Gluten Free Flour: Wow, it used to be so easy! Go to the store and pick up a bag of flour. Done.
Now I have rice flour, potato flour, soy flour, sorghum flour, tapioca starch, bean flour, chickpea flour, coconut flour…I’m sooooo confused!
Yes this world of gluten free flour can be a bit confusing. So let's take a few minutes to de-mystify the whole thing, and you'll be back to thickening and baking and dredging before you know it.
All flours are made by grinding or "milling" grain into a very fine powder. Almost any grain can be used to make flour. The grain most commonly milled into flour in Europe and North America is wheat. This is because wheat flour is so versatile. It can be used to make soft moist cakes, flaky pastries and robust crusty loaves of bread.
All flours, including wheat flour are basically made up of different combinations of carbohydrate (including more or less fiber) and protein. The “stronger” flours like bread flour are higher in protein and the more delicate ones like cake flour are starchier, or lower in protein. All purpose flour is in between. And guess what the protein in wheat flour is called. It's called gluten, and that's the reason we're here together.
In the world of wheat flour, these different "strengths" come from different varieties of wheat. Hard Durhum wheat is high in gluten and is milled to make bread flour. It's the high gluten content that makes bread flour stretchy and resilient. You can knead it and shape it and add yeast to make it rise up and it will hold it's shape. Cake and pastry flours are made from softer wheat and are lower in gluten. That's why they make a finer crumb and crumble more easily.
Then you have white and whole wheat flour. White flour is made from just the softer inner portion of the grain of wheat called the endosperm. Whole wheat flour is made from the whole kernel.
Another grain that contains gluten and is milled into flour is rye. This is where we get rye bread from. Barley also contains gluten but it is more often used whole in soups and stews or fermented to make beer and malt.
Now that we've explored enemy gluten territory, let's talk about gluten free flour. Gluten free flour is made from gluten free grains along with some other gluten free products that can be milled into flours or starches such as beans, tapioca or potatoes. Sadly though, there is no single gluten free flour that works well as a replacement for wheat flour so we blend various flours together to try to get the desired ratio of starch to protein. That’s why you see so many confusing variations. Everyone puts their own little twist to it and has their preferences.
Gluten is the protein in flour and the thing that makes it hold together when moistened. It's the structure that forms the little air pockets that keep your fluffy baked goods from collapsing when you remove them from the oven. Even though gluten free flours may contain other proteins, none of them have that magic stickiness that gluten does, so we sometimes need to replace that. The most common ingredient to serve this purpose is xanthan gum, followed by guar gum. Just 1/4 tsp per cup of flour is all you need to give your flour the sticky staying power it needs.
Happily, much has changed in the last several years when it comes to gluten free flour. It wasn't long ago that I reported that I'd not found a ready made All purpose gluten free flour blend that I was happy with so I'd resigned myself to buying a host of different flours and blending my own. I have to admit the experimenting was kind of fun, but a little frustrating too, and time consuming.
The good news is, there is now a fairly decent variety of gluten free flour blends on the market that have a similar protein content to all purpose wheat flour and can be replaced in your recipes cup for cup. This Presidents Choice gluten free all purpose flour blend contains tapioca starch, potato starch, corn flour, cellulose and xanthan gum. This is the one I use most of the time as it performs pretty well. The Bob's Red Mill one pictured above is made from garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, sorghum flour and fava bean flour. It's a bit higher in protein with all the bean ingredients. It's a favourite on the gluten free forums and performs quite well too. Notice that it does not contain any gums so depending on what you're making, you may need to add xanthan gum or guar gum.
Just like wheat flour, you can buy gluten free bread flour or gluten free cake and pastry flour. Bob's Red mill is a popular national brand but by all means try out some others and choose your own favourite.
When I was doing my culinary education, I took a gluten free baking class. The recipes we were given were from the Culinary Institute of America and used their flour blends. If you are a baker who is looking for excellent results and that doesn't mind keeping a lot of ingredients on hand then I definitely recommending checking out their cookbook. It is a bit complex though as there are five different blends and many recipes use a blend of the blends. I've used many of the recipes in my CIA cookbook and substituted a gluten free all purpose flour with good results.
This flour will work for most of your cooking and baking needs. It has a bit of fibre from the brown rice and some protein from the egg white powder*. Thickens nice in sauces and works well in baked goods. Recipe makes about 10 c or 3 lbs.
14 oz white rice flour
20 oz brown rice flour
8 oz tapioca starch
6 oz potato starch
3.5 oz egg white powder* or other high protein flour
*Egg white powder or albumen can be found at Bulk Barn or on line. It is a bit expensive. Substituting with another high protein flour like soy, quinoa or bean flour works very well.
This is a nice blend for breads, pizza, dinner rolls etc. It's a stronger mix with a bit more protein from the soy and egg white powder. Makes about 3 lbs or 11 c of flour
9 oz white rice flour
5.25 oz sorghum flour
14.25 oz potato starch
6 oz tapioca starch
6 oz soy flour
3 oz almond flour
3.5 oz egg white powder
There are quite a number of gluten free flours that you may run into in various recipes. Some are quite common, others are more of a specialty. Some show up in various international dishes where grains like rice and corn are more common than wheat. Here are few of the choices out there and how they can be used.
Corn is a gluten free grain that is milled in a number of useful products:
Corn Meal is a course ground corn flour that feels very grainy in texture. It's used in coatings for fried chicken or "pogos" and is the main ingredient in corn bread and polenta
Corn Flour: The term corn flour will mean something different depending on where you live, as I learned from my British friend. Corn flour in Britain refers to the very fine white powder that we in North America call corn starch. It's most commonly used as a thickener in sauces and gravies. It's also used as a coating in some deep fried recipes.
In North America, corn flour refers to a yellow flour made from ground corn. It can also be used as a thickener and is sometimes found in gluten free flour blends.
Masa Harina is a Mexican staple used primarily to make corn tortillas. It's corn flour treated with lime. This is significant from a nutritional standpoint as the lime makes many of the nutrients in the corn more bio-available, enhancing the nutritional value.
Buckwheat makes some folks with celiac uncomfortable because after all it has wheat right in the name! The happy surprise though is that is has absolutely no relation to the grain that causes us so much grief. Buckwheat flour is found in many recipes, most notably pancakes and soba noodles
Rice flour might be the most common gluten free flour. You'll find it in many flour blends and if you check the ingredients on your gluten free pasta its very likely that rice flour features pretty prominently. Rice of course is ubiquitous in Asia and one common recipe that features prominently in Japanese cooking is tempura. It's easy to make at home, but if you're ordering tempura in a restaurant just make sure you ask all the usual restaurant dining questions to be sure its safe. Especially ensure that the tempura is in fact made with rice flour as some places "Americanize" the recipe and use wheat flour. Also ensure that it is not fried in a fryer that is also used for wheat products.
White beans, soy beans, fava beans, chickpeas can all be made into flour. The beans are cooked, dried and ground into a powder. You'll often find these in gluten free flour blends, mixes and ready made products. They add protein to the flour creating a stronger blend. The great thing about bean flours is that they are allowed on a paleo or grain free diet, so long as they are not mixed with grain flours of course.
This is another grain free flour that is both paleo friendly and gluten free. It's much denser than wheat flours or gluten free flours that are blended to replace wheat flour so can't really be substituted into your regular recipes. However, there are lots of great recipes for pancakes and baked goods on the internet that use coconut flour.
Teff is a very fine gluten free grain that originates in Ethiopia and is most often found in Ethiopian cooking. The teff flour is made into a large flat bread called injera that is used to scoop up the deliciously sloppy mixures that surround it on the platter. If there is an Ethopian restaurant in your area I definitely recommend checking it out.
I often buy my gluten free flours at the Bulk Barn. I know some people are nervous about this because of the open bins, but I’ve never had an issue. They have separate colour coded scoops for gluten free products and they are kept separate from the “glutinous” flours. If you prefer you can buy packaged flours, they have these at the Bulk Barn as well or the “health food” aisle in most grocery stores. You can also order online.
Many of the national brands like Betty Crocker for example now have gluten free mixes, as well as some specialty brands. Check out the gluten free products page for some of my favourites. The options are pretty much endless. You can find cake mixes, cookie mixes, brownies, muffins, bread, pizza crust.
Keep gluten free flours in the freezer if you're not going to use them right away as they could go rancid. Starches are okay in the cupboard. I like to store the larger quantities of flour in the big coffee tins. They’re just the right size and have good lids. Smaller quantities like the starches or flours I don’t use as much of can go in smaller plastic containers like the ones from the Bulk Barn.