If you've done any amount of baking, you've most likely had some face time with flour. There's a reason it's called "all-purpose"—from homemade pizza and pies to cakes, cookies and croissants, this powder-fine grain is an essential ingredient in countless recipes.|
Although most of us are familiar with the standard white version, there's a surprisingly long list of alternative flours to accommodate various dietary needs and taste preferences.
According to Becky Hand, registered dietitian with SparkPeople, each type of flour has a different nutrient profile, based on three factors:
Some alternative flours make helpful kitchen companions for people who can’t have gluten. There are plenty of gluten-free flours that allow you to make your favorite foods at home instead of settling for packaged, highly processed solutions. However, registered dietitian Liza Baker warns that different categories of flour aren't always interchangeable.
"Substituting one flour for another requires some knowledge about the source of the flour," says Baker. "Only wheat, rye and barley contain gluten (and these in differing amounts), and when water is added to it, gluten creates that wonderful 'webbing' that allows us to create fabulously airy and chewy sourdough breads and mile-high cakes. If you try using a gluten-free flour to make these, you'll get a loaf that feels like a brick and tastes like sawdust."
Tips for Using Gluten-Free Flours
9 Types of Alternative Flours
This low-carb, gluten-free flour is made by roasting peanuts, grinding them into a paste and pressing out some of the oil (lowfat peanut flour) or most of the oil (defatted peanut flour). "Even though the oil amount is altered, the flour is still high in protein, fiber and all the other nutrients found in the peanut," says Laura Dilz, registered dietitian with Lime and Greens.
There are countless ways peanut lovers can use this alternative flour to add deliciously nutty flavor to recipes. Dilz suggests blending it into smoothies, sprinkling it on top of oatmeal, mixing it with regular flour to cut carbs, adding water to make a lower-fat version of peanut butter or using it as a natural thickener for stews, sauces and gravies.
With a higher protein content than all-purpose flour, this alternative is ideal for making bread—but not so much for other baked goods. "The higher protein content means that more gluten strands develop, which is what makes up the structure of breads," explains Ken Immer, CEO of Culinary Health Solutions. "It is generally not recommended to make pastries or cakes with bread flour, as they will likely become tough."
Immer often uses bread flour when a recipe calls for "flouring" a table, regardless of the type of flour used in the recipe. Because it's very dry, granular and doesn’t "cake" too much when compressed, bread flour is ideal for creating a non-stick surface when making pastries or flouring a cake pan.
Made from ground buckwheat groats—which is buckwheat with the shell removed—Dilz says this gluten-free flour is packed with a slew of nutrients, including manganese, copper, magnesium, iron and phosphorus. It's also rich in protein, antioxidants, fiber and B vitamins.
Despite its name, Immer points out that buckwheat has no relation to wheat. "Buckwheat is actually more of a berry than a grain, and more closely related to rhubarb than to wheat," he explains. "Because it is gluten-free, it can't be a one-for-one substitute for wheat flour, although it can be added to wheat flour in small amounts to increase fiber and nutritional content."
Made from the meat of the coconut, this gluten-free, nut-free alternative is high in fiber and protein. Hand warns not to be bamboozled by all the marketing hype regarding coconut flour and oil. Coconut contains a high amount of saturated fat, which can increase one’s risk for heart disease. Use it in small quantities when looking for that coconutty-flavor or texture.
"As it is mostly fiber, coconut flour doesn't have a lot of uses on its own, and can have a very drying effect," says Immer. "It's generally used as an additive to flour mixtures to increase fiber and absorb excess moisture." Dilz suggests substituting coconut flour for bread crumbs; combining it with other flours or self-rising ingredients; using it to thicken soups; or binding it in burgers, veggie burgers or meatloaf.
Whole Wheat Flour
While white flour has had much of the original wheat kernel removed, leaving only the starchy carbohydrate portion, whole wheat flour includes all three original parts of the seed—the germ, bran and endosperm—and contains more fiber and nutrients than white flour.
Trading white flour for the whole-wheat version results in slightly denser breads, cookies, muffins and other pastries. “You may be happier with the final result of your baked good if you use half whole wheat flour and half enriched, all-purpose white flour,” suggests Hand. “Another option is to try whole wheat pastry flour for a more tender, moist baked good.”
You already know about all of the delicious meals you can make with a can of chickpeas, but what about starting from scratch with chickpea flour? Made from garbanzo beans, this naturally gluten-free alternative is high in fiber and protein, and is a great source of folate.
"Chickpea flour has a very distinct flavor, but because it is generally made from roasted chickpeas, it doesn't need to be cooked," says Immer. Immer sometimes uses chickpea flour as an egg substitute, or as a thickener for soups and sauces. Dilz also recommends it for making crepes, spinach fritters, pasta, tofu, pancakes and crackers.
Dilz sings the many praises of nutrient-rich soy flour. Made from ground raw soybeans, it provides a low-carb alternative that's also high in fiber, protein, iron, potassium and B vitamins.
When making yeast bread, try using a mixture of around 15 percent soy flour and 85 percent wheat flour (two tablespoons of soy for each cup of wheat). This will allow you to retain the structure of the bread while lowering the carb content. To bring out its naturally nutty flavor, some people like to toast soy flour in a skillet before cooking with it.
Hand states that there can be great confusion when selecting rye flour, as there is no standardization of the names for different kinds of rye ﬂour and rye meal. “White rye flour” contains only the endosperm of the grain and is missing many of the original nutrients in the rye kernel. “Light rye flour” has small traces of the bran included in the flour. “Medium rye flour” has more bran included and begins to have the flavor of rye.
Some companies may make their “dark rye flour” using the whole grain, while others do not. “Whole grain rye flour,” sometimes called “rye meal,” does contain all of the bran, germ and endosperm of the rye kernel. It can be fine, medium, or coarsely ground. The coarsely ground version is called pumpernickel, which is used to make traditional German bread.
Because rye contains much less gluten, it creates a denser bread structure with a distinct flavor. It's also a lot darker in color than wheat. "Even in small amounts, rye will add a lot of flavor to wheat breads, so it should be used cautiously, as it will also make doughs stickier and more difficult to work with," says Immer.
Amaranth flour is high in fiber, calcium, iron and lysine, an essential amino acid that makes it a quality protein source. Dilz suggests using amaranth flour in cereals, pasta, pancakes, breads and cookies, although it should be combined with a self-rising flour when making rising bread.
“Many of these alternative flours may spoil more quickly than white all-purpose flour due to the higher fat content and the grinding process, which allows oxygen to reach all parts of the flour,” Hand explains. “You can store these flours in airtight containers for up to three months on a cool, dry pantry shelf or up to six months in your freezer.”
Whether you need to limit or avoid gluten due to a medical condition, want to infuse more nutrients into your diet or just want to expand your baking skills, try adding some diversity to your flour lineup. Even if the end result isn't always perfect, experimenting with different flours is a fun way to expand your skills and creativity in the kitchen.
Nutritional Profiles of Flour Types