Switching to Gluten-Free Flour? Here’s What You Need to Know
Gluten, the name given to a group of proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, is best known for giving baked goods their doughy and elastic structure. It is also added to many foods for other purposes, including as a thickening agent or flavor enhancer.
We’re ready to bet that you know at least three people who have – or claim to have – a sensitivity to gluten or a gluten-related autoimmune condition known as celiac disease. Indeed, over the past decade, as the general population has gained a better understanding of nutrition and one’s own body, there has been a rise in the number of both legitimate and illegitimate diagnoses of both conditions.
One of the most regularly cited reasons for this increase has been the change in processing and preparation of wheat-derived products. While new techniques in grain processing have allowed us to create massive amounts of refined wheat at a lower cost, the cereal is no longer soaked, sprouted, and fermented to make bread, for instance. Instead, it is bleached and mixed with quick-rise yeast.
As a result, more health-conscious communities have seen a conscious shift away from traditional wheat, rye, and barley products in favor of other gluten-free options. But before you go stocking up on all that your local gluten-free aisle has to offer, it’s worth asking the question: Are you intolerant to gluten?
Are you intolerant to gluten?
Gluten sensitivities range from the very minor to a serious diagnosis of celiac disease. The most common symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity are:
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as cramps, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas
- Frequent exhaustion and fatigue
- Mood swings
- Body aches in the bones, muscles, and connective tissues
People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity tend to experience less severe reactions to gluten. What’s more, if they ingest the protein, there is no long-term damage to the intestines or to the nerves as with celiac patients, in which case the immune system triggers an attack on the intestines every time gluten is consumed. As a consequence of that, their body is unable to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment and other serious chronic conditions including nerve damage.
Whatever group you fall in, if you’ve decided to cut gluten out of your life, you’re in luck; gluten-free flours are now more commonly available than ever before, which means you can still have your cake and eat it too.
Gluten-Free Baking 101
Using gluten-free flours may appear tricky at first, but these two simple tips will make your life easier. First of all, know your flours, as gluten-free flours vary in flavor and in the texture they result in. Second, don’t forget your “binding” ingredients to prevent baked goods for crumbling or to give them a fluffy texture. These include the following:
- Flax or chia eggs (1 tbsp ground flaxseeds or chia mixed with 3 tbsp water)
- Baking powder
- Coconut oil
- Psyllium husk
- Xantham gum
- Tapioca starch
- Nut butters and tahini
The Most Common Gluten-Free Flours
There are dozens of options to choose from, each one with its own flavor profile and texture. With practice, you will be able to determine which flour works best for you and even come up with your own flour combinations depending on the flavors and textures you are looking for.
This is a high-protein, nourishing option. It is best used to make chickpea pancakes and to “bind” savory patties and fritters (e.g. falafels, vegan burgers, etc.). Chickpea flour isn’t recommended for desserts because of its overpowering taste.
Buckwheat is a healthy low-carb option and a good source of fiber. It’s excellent for crêpes, bread, and pizza crusts. It can also be used for muffins and cakes.
High in protein and healthy fats, oat flour has a very mild flavor, which makes it versatile. It’s great for everything from baking cookies to thickening falafels, soups, and patties.
This option is Paleo-friendly and high in fiber. It’s best used in cakes considering its strong taste and the moist texture it gives. It can also be used to make soft fluffy flatbread, though it tends to slightly crumble if not combined with another flour to bake bread.
Almond flour is a highly nutritious option considering that it is low in carbs and high in protein and various vitamins. It’s an excellent option for baking cookies. If you’re using it to bake cakes, combine it with another type of flour for a fluffier texture.
This flour is less nutritious than other options. It can be combined with other flours to bake cakes or bread, and can also be used for breading certain foods.
Cassava is starchy tuberous root (similar to sweet potatoes). It is higher in both calories and carbohydrates than many of the other options on this list. It can be used in moderation to thicken gravies and soups.
Note: Corn flour is another option commonly found in supermarkets. However, while it is a great thickener, its nutritional profile is controversial due to the fact that the majority of options available on the market come from GMO crops.
The Less Common Options
There are also other, less commonly used flours, which you can incorporate into your diet once you’ve gotten the hang of gluten-free baking. It is not recommended to use them if you are just starting out, as there are fewer online resources and guides dedicated to them.
Teff is an ancient grain grown in certain African countries. It is a good source of protein, manganese, iron, and calcium, and works well for crêpes.
This flour is high in protein and vitamins, but its taste can be slightly pronounced.
This option is high in potassium and other vitamins. It can be a bit challenging to use in terms of texture if it’s not combined with other flours.
Tigernut is a Paleo-friendly option that is also a good source of protein. Its slightly sweet and nutty flavor makes it ideal for baking cookies.