An In-Depth Guide to Using Gluten Free Flours
By: admin On: 26 June 2023
How to get the best from your gluten free baking. Using gluten free flours is not a one size fits all scenario. Learn how to get the best out of wheat flour alternatives.
Using gluten free flour requires a whole new mindset, especially if you are a seasoned cook/baker already stuck on the magical properties of gluten and wheat based flour. You absolutely need to start from ground zero, and leave your judgement at the door.
Using gluten free flours is not a one size fits all scenario. To get the best from your gluten free baking, you need to understand how and why the various options work. Preferably using as few ingredients as possible. One of the biggest hurdles faced with many commercial gluten free products is the sheer number of ingredients on the label.
The Range of Gluten Free Flours
When we begin to explore gluten free flours, what we are really looking for is alternatives to wheat flour. These come in many shapes and sizes; some of them grains and some of them not. The growing backlash against wheat and gluten has led to a major expansion in what we consider as 'flour'. Yet however far the labelling powers that be can manage to stretch the distinction between 'ground', 'powder', and 'flour' there are still certain qualities that make an ingredient a flour; gluten or not.
No single gluten free flour, or even a mix of flours, will mimic wheat flour exactly. But with the right mix we can come pretty close. The aim, of course, is to produce goods that are just as good as their wheat based cousins. Substandard copies need not apply. Bread that feels like cake and tastes of baking powder is not the goal. Nor is pizza with the offending cauliflower crust.
The goal of gluten free baking
The point is that we cannot expect the ingredients to behave in the same way, but we can achieve some surprising results. Whilst it is true that we need to approach gluten free baking with a whole new mindset, and the we cannot replicate the exact properties of gluten, it is important that we understand what it is we are trying to achieve. Be that the crust or crumb in a loaf of bread, or a light tender sponge. And, if we can't quite get there without the magic of gluten, then maybe we shouldn't try.
So, before we consider the various gluten free flours, lets first examine the role of gluten and why an entire tradition of wheat based baking has been built around it.
Why gluten means more than one thing
Now is not the time for an in depth discussion on the dietary depths of gluten, but there is one important thing that needs pointing out. Glutens are a group of proteins found in all true grains. There are a number of different forms, and each grain will have its own combination as well as a specific dominant type. When we talk about gluten in terms of allergies and sensitivities, it is these proteins that we are referring to.
On the other hand, gluten is what happens when these proteins bond together once introduced to liquid. They link together and form strands of gluten. The more that you move and agitate the mixture, the more they will link together; forming longer and stronger strands. This is the glue that makes wheat flour so effective in baking, and what we are referring to when we explore baking science.
Does wheat flour form the most gluten?
Wheat flour has been the mainstay of traditional baking forever. Rye and barley have been around longer, but they simply bake far heavier goods than wheat. But why is that, when they all contain glutens?
The most effective glutens (the proteins) at developing gluten (the glue) are known as 'gliadins' and 'glutelins'. These are the predominant glutens in wheat. Rye and barley (the other two of the 'big three' gluten grains) have different predominant glutens that do not develop as much gluten.
It gets pretty complicated, but the major takeaway for today is that wheat is capable of developing far more gluten than other grains.
What does gluten do?
The gluten proteins begin as tightly coiled strands which, in the presence of water, hook together to form a network. When agitated, through kneading for example, the protein strands begin to uncoil and create a stretchy, three dimensional mesh. Two things are important here; the mesh itself, and the fact that it is stretchy.
The three dimensional mesh creates pockets that can trap air. As the air expands, due to the action of raising agents or heat, so do the stretchy pockets.
The stretchiness of dough created by gluten has uses beyond expanding air. Certain doughs need to stretch outwards, not just upwards. Without the elasticity provided by gluten it can be very difficult to stretch a pizza dough, or a strudel pastry. In the absence of gluten, the dough simply breaks rather than stretches.
When gluten gets in the way
Sometimes these particular properties of gluten actually get in the way. It is in these areas that gluten free flours actually come into their own.
Shortcrust pastry , sweet pastries, and biscuits or cookies, are all examples of what we call 'short'. A structure that relies on a tender crumbly texture. The very opposite of what gluten creates. The reason we handle these doughs as little as possible is to prevent the gluten developing. Overworked gluten in these instances would give tough inedible results.
The Properties of Flour
Wheat flour combines two very important properties. It is both starch, and protein. When we bake with wheat flour we choose a particular type to suit the job at hand, from the very soft (low protein) flours for cake making right through to the hard (high protein) flours for bread making. In this, wheat flour is utterly unique. We can achieve the structure we desire using one single type of grain by choosing the type that has the desired percentage of protein to starch. The starch provides the body, whilst the protein provides the structure.
Professional bakers and enthusiastic bread makers can take this one step further, using named flours made from specific blends or types of wheat chosen for their very specific properties.
Protein, fibre, water absorption and elasticity
Any serious discussion of flour, gluten free or otherwise, will centre around proportions of starch, protein and fibre. Because these affect how much water it can absorb, and how much elasticity it will provide. Most gluten free flours will absorb much more water than wheat flour, and provide far less elasticity. The same can actually be said of the gluten containing flours rye and barley.
The protein content of a flour determines how much water can be absorbed. However, the fibre content also increases the amount of water it will absorb. It takes much more of a low protein flour to produce a dough of a similar consistency to a high protein flour. Whilst fibre does contribute considerably to water absorption, it does also decrease elasticity. We will return to this when we begin to explore gluten free baking in more detail.
The proportions of wheat flour
Most non-wholemeal wheat flour contains around 2.5% fibre. Cake flour and '00' flour contain around 8% protein, plain flour contains around 10% protein, and strong bread flour contains around 13% protein. Wheat flour can absorb around twice its weight in water, which is somewhere in the middle in terms of water absorption. A higher fibre content can increase the keeping properties of a bake, making it stay moister for longer.
In gluten free baking and cooking we talk about two different types of flour. Those that contain a significant percentage of protein (and usually fibre) and those that are predominantly starch based.
Gluten free starchy type flours contain so little protein that they only provide the properties of starch. Gluten free protein type flours go some way toward providing the structural properties of protein, although not in the same way as gluten.
In order to harness the properties of both they need to be combined.
Let's look at starches first.
Gluten Free Starches
Most of us are already familiar with the starches, and other than a bit of confusion over naming convention, they are quite obviously so. Cornflour (aka corn starch) is probably the most well known. It is bright white, very fine and behaves like a school science experiment when mixed with water. Rubbed through the fingers it feels, well starchy. Smooth; yet not. All at the same time. It's coloured and flavoured cousin is custard powder. We use both to thicken boiling liquids. Sometimes we use them instead of/ or alongside wheat flour to lighten batters or crisp up biscuits. Either way, they have been there in the cupboard for years. Possibly literally.
So that's starch. It has none of the qualities that we tend associate with flour. Potato starch, and also arrowroot all look and behave in similar ways to cornflour. They have a weightless quality, whereas flour is denser.
Cornflour remains a really useful gluten-free flour store cupboard staple. It can be used to make a perfectly passable (and stupidly easy) white sauce. Not quite the same as a classic bechamel, it does however do the job. It will even stand up to the addition of cheese (we recommend a tablespoon of Parmesan even just to boost the flavour without it being an actual cheese sauce). Just remember to season really well, and perhaps add a pinch of paprika too. The great thing is that it has none of the heaviness of a wheat based sauce. For oven baking, such as a mousaka topping or cauliflower cheese, allow the sauce to cool considerably before whisking in a beaten egg. This will enrich the sauce, and give it a little lift in the oven for a more souffle like texture.
Profile: 0% protein and 0% fibre. Low water absorption.
Gluten free white sauce
salt and pepper
- Bring the milk gently to a simmer in a small pan.
- Melt the butter and mix in the cornflour to form a paste.
- Whisk the mixture into the milk and keep whisking until it thickens.
- Season well.
Potato starch has become a gluten free staple, and is often used in place of cornflour. Most gluten free flour blends (commercial and DIY) contain potato starch. It behaves in the same way as cornflour, although with less viscous results. They both lend a light and airy quality to cakes and batters and are interchangeable. Potato starch is made from a solution of the starches in potato, and is not to be confused with the altogether heavier potato flour that is made from ground whole potatoes.
There is another addition to the the gluten free starch family, and it is THE key starch amongst gluten free flours.
Tapioca flour shares much the same characteristics as cornflour, and potato starch. Although in most situations they are interchangeable, tapioca flour does have one major difference; it adds the chewy texture that many gluten free baked goods lack. The flip side of this is when used in too large a quantity it can make your bake tough. Like the other starches, tapioca flour also helps make bakes softer, fluffier, and light as air. It has been a gamechanger in gluten free baking.
You may find this labelled as tapioca starch or tapioca flour. Strictly speaking, tapioca flour still contains the fibre of the cassava root from which it is milled yet this is not always the case.
Profile: 0% protein and o% fibre. Low water absorption.
White rice flour
There is also a grain that when made into flour can sit in either camp, depending on whether it is white or brown. And that is rice.
White rice flour has a higher protein content than most starches, and will also absorb more liquid. However it has more in common with the starches than it does with the proteins.
Because of its higher protein content and better water absorption qualities than the other starches, white rice flour is an excellent addition to most basic gluten free flour blends. It is not interchangeable with the other starches so is best used for its individual qualities. It will add the usual softness of a starch, but with a little more body. The downside is it can have a slightly gritty texture. Which can actually be very useful; in something like a shortbread for example. Think, semolina.
Profile: ~5% protein and 2.5% fibre. Medium water absorption.
Gluten Free Flours with Protein
The other category is the gluten free flours that contain significant amounts of protein. These share the properties that we generally associate with 'flour' and indeed many are made from grains, or at least pseudograins that share structural similarities with true grains. The proteins in these flours will not mimic gluten. But they will provide much needed structure and a certain amount of elasticity to a bake. These flours tend to have more flavour than the more neutral starches, and they usually contain a percentage of fibre too.
The ideal gluten free flours for breadmaking
There are many gluten free flours that fall into this category, each with their own particular qualities. Some are higher in protein than others and, although they can all absorb more water than the starches, some do absorb more than others. The amount of water that a flour can absorb is down to not only the percentage of protein it contains, but also the fibre content too. Some also have more pronounced flavours than others. Buckwheat is a prime example of this.
These individual flours are sometimes used in gluten free flour blends to add a bit of structure and more flavour, but they really come into their own in breadmaking. Put together in varying quantities they can achieve endless variations, closely capturing the qualities of the particular bread you may desire.
There are two of these flours that sit at the lighter end of the spectrum, milder in both texture and flavour. Easily swapped one for the other, these are brown rice flour and millet flour.
Brown rice flour
Light and mild, brown rice flour has all the soft starchy qualities of white rice flour, yet also offers some structural support in the way of protein. Less refined than white rice flour, it contains more fibre too. A really popular gluten free flour, brown rice flour can be used in pretty much everything from cakes and biscuits to bread. Has a stronger flavour than the neutral sweetness of white rice flour.
Profile: ~ 7.5% protein and 5% fibre. Medium water absorption.
Millet is similar to brown rice flour in that it provides the structural and absorptive properties of protein, yet with all the softness and body of starch. Compared to some of the stronger tasting flours, millet has a neutral flavour yet also has a slight bitterness. It has more protein and fibre than brown rice, so does not offer as much starchy softness. It does however absorb a similar amount of water, and has none of the gritty texture of the rice flours.
Profile: ~ 10% protein and 13% fibre. Medium water absorption.
The others are more pronounced in flavour, and produce heavier results. One in particular deserves a special mention, and that is sorghum. Sorghum has become another really important addition to the world of successful gluten free baking.
Millet is the natural partner to sorghum. Used together, these two gluten free flours complement each other perfectly and are found in many gluten free bread recipes.
Although sorghum can be used as part of an all purpose gluten free flour, it is of real value in making gluten free bread. The soft fine texture and fairly neutral flavour earn it comparisons to wheat flour, yet sorghum has a sweeter flavour that can border on bitterness when overused. It also has a higher capacity for absorbing water so can give a dry mouthfeel. The softness of sorghum, coupled with a decent amount of protein, do make it a valuable addition to gluten free bakes, but is best kept to under 30% total flour weight.
Profile: ~ 12% protein and 9% fibre. High water absorption.
Buckwheat, quinoa and sorghum can all be swapped out with each other in recipes and flour blends, but they do have very different flavour profiles from each other. Sorghum and quinoa flour are both softer, and offer more structural integrity that buckwheat.
Quinoa flour has a pronounced earthy taste that is really well suited to stronger flavours such as chocolate, or beetroot. It is a bit of a new kid on the gluten free baking block, but considering the superfood status of quinoa, is well worth experimenting with. The high proportion of protein, with comparatively little fibre, make quinoa flour a great structural addition to your bread making blends.
Profile: ~ 13% protein and 6% fibre. High water absorption.
Highly nutritious buckwheat flour has a very distinctive earthy, almost sour, taste. Not just a gluten free alternative, it has been used for centuries in many traditional recipes. Japanese soba noodles and savoury French galettes to name a few. And of course, there's buckwheat pancakes.
Buckwheat flour has high water absorption properties yet as these are partly due to a higher fibre content it offers very little in the way of rise or elasticity. Swap out some of your protein flour percentage with buckwheat to add depth of flavour and increase the nutritional content.
Profile: ~ 13% protein and 13% fibre. High water absorption.
Other Gluten Free Flours
There are several other gluten free flours that can make up our arsenal of wheat alternatives. Certain ingredients that defy categorisation.
Coconut flour is high in protein, yet provides no elasticity and has really high water absorption capabilities which gives it a really dry mouthfeel. Used sparingly though, as part of a creative toolbox, it can come in handy.
Profile: ~ 15% protein and 35% fibre. REALLY HIGH water absorption with ZERO elasticity.
Almond flour has long been a gluten free favourite in baking, and not just for its gluten free attributes. More widely known as ground almonds, or almond meal, the high fat content makes it difficult to grind almonds to a flour, yet current trends dictate that you might find it labelled as such. Ground almonds add bulk, moisture, and excellent keeping properties to cakes and bakes. Like coconut flour it is high in protein, yet provides no elasticity. As with many of the gluten free flours that provide softness, it has a capacity for absorbing water that sits somewhere in the middle.
Profile: ~ 20% protein and 10% fibre. Medium water absorption with ZERO elasticity.
Ground flax and ground chia are worth a mention, although with so many alternatives available they are best kept for use as a binder, harnessing their abilities to create a gel like substance that may be used instead of xanthan gum.
There are many other ingredients that are ground into flours and used in gluten free cooking and baking. If it can be ground to a powder, then you can guarantee that somebody somewhere will have found a use of for it. Chestnut flour is used quite extensively in European baking, and gram flour made from chickpeas is widely used in India.
Gluten Free Flour Blends
There are times when using a gluten free flour blend makes perfect sense. You will rarely use one flour alone, and there are many instances when an all purpose blend will give you the results you are looking for.
Making your own gluten free flour blends gives you the greatest control over what goes into them. Not only can you dictate the mix of flours that you use, but commercial blends often contain additional things like xanthan gum or baking powder that you may not want. It is simply far better to take control.
The blends that you use on a regular basis will depend on what you do with them. And, although we need to grasp fully the concept that we can never replicate the effects of gluten, remember that we do need a certain understanding of what we are trying to achieve and how gluten once helped us to get there.
Bread, for instance, relies far more on the structural integrity allowed by gluten than say a brownie, or a white sauce. Making bread requires a completely different set of ingredients, with greater variation between each recipe. It is a different beast entirely. That said, once you have achieved greatness with a particular bread recipe that you will repeat week after week, then there is nothing to stop you creating that as a blend to keep in your store cupboard.
Making your own gluten free flour blends
Having a standard replacement in your gluten free store cupboard for an all purpose plain flour is never a bad idea. You can use it to replace plain flour in recipes without paying too much attention. Note that percentages are by weight, not volume.
A basic gluten free flour blend
70% white rice flour
20% potato starch
10% tapioca starch
If you find white rice flour too gritty (do experiment as all brands will be different) then consider a sorghum blend instead.
40% potato starch
30% tapioca starch
How to create the perfect gluten free flour blend
The more that you understand how the individual flours work, and how these translate to the particular item you are trying to produce, the more freedom you have in getting the results you want.
So ideally, you will come up with a range of blends that are individually suited to their exact purpose. For example, biscuits, cakes, and batters will all have slightly different structural requirements.
You can begin with a simple 50:50 blend of a starch type flour and a protein type flour. Most of the time you may want to take this further and use a blend of three different flours. Perhaps to add a more pronounced flavour, or to increase the water absorption properties. Maybe even just to increase the range of nutrients.
We do hope you have found the information in this article useful and that you feel encouraged to experiment more with gluten free baking.
Why not take a look at our range of gluten free flours? Stock up and take advantage of bulk buy savings!