For those of us who are gluten free, it is no longer as easy as wheat flour, water, a touch of sugar and yeast to turn out a loaf of bread. To bake a gluten free loaf that doesn’t double as a doorstop takes quite a combination of varying ingredients. It’s no wonder why we fell in love with wheat in the first place! It’s easy, nutritious and delicious. Unfortunately we got greedy, started messing with the genetics of the plant, ate it too frequently and refined it down to a powdery consistency that not only looks like crack, but is just as addictive.
Filled with gums, starches, and highly refined flours I’m sorry to say that many of them are just as bad as a loaf of white bread. With little or no fiber, these highly absorbable and easily digested ingredients are quickly converted to glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream.
To add insult to injury, many people who suffer from diseases such as celiac, ulcerative colitis, and more think that “gluten free” is a safe option. The truth is that many of these ingredients, especially in excess, are continuing to stress the G.I. (gastrointestinal) tract, and do not allow any healing to occur.
Many of these flours are high in phytic acid. I’ll be referring to phytic acid a lot throughout this article so let’s take the time to define it now.
Phosphorus in the bran of whole grains is tied up in a substance called phytic acid. Phytic acid combines with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the intestinal tract, blocking their absorption. Whole grains also contain enzyme inhibitors that can interfere with digestion. Traditional societies usually soak or ferment their grains before eating them, processes that neutralize phytates and enzyme inhibitors and, in effect, pre-digest grains so that all their nutrients are more available. (source)
In case you’re wondering just how important phosporus is to the body:
Phosphorus is the 2nd most abundant mineral in the body. It’s needed for bone growth, kidney function and cell growth. It also plays a role in maintaining the body’s acid-alkaline balance. (source)
Please keep in mind that all of these flours are available pre-packaged, however, in the “preparation” section I’ll tell you how best to treat these flours in order to get maximum benefit (digestibility, vitamin and nutrient absorption) should you decide to cook with them yourself.
If I have used it in my own personal cooking/baking I will explain a bit about my experience with it in the “Cooking with it” section.
Traditionally from South America and loaded with fiber and protein, this broad leafed plant is not a grain at all but a close relative of Swiss chard and spinach.
Nutrients: An excellent source of iron, calcium and vitamin E.
Preparation: For maximum digestibility and nutritional benefit soak 12-24 hours in an acidic medium (2 Tbs. whey, vinegar, or lemon juice to about 6 cups warm, filtered water), dehydrate, and grind in a Vitamix or coffee grinder. Don’t have time? I recommend buying sprouted amaranth flour here.[/note]
Although arrowroot has a fine, powdery consistency it is surprisingly unrefined. The fleshy root-stalk of the tropical American plant is simply dried and ground into powder. Great for thickening soups, gravies, and puddings, this starch is highly digestible and can be used as a substitute for corn starch.
Cooking with it- I love to use arrowroot in cookies, pie crusts and other baked goods. Be careful when substituting it for corn starch in something like a stir fry, as it can become viscous and a bit goopy. Click here for the brand I use and recommend.
Nutrients: This unique starch contains calcium ash and trace sea minerals (source)
Brown Rice Flour
Often used in gluten free applications because of it’s delicate flavor. Considered a healthy choice by many because of it’s fiber, brown rice (including the flour) is very high in phytic acid which, even when soaked, is not easily removed. The bran layer needs to be removed in order to effectively dismantle the phytic acid, therefore if eating breads containing rice flour, I recommend white rice flour over brown rice flour. Want to buy it anyway? Click here for the brand I recommend.
Nutrients: Contains a significant amount of the minerals selenium and magnesium as well as some protein.
A staple known as Kasha to Russians, buckwheat is not technically a grain, but the seed of an herb. A relative to rhubarb, buckwheat has a strong flavor and is dark in color (think light rye). Because it has a very distinct flavor it is often combined with various flours to temper the flavor a bit. If you like the taste of rye, you’ll likely enjoy the complex flavor that buckwheat has to offer.
Cooking with it: I enjoy buckwheat pancakes, crepes, and a little bit here and there in other baked goods. It’s got a really strong flavor so be aware that kids may not like it at first.
Nutrients: Considered a complete protein, high in lysine (not commonly found in most grains), calcium, phosphorus, magnesium,vitamin E, as well as the entire realm of B vitamins (including nitriloside, aka B17- an important vitamin which helps fight cancer).
Preparation: Unless you want a really strong buckwheat flavor, I recommend buying the buckwheat groats, soaking overnight in water and an acidic medium (1 Tbs whey or lemon juice to 4 cups water), dehydrating, and grinding in small batches in a coffee grinder. I generally do the soaking and dehydrating in main batches and store the oat groats in the freezer until I am ready to grind. Don’t have time? Click here for sprouted buckwheat flour I recommend.
Made from the fiber left behind after extracting the coconut milk and fat from the meat, this flour is suitable for Paleo and low carb diets. Not yet widely used for yeasted bread, coconut flour is mainly used as a wheat flour substitute in quick breads, cookies, and in combination with almond flour to make baked goods that are acceptable when following the Paleo diet.
Cooking with it: Coconut flour is very heavy and full of moisture absorbing fiber. Keep in mind that it needs A LOT of liquid, mainly in the form of eggs, to be suitable for baked goods.
Nutrients: High in protein and fiber. Contains trace amounts of iron and sodium.
Preparation: It’s ready right out of the package! I buy my coconut flour from Wilderness Naturals and you should too. They are an amazing company and really neat people who know their stuff. Completely sustainable and eco-friendly products!
Dried corn kernels which have been ground into flour. It is important to eat only cornmeal which is organic and GMO free (if it is labeled organic (then as of 2.28.13) it has not been genetically modified. Labeling and industry requirements can change at any time).
Nutrients: Cornmeal is an excellent source of fiber, folate, and the antioxidant beta-cryptoxanthin.
Preparation: Cornmeal must be soaked in dolomite lime water (learn how here) for about 7 hours in order to release it’s stores of B3 and essential amino acids.
Aka chick peas, this is actually a widely used flour in India. Garbanzo bean flour is a fantastic thickener for soups, stews and gravies. I personally have even made chocolate pudding using it (and it was a hit with children both inside and outside of my family). It does have a slightly beany flavor, but can be easily disguised. One of my favorite ways to use chickpea flour is in an Italian flat bread called Farinata (click for recipe and how-to video)
Nutrients: One of the most nutritious of all the legumes, garbanzo beans are high in calcium, phosphorus and potassium. Exceptionally high in iron and B complex and rich in essential fatty acids.
Preparation: Should be soaked in an acidic medium (2 Tbs whey or lemon juice to 4-6 cups warm, filtered water) for 24 hours, rinse, and pick off skins.
Suitable for Paleo and low carb diets, hazelnut flour lends a slightly sweet and nutty flavor to baked goods. Buttery and rich, hazelnut flour is best used in crumbles, pie crusts, and in combination with other flours. You won’t likely see this flour listed on a store-bought loaf of bread ingredient list. However, I have included it as an option for the home cook and those of you who may have a gluten-free bakery nearby.
Nutrients: Rich in vitamin E, potassium and magnesium.
Preparation: Not yet widely available and relatively expensive, this flour can be made at home by soaking hazelnuts in 1 Tbs. of salt water per 4 cups filtered water (water should cover hazelnuts). Let sit on counter-top for 12-24 hours. Dehydrate in a 150° F oven or food dehydrator before grinding into flour. Don’t have the time or inclination? Buy hazelnut flour here.
Closely related to sorghum, millet is the seed of a cereal grass. The protein structure of millet is quite similar to wheat and has become very popular in the world of gluten free. It’s not a perfect substitution however, as it is difficult to digest and contains goiterogens. Goiterogens suppress thyroid activity and over time can lead to an enlarged goiter. (source) Millet is fine once in a while, but not as an every day staple.
Nutrients: Very high in silica, which helps keep bones flexible. Contains protein, potassium, iron and magnesium.
Preparation: Relatively low in phtyic acid compared to other grains but the outer bran layer is where the goiterogens are found. Removing the bran is no small task which involves soaking the millet overnight in an acidic medium, rinsing, processing in a food processor, and then straining that mixture and discarding the bran that remains in the strainer. I’m not even sure, at that point, if it could be dehydrated into a flour.
Although there are gluten free oats available, oats are still in the same family as wheat and should be carefully considered and tested before eating in much amount (by a person with gluten intolerance or allergy). To heal from a gluten-intolerance it is best to steer clear of oats.
Made from dehydrated potatoes (sans skin), potato flour is still a high starch food that has little nutritional value. It is commonly used to add moisture and body to baked goods.
Considered a super-food, this staple food of the Incas and Indians in Peru was highly prized for it’s nutritional value. Surprisingly, not a grain or seed but a fruit from the Chenopodium family. Traditionally used to help stimulate the flow of mother’s milk.
Most of the quinoa flour on the market imparts a really bitter taste. This is because quinoa is covered in saponins, an anti-nutrient, and must be thoroughly soaked and rinsed before consuming. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the quinoa flour available is soaked. There are claims that toasting the flour before consuming helps to neutralize the saponins. Since saponins are like a coating of soap, that doesn’t make sense to me. It would be the same thing as coating wheat berries in soap, toasting them in the oven, and saying they didn’t contain any soap. I prefer to make my own (see preparation).
Cooking with it: After I’ve prepared my quinoa flour, I like to lightly toast it in the oven (see preparation below). I’ve used it in pancakes and muffins and the flavor is fabulous! My kids both gave this flour a thumbs up!
Nutrients: One of the most nutritious flours available, quinoa is extremely high in protein and contains an impressive amino acid profile (cystine, lysine, methionine). Rich in minerals, quinoa also contains iron, calcium and phosphorous, B vitamins, and vitamin E. It is also high in fat (which helps the body to process all of that protein).
Preparation: Soak quinoa overnight (at least 12 hours) in a acidic medium (for every 6 cups of warm filtered water, add 2 Tbs. whey, kefir or buttermilk). Rinse thoroughly, almost washing the quinoa. Drain well and spread thinly on a cookie sheet. Toast in the oven at 350° for 10-12 minutes (shaking the pan every minute or two to mix) and grind small batches in a handheld coffee grinder.
Generally referred to as “rice flour,” this really means “white rice flour.” This flour needs a little help in the sticking-together department so it is often paired with potato starch, tapioca flour and xantham gum. Easy to digest, and low in phytic acid, white rice flour is a very common choice for gluten-free diets.
I believe that the inclusion of rice in such a diet can lead to mass over-consumption of not only this grain, but the gums and starches that help it stick together. Those of Asian descent are equipped with a larger pancreas and salivary glands, which helps them process a diet high in grains (rice in particular). However for the rest of us, especially those dealing with serious issues such as Celiac or ulcerative colitis, I recommend keeping rice to a minimum, if at all, as it is still a refined carbohydrate which is easily converted into glucose and can be irritating to the lining of the GI tract.
Nutrients- Contains thiamin, niacin, folate, and small amounts of calcium, magnesium and iron.
Preparation- Testing done by Consumer Reports has indeed shown that rice is one of the foods that contains a high residue of arsenic (read full article by Environmental Working Group). Because of this, it is very important to rinse rice thoroughly. When making your own flour (which I have NOT tried) I would recommend soaking for a period of 4-6 hours, rinsing, and dehydrating. If you try it, please let us all know in the comments section below.
Related to millet, sorghum grows on woody stalks. Considered a staple grain in parts of Africa and Asia, it’s grains have many uses (including sorghum molasses, syrup, and being popped like popcorn). Because it is one of the more inexpensive gluten free flours available, and it imparts a mellow flavor, it has become a common ingredient used in gluten free bread and baked goods.
My main concern with sorghum is that is is also typically used as livestock feed and to produce ethanol in the US. It’s a cheap grain (because it’s very hardy and easy to grow), and when we eat it in the form of meat and grain, much like corn, I feel that it has the potential for over-consumption (especially when following a gluten-free diet).
Cooking with it: I find sorghum to have a sandy texture and can pick it out in a loaf of gluten free bread so I do not use it.
Nutrients: Nutritionally, sorghum is much like corn, but is higher in protein (around 9%) and fat. It contains B vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium and phosphorous.
Preparation: At this time, I am unable to find much information on sorghum and how to properly prepare it.
Common in Asian cooking but not yet widely used in the US, sweet potato flour is simply dried ground sweet potatoes. It imparts a slightly spongy flavor to baked goods and does well when paired with nut flours.
Nutrients: If it really is just dried ground sweet potatoes then it’s got to have a nutritional profile that’s hard to beat! I’ll keep you posted.
Made from the cassava root, which is boiled, dried, and powdered. It’s light texture can be used in combination with other heavier flours. Also makes a great substitute for cornstarch to thicken soups, stews and gravies. Easy to digest.
Nutrients: Contains no protein, a bit of folate, a fair amount of iron, and trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, etc.
The world’s smallest whole grain, teff is traditionally found in North Africa. I love teff not only because it contains all 8 essential amino acids and is high in protein, but because of its lovely flavor. It’s subtle, yet, unlike rice or potato, let’s you know it’s there with a slightly whole grain taste.
Cooking with it: Baked goods do well with teff. I have a dairy and egg free cookie recipe that I need to share with you all that uses teff. In the meantime, order some here so you’ll have it on hand when I publish the recipe!
Nutrition: Teff flour is prized for it’s excellent amino acid profile, one of which is lysine, an amino acid not commonly found in other grains and high protein content. It is also rich in fiber, calcium, copper, and iron.
Although not a flour, I’m including it, as it’s found in just about every gluten-free baked item on the market. In gluten free baking it is used to add elasticity to dough’s (this is what gluten usually does for dough’s . Xanthan gum can contain trace amounts of gluten as it is a natural byproduct of Xanthomonas campestris, a bacteria which typically causes plant diseases. This bacteria naturally feeds on fermenting plant matter- often corn, but sometimes wheat. Check those labels!
Cooking with it: I agree with Jennifer Katzinger, author of Gluten Free and Vegan Bread, ”I view xanthan gum as an additive rather than a food and I feel it should be used only in small amounts.” It’s one of the reasons I bought her cookbook, along with the fact that she uses only unrefined sugars, and minimal amounts of the high starch and refined carbohydrate flours that are often found on gluten free labels.
If I’ve left any flour out, or you have knowledge of a particular flour that I haven’t done justice to, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Sources: Nine Fun Free Flours For Wheat Free Baking| Elana’s Pantry| Tessa The Domestic Diva|The Healthy Home Economist| Nourishing Traditions Cookbook by Sally Fallon| Gluten Free and Vegan Bread by Jennifer Katzinger
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