My journey to gluten-free cooking began the same way as my love for cooking with plant-based food – namely, as an experiment. And while my own particular road to better health came from a fair number of little dietary tweaks and changes, I’m pretty sure that giving up gluten was a game-changer when I realised I was intolerant to it.
Having said that, I reintroduced gluten back into my diet two years ago. On a personal level I no longer feel ill when having gluten – but I’m still careful, and I only consume small amounts. I’m also way better with sourdough than normal bread – but I still eat and cook a lot of gluten-free options, just because they’re super tasty!
I know following a gluten-free diet can feel a wee bit mind-boggling – especially if you’re just starting out. And even though the gluten-free market has come a long way since the early days of vegan and gluten-free cookbooks, there’s still quite a steep learning curve on the Path to Un-gluten-ment!
That’s definitely the case when it comes to gluten-free flour alternatives. And I’ll be the first to admit that I had more than a couple of minor baking disasters when I first started out.
Rookie mistake numero uno: trying to simply substitute like for like. Swapping exactly the same amount of, say, coconut flour for plain flour will lead to baked goods as dry as the Sahara! Yes, get gluten-free flour wrong and it’s the only time you can justifiably drop one ‘s’ and mis-spell dessert 😉
But with the knowledge of a few basic ‘rules’, and a little insight into which flour will best suit whatever you’re baking, you can safely go forth and conquer.
Firstly, here are my top tips for success:
Mix things up
There isn’t a single flour that can fully replace wheat flour – and that means it’s a great idea to blend multiple types, rather than just one. Grain-free flours such as coconut or almond can taste bland and dry when they’re used alone. Instead, mix different flours and starches together to create a more rounded all-purpose.
My next tip is to start small with things like flatbreads, biscuits, muffins and pancakes. That way, if you don’t get it quite right first go, it’s easier to adjust without too much waste. Start off using half gluten-free flour alternatives of your choice and half gluten-free-all-purpose, and see how it turns out. Then on the next attempt, try changing the proportions a bit and see how that changes the texture and moisture levels.
Practice makes perfect
Don’t be afraid to experiment a bit! Try adapting your favourite old recipes to make them gluten-free. It may take several goes to figure out the right blend and balance of gluten-free flours, but part of the fun is seeing if you can recreate something you love in a new – or dare I say – even better way.
If you’re making bread, always use a mix of gluten-free flours. Start with at least two, and you can even try as many as four. Ideally, each flour will cover an element of what wheat flour does, to hopefully deliver a balanced, rounded loaf. Think about the main characteristic of each different flour when you’re making your blend, and you’ll end up with a more nuanced flour that should serve you well.
So now you’ve got the basics sorted, without further ado, here are my top 9 picks for the best gluten-free flour alternatives:
1. Almond flour (also known as almond meal)
Almond flour could well be the most widely-used gluten-free flour choice. It’s jam-packed with nutrients like magnesium, calcium, potassium, and manganese, and it’s also full of both dietary fiber and protein.
Almond flour is really good in everything from bread and muffins to brownies, cakes and this delicious recipe for almond cookies. It’s also a welcome surprise in some savoury dishes, being a fantastic substitute for breadcrumbs in things like cauliflower gratin or eggplant Parmigiana.
Adding almond flour to cakes results in dense, chewy baked goods. That makes it spot on for creating those moist, chewy brownies loved by so many! It’s also good mixed with a flour like rice flour, which lightens the texture a bit.
To use it, mix a ratio of about twice as much almond flour with regular gluten-free all purpose (or your choice of alt-flour). Bear in mind that other factors (such as the amount of moisture or number of eggs) will likely have an influence.
Finally, be aware that almond flour can be a little temperamental if you’re doing a straight like-for-like substitute, so your best bet is to find an existing recipe that already uses almond flour – unless you’re up for the experiment!
2. Coconut flour
Coconut flour is another good choice. It’s not my favourite, but it’s good in small amounts. That’s because it’s easy to get it wrong with this husky little minx! It’s highly absorbent and very porous, so a little goes a long way – and it’s often better mixed with another type of flour, or even in a multi-flour blend.
On the plus side, it’s rich in dietary fiber and healthy fats, super- low in carbs and positively packed with nutrients. And on the flip-side, coconut flour can dry out your baking, and it can also have a slightly gritty texture – so it’s a good idea to sift it thoroughly before use.
The tricky part comes if you want to convert a recipe to use coconut flour. To do that, you’ll need to use a lot more liquid or egg to balance out the moisture and help bind it. Definitely avoid simply swapping the same amount of wheat flour for coconut flour. Instead, start off substituting around ¼ to ⅓ of a cup of coconut flour for every cup of flour in your recipe, and make up the rest with a mix of other alt-flours like brown and white rice, almond or oat flour.
3. Buckwheat flour
Contrary to the name, buckwheat is definitely not made of wheat! Instead it’s a protein-rich seed that comes from a plant similar to rhubarb. The seed is ground down to form a silky flour with a purple-greyish colour.
Buckwheat’s rich in fiber and antioxidants, as well as iron, magnesium, folate, zinc, and manganese – and it’s got a rich, earthy flavour and a moist texture that works well in breads and, of course, pancakes!
You can make a direct 1:1 substitution of buckwheat flour for wheat flour – but it’s got quite a crumbly texture, so it’s a good idea to combine it with other gluten-free options. Try adding brown rice flour into the mix, to help round it out.
4. Brown and white rice flour
Rice flour is one of my regular go-to’s. It binds well, tastes good and is easy to use. In terms of nutritional value, it’s pretty close to wheat flour, but just slightly higher in calories.
Combined with other flours, rice flour adds really good nutritional balance to breads, and it creates an amazing crust for pizza.
White rice flour is milled from polished white rice, and it’s a brilliant basic flour for gluten-free baking. Just like rice itself, it’s quite bland, making it ideal for baking – and it also works well with other flours. Having said that, on its own it’s not ideal in recipes with low liquid and high fat content, such as cookies and muffins.
Brown rice flour is made from unpolished brown rice, giving it better nutritional value than white. And yes, the flavour is a little more nutty, too. Try it in breads, muffins and these utterly delicious Korean savoury pancakes. It also gives a great crispness to cookies.
5. Oat flour
Oat flour adds weight and flavour to cookies and breads, resulting in a chewier, crumblier texture. Baking with oat flour will likely make your end product more moist (sometimes a little bit too moist)! So be careful how much you use.
As with most gluten-free flour alternatives, oat flour is best not used as a 1-for-1 substitute for all-purpose flour. Instead, choose oat flour recipes that are especially designed for using it – or if you’re going all out experimental, you can combine it with a couple of other types.
Oats are highly nutritious, being full of iron and magnesium, and their fiber also feeds your gut cells. Making your own is a cinch. Just pop them in a blender and grind 1 ¼ cups of organic rolled oats for every 1 cup of oat flour you need.
6. Tapioca flour
This white, light and smooth flour comes from the cassava root – but it shouldn’t be confused with actual cassava flour, which gives quite different results. That’s because cassava flour is from the whole root, whereas tapioca flour only comes from the starchy pulp.
Tapioca flour adds a nice crisp, chewy texture to baking. Because the cassava root has little sugar or fat, it’s great for healthy baking – and it’s also easily combined with cornstarch and soy flour.
Tapioca flour is also a great thickener for everything from pies and gravies to puddings, dough and sauces, and it won’t change the flavour of the dish.
7. Millet flour
Millet comes from a small seeded grass that’s cultivated around the world. It’s known for being dense and highly nutritious, and it’s really good for your gut.
As a flour, it’s nutty and grassy – and just like rice flour, it adds a great crisp texture, but with a slightly sweeter, almost corn-like flavour.
On its own, millet can taste a little bitter. So it’s better combined with other gluten-free flours, such as oat, rice or tapioca flour, to create a versatile all-purpose-like blend.
8. Quinoa flour
Quinoa is the most nutritious grain you can eat – and it’s also one of the world’s oldest cultivated grains! Quinoa flour is high in fiber, protein, calcium and iron, and again, it’s usually best as part of a mix with other alt-flours.
it adds a kind of grassy, almost bitter flavour that can work brilliantly to balance out the sweetness of some pastries and cakes. To counteract that, try toasting the raw flour on a baking sheet in a 300°F oven for about an hour.
9. Chickpea flour
Chickpea is my favourite flour of all! This nutritionally dense flour is made from ground-up chickpeas. It’s extremely rich in protein, fiber and essential nutrients. And with its nutty flavour and slightly grainy texture, it works really well in things like tortillas, crepes, and flatbreads. Just remember that it’s highly absorbent, and it can have a slightly sticky texture, so be mindful of the moisture content of your recipe.
Chickpea flour is also great as a natural thickener in soups and curries, and even in some desserts and pastries. It also works really well as a binding agent. Try it in falafels instead of breadcrumbs – and for vegans it also works very well as an egg substitute.
Put your new gluten-free flour knowledge to the test with some of the many gluten-free recipes from my latest plant-based cookbook, Happy Food.