By Benjamin Goodin
It wasn’t so long ago that the average American household had a singular canister of flour — probably bleached, all-purpose. The problem with all-purpose flour is that it is made from the wheat grain that has most of the nutrients processed out. This leaves only the starch, which is metabolized by the body into sugar very quickly. As more and more people are seeking non-wheat (gluten-free) and healthier whole grain options, there is now an incredibly diverse selection of flours available to home cooks.
As we enter the holiday baking season, here’s a quick look at some of the most popular varieties of flours.
It’s the flour we all think of when we think of flour. Standard, all-purpose, white wheat flour does just as the name implies: it’s pretty capable for almost any application that calls for flour. Bleached flour is chemically treated, while unbleached is not (at least not to whiten it). All-purpose flour is a refined product and even if is “enriched”, it contains very few vitamins and minerals and is absorbed by the body just like sugar. Uses:
Best for flaky crusts and dense pastries and breads. It can stand in for just about any other flour in a pinch. Most recipes that don’t specify a certain type of flour were calibrated with all-purpose flour in mind.
Whole wheat flour retains the nutritious wheat germ and provides a good amount of fiber along with more protein and calcium than all-purpose. It has a nutty, hearty flavor and a coarse texture which makes baked goods heavier and denser. There is also white whole wheat which is lighter in color and nutritionally similar to whole wheat, but not quite as dense. Whole wheat pastry flour retains the benefits of whole grains, without adding the density and heft, so this may be used to retain the light and fluffy characteristics of certain goodies. Uses:
Best for muffins, quick-breads and cookies, you can usually substitute one-third to one-half of the flour in any recipe to ramp up the nutrition, while keeping the light texture of the final product. There is usually not a difference in taste.
For the health conscious and gluten-sensitive, almond flour is a good choice. Naturally gluten free (since almonds are nuts and not grains), it can do most anything that all-purpose flour can do, albeit with a somewhat denser end product. Almond flour is made by grinding almonds that have been boiled and had their thin skins removed, resulting a dense, nutrient and mineral-rich flour. It is especially rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and protein. Almond flour isn’t light on calories or fats, but it has a somewhat nutty flavor. Uses:
Almond flour can do most anything all-purpose flour can do, and it tends to result in moister baked goods. It is especially nice for pastries and hearty seed breads, and makes a surprisingly flavorful dredge for white meats that will be fried.
Chickpea, garbanzo, or gram flour is made from finely ground legumes you’d normally find in salads or hummus. Common in the Middle East and some regions of Southeast Asia, gram flour is slowly gaining popularity in the States for its nutritional content and its use in vegan cooking. High in potassium and magnesium, gram flour also has an exceptional protein content (41 percent) and fiber (40 percent). It’s an economical flour alternative, and is easy to make yourself. Uses:
For traditional baking, gram can easily stand in for half of the required amount of all-purpose flour. With a slightly nutty flavor, gram makes a good choice for quickbreads and wraps, and even works well for muffins, pancakes, and denser cakes. Gram can even be used as an egg replacement in baking or cooking at a 3tbsp/3tbsp ratio of flour and water for each egg replaced.
Coconut flour is a nice alternative for people who are both gluten sensitive and have nut allergies. It is made from the dried inner, white flesh of a coconut. Since it is a dried fruit, coconut flour is exceptionally high in fiber and absorbs liquids readily. It is surprisingly light and fluffy if you get your liquid ratios right. Uses:
Coconut flour is good for fluffy baked goods — waffles, muffins, cupcakes, and the like. It has a slight coconut flavor, which is great for certain sweets and a nice contrast to some savory flavors, but not always the best flavor match for some recipes. Since coconut flour will wick up a great deal of the moisture you mix with it, be mindful of ratios, or offset some of its ability to absorb with a slight addition of an oil.
Whole-grain oat flour is another gluten-free alternative to wheat flour. Easy to make and easy to use, oat flour is dense and hearty. Being a whole grain, oat flour has a better nutritional balance of carbs and fiber than wheat flours, and it makes for chewy, crumbly, moist baked goods. Uses:
Classically, oat flour makes for thick, hearty quick-breads, muffins, and cookies, and it makes a great cementing medium for granola bars. Oat flour can also be utilized to keep other raw doughs from sticking to your preparation surfaces.
Sorghum flour is as close to baking with traditional wheat flour as you can get without using wheat, while being gluten free at the same time. The texture and properties of goods baked or cooked with sorghum are very similar to wheat, albeit they are mildly sweeter and have a higher and more balanced nutrient content. Another benefit of using sorghum flour is that it is more readily available and cheaper than some of the other wheat flour alternatives. Uses:
Sorghum can be used for almost anything all-purpose wheat flour can be used for, but with one important caveat: it will require an additional binder to keep texture and rise properly (corn starch and egg whites create consistent texture without altering a recipe greatly). Keep in mind that is slightly sweeter than wheat, so it may change your choice or amount of sweeteners.
Quinoa flour is ground from the miniscule South American grass seed quinoa, which has become a popular health food in recent years. In addition to containing no gluten, this powerful little seed is exceptionally high in protein (around 15 percent), potassium, and iron. Unlike most other gluten-free flours, quinoa is especially good at absorbing liquid and holding shape due to its unique protein “gelling” property — no additional binders are required. Quinoa flour is a little pricey, but you get what you pay for in nutrition and utility. Uses:
Since it is a fairly dense flour that holds it shape well, quinoa flour is well suited for spongy or hearty treats. Cakes stay especially moist when made with quinoa flour, and cookies and brownies stay soft and hold their shape well. You can go all-in with quinoa flour for these goods, or cut it half and half with traditional, all-purpose flour to get the best of both worlds.
All flours need to be stored in a cool, dry place, in a well-sealed or airtight container. Flour is good at sucking the moisture out of the air, which can spoil it quickly, or invite microbial life to take up residence. You can freeze flour if you don’t use it very often.
Using different types of flour is a great way to get more nutrition into your diet. Be sure to use flour-specific recipes or experiment with recipe alterations such as increasing the liquid, to make a substitution successful. For recipes that I only make once a year, like Christmas cookies, I’ll stick with the traditional all-purpose flour.
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