) on the market.  Each company has a slightly different blend but usually contain some combination of rice flour, potato starch, sorghum flour, tapioca flour, and millet flour. There are also numerous DIY recipes for those who like to make their own.  Gluten-free flours need binding agents such as xanthan gum, arrowroot powder, eggs, or flax added to the mix to provide structure similar to gluten.  If you purchase a commercial flour blend, read the ingredient list to see if xanthan or guar gum has been added; if so, there is no need to add more. If xanthan is not in the mix, ½-1 teaspoon per cup of flour should be added.  For additional information and tips on gluten-free baking, please refer to Gluten Free Baking by Colorado State University Extension. For best success with first-time, gluten-free baking, it is recommended to use recipes using flours of interest.

Table of Grained-based Gluten-free Flours

Grain-based Gluten-free Flour  CharacteristicsHow to Use in Baking (Substituting or Replacing Wheat Flour or 1:1 Gluten-free Baking Flour)1 cup Wheat Flour Conversion
AmaranthHigh in protein, lysine, fiber, and iron
Provide structure and binding Pleasant flavor  
Replace up to ¼ of the flour in most recipes; can be used alone for biscuits and cookies; use ½ c/loaf in combination with wheat flour for bread1 cup
BuckwheatGluten-free despite name; technically a seed used as a grain (pseudo grain)
Rich in B-vitamins, magnesium, fiber, antioxidants
Strong flavor
Replace ¼ of flour. Best used in pancakes, yeast breads, cookies, muffins, scones, biscuits in combination with neutral flours1 cup
CornSweet, earthy flavor when baked
May be yellow, white, or blue
Versatile flour
Milled from flour corn (corn meal or masa harina is not the same)
Can be used alone for spoon breads, chess pie, corn cake; substitute no more than 1 part corn flour to 4 parts flour1 cup
MilletColor similar to cornmeal
Delicate sweet, nut-like flavor
Similar protein structure to wheat
Can be substituted 1:1 for flour; best used in combination with other flours for breads and muffins1 cup
OatSweet, toasty, nutty flavor
Good source of protein
Lightens, adds ‘chew’ to baked products Ability to absorb liquid helps keep baked goods moist  
Combine with other flours to achieve desired results1 1/3 cup
QuinoaGood source of protein, folate, copper, iron, and fiber
Mild, slightly nutty flavor
Substitute ½ flour or completely replace in cookie and cake recipes; blend with other flours for best flavor; use in pasta  1 cup
RiceWhite and brown varieties
Brown contains rice bran and germ; has a nuttier flavor
Absorbs liquid producing sticky doughs
Commonly used in Asian cooking
Use 1 part rice flour to 4 parts flour;
combine with other flours to achieve desired results
7/8 cup
SorghumSweet nutty flavor
High in nutrition
Add 15% to 25% to flour mixes to add flavor to breads, cakes, and cookies1 cup
TeffLeads all grains in calcium
High in resistant starch
Mild to earthy flavor
Substitute ¼ of the flour in any recipe  7/8 cup

Nut-, Seed-, Root-, Vegetable- or Fruit-based Gluten-free Flours   

Flours made from nuts, seeds, roots, vegetables and fruits provide interesting tastes, textures, and nutritional compositions to food made with them. While they can be used on their own or in combination with other flours, they are often times used as add-ins for taste or texture or to improve nutrition, digestion, or keeping qualities.  Like gluten-free grain flours, binders are needed in baking.  The table below is only a listing of the most common flours in this group as there are many and new ones continually come onto the scene. 

Table of Nut-, Seed-, Root-, Vegetable-, Fruit-based Gluten-free Flours

Nut-, Vegetable-, Fruit, Root-based Flours  CharacteristicsHow to Use in Baking (Substituting or Replacing Wheat Flour or 1:1 Gluten-free Baking Flour)1 cup Wheat Flour Conversion
AlmondMade from blanched almonds; slightly gritty
Low carbohydrate content
Good source of protein, Vitamin E, healthy fats, and fiber
Use in combination with other flours for texture and flavor; works well in cakes, cookies, sweet breadsN/A
BananaMade from green, unripe bananas
High level of resistant starch
Does not taste like bananas
Readily absorbs liquid; results in heavier baked goods
Versatile for baking and thickening.  Use 2 teaspoons baking powder per cup flour to get baked goods to rise.¾ cup
CassavaDerived from the root of the cassava or yucca plant; processing removes cyanide
High in carbohydrates, manganese, Vitamin C
Most similar to wheat flour of all gluten-free flours; never eat raw
Mild, neutral flavor; not gritty
Easy to digest; reduces insulin need
1:1 substitute with all flours; best used in combination with wheat flour for yeast breadsN/A
ChickpeaAlso known as garbanzo bean flour
Good source of protein and fiber
Use in combination with other flours for texture and flavor; works well in dense cakes, biscuits, brownies and quick unleavened breads7/8 cup
CoconutRich in manganese, protein, fiber, fat
Dried coconut meat; byproduct of coconut milk Slightly gritty
Highly absorbent
Naturally sweet coconut flavor
Can replace up to 20% of flour in most recipes; requires the addition of an equivalent amount of liquid. Every ¼ cup coconut flour requires one egg for structure and moisture.¼ cup
PotatoGround from dehydrated potatoes
Neutral flavor
Attracts and holds water; aids in producing moist yeast bread and rolls
Use in combination with other flours; for optimal results with wheat flour:  substitute up to 25% for baked goods, 15% for yeast leavened products; to avoid clumping, mix with sugar5/8 cup
Soy/SoyaDerived from soybeans Slightly sweet, musty flavor Improve shelf life of baked goods1 part soy/soya to 4 parts flour; increases browning so reduce oven temperature 25⁰F¾ cup
TapiocaStarchy extract of the cassava root
Starchy, slightly sweet flavor Excellent thickener
Use ¼ to ½ cup per recipe to sweeten breads made with rice and millet flour; great thickener for pie fillings1 cup
Other NutPecan, Walnut, Hazelnut, Filbert, and ChestnutSimilar to Almond 
Other VeggieFava, GarFava, Lentil, Bean, PeaSimilar to Chickpea 

Sources:
Beyond the Standard Flour, Laura Anderson, Michigan State University Extension, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/beyond_the_standard_flour
GF Baking Tips & Hints, https://theheritagecook.com/gluten-free-3/gluten-free-baking-tips-and-hints/
Types of Flour Used in Baking, Sarah Bastin, University of Kentucky, https://fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/sites/fcs-hes.ca.uky.edu/files/12ssc_typesflourpub.pdf
Gluten Free Baking, F. Watson, M. Stone, and M. Bunning, Colorado State University Extension, https://foodsmartcolorado.colostate.edu/recipes/cooking-and-baking/gluten-free-baking/
Baker Pedia, https://bakerpedia.com/

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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One thought on “Meet the Flours – Alternative Flours

  1. I actually found you thru an older article about an electric burner that you use for canning. My mom mentioned she would like to have one and I would love to buy her one for Christmas. If you could email me the model, name or numbers for that one that would be wonderful! Thanks so much.

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