Lani Jacobs-Banner, B.S., explores the nutritional differences and baking properties of the most popular gluten-free flours.
THERE’S A GOOD REASON GLUTEN HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED A CRITICAL BAKING INGREDIENT. Aptly named, it lends elasticity and cohesiveness to breads, cookies, cakes, and more, making it baked goods’ proverbial “glue.” Without it, these foods can be crumbly, dry, and wholly unsatisfying.
Unfortunately, there’s no single naturally gluten-free flour that comes close to resembling the fluffy, seductive goal. So when baking GF, a variety of sources of protein, starch, and fiber must be skillfully blended to form a three-dimensional protein network that will, like almighty gluten, bind water, have uniform cell structure in the crumb, and partner with carbon dioxide to increase the total volume.
That’s why if you read the label of any GF baked item, rather than discovering a single starring powder, you’ll almost always find a variety of flours. For breads and other bakery items, the combination might include rice flour, sorghum flour, millet flour, blanched almond flour, tapioca starch, and/or potato starch—all just to create the cell structure required for optimum texture and quality.
It’s also why it’s not so easy to step into the kitchen and bake from scratch without the help of a ready-made GF flour blend or a solid understanding of the baking properties and assets of today’s “alternative” flours.
Still, there are many reliable gluten-free bread, cookie, and cake recipes that employ the perfect blend of flours to give the characteristics of the best baked goods. Some recipes have even been judged comparable to their glutenous counterparts in head-to-head tests. But what’s really special about gluten-free baking is that gluten-free flour alternatives can be more nutrient dense than gluten-containing flours. This means you’ll not only avoid gluten-containing ingredients, but you can also increase the nutrition in your diet.
Whether you want to make a better cake or get more insight into the health benefits—or lack thereof—of your favorite cookies, the following primer on popular gluten-free flours can help you and your baked goods rise above.
A great gluten-free flour alternative, it is made from finely milled rice.
Nutrition: A fairly hypoallergenic food, rice is unlikely to trigger an allergy or sensitivity. Compared to whole-wheat flour, its flours are lower in fiber and protein, but fairly comparable in vitamins and minerals.
Still, brown rice flour has almost twice the fiber of white rice flour because it is made from rice with the bran intact. But white rice flour is the closest in appearance to bleached wheat flour. In contrast, “sweet rice flour” (it’s not actually sweet, just called that) is made from “sticky” or “glutinous” rice, which has a higher starch content but contains no gluten.
Pros: Rice flour is milder and lighter than wheat flour and is incredibly versatile for gluten-free baking, noodle making, as a breading component, and as a thickener. The increased starch in sweet rice flour improves its binding qualities, which can help improve the moisture content of baked products.
Cons: While rice flour can give baked goods a desirable appearance, it doesn’t always give the mouthfeel we anticipate, and a lack of flavor can be a shortcoming as well. Additionally, rice is not a great source of vitamins and minerals and is very rich in carbohydrates, which can trigger blood sugar spikes and dips.
Sorghum flour comes from a grain and is native to Africa.
Nutrition: Sorghum is rich in iron and antioxidants and has slightly more protein and fiber than rice flours. The natural starches in sorghum have a reduced glycemic index, meaning they take longer to digest and absorb, which helps moderate their effect on blood sugar.
Pros: Sorghum has a mild, sweet flavor and a smooth texture. The protein and fiber content can help to bind moisture and allow for better retention of carbon dioxide bubbles formed during bread making.
Cons: There is a limit to how much sorghum you can incorporate into a flour mixture before it leads to flavor and quality issues, including slightly sour and astringent flavors and a slightly dry mouthfeel. A study featured in the Journal of Food Science found that using up to 30 percent sorghum flour produced bread with acceptable flavor and quality.
Native to China, millet has been farmed for nearly 10,000 years and is an important staple food in India. Its three types—finger, pearl, and foxtail—are usually used in baking.
Nutrition: Millet has the highest calcium content of all grains. Its protein content is comparable to whole-wheat flour, and it has more fiber and antioxidants than rice flour. It also has a low glycemic index to support healthy blood sugar levels.
Pros: Millet has a light, mild flavor. Using it results in a delicate, cake-like crumb, making it a good choice for gluten-free baking.
Cons: Studies have shown that when more than 15 percent millet is included in flour blends, the bread’s volume is decreased and the texture is more coarse and mealy.
Typically, it’s made from almonds that have had their skins removed (blanched) and have been finely ground.
Nutrition: Almonds are more nutrient dense than grains and contribute minerals, including manganese and magnesium along with vitamin E and biotin. They’re also rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Almond flour is much lower in carbohydrates and higher in fat and protein than the flours mentioned above. It is both a good choice for those following gluten-free or grain-free diets.
Pros: In recipes, the fat content in almonds can help retain moisture and positively impact the way proteins interact with starches in a flour blend, producing an acceptable texture. Almond flour also adds a delicious nutty flavor, with less impact on blood sugar than many flours.
Cons: Including more than about 25 percent almond flour in your flour blend will lead to a denser and more crumbly final product.
Made from processed cassava root, a native South American plant, this slightly sweet flour is both gluten- free and grain-free.
Nutrition: Tapioca is predominately starch and has very limited quantities of any vitamin or mineral. It is a source of resistant starch, which can promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract and promote digestive health.
Pros: The high starch content works as a binder to improve the texture of gluten-free baked goods, adding crispness to crusts and tenderness to the crumb.
Cons: When more than about 20 percent of the flour blend is tapioca, the bread will not rise as well, and the air pockets created will be bigger than ideal. A 2014 study cited in food-research journal Food Hydrocolloids suggests a maximum 10 percent inclusion for best results. Another consideration is that the high levels of starch in tapioca can lead to blood sugar spikes and dips.
Not to be confused with potato flour, potato starch is extracted from potatoes and then refined.
Nutrition: Potato starch is primarily a carbohydrate with only minimal amounts of protein and fiber. Although it may contain some potassium, it has limited quantities of any other vitamins or minerals. But it is a source of resistant starch, which helps feed the healthy bacteria in the digestive tract, promoting digestive health.
Pros: Potato starch acts to increase the elasticity of gluten-free doughs and retains moisture. It helps to hold carbon dioxide bubbles to promote the volume of baked goods, giving a light, springy texture.
Cons: Potato starch may not be the best choice of starch for every type of bread. At least one study cited in Food Science and Technology found that tapioca flour resulted in a better-quality end product than potato starch.
MORE FLOUR POWER
While the gluten-free flours listed here are the most commonly used, there are many other options. Corn flour, legume flours made from chickpeas or soy, and pseudocereal flours (amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa) are also available and mainly used because of their higher nutrient density. These flours have higher protein content, with more essential amino acids and fatty acids, and higher mineral content. Bean-based flours are also higher in fiber, an element that can be lacking in gluten-free diets.