February 21, 2016
How to Bake With Alternative Flours

It seems like everyone is trying to go gluten-free these days, even pastry chefs. But too often, we’re left eating gluey sweets made with xantham gum and other additives, and still craving old-school cookies in the end.

Yet gluten-free doesn’t have to mean inferior. Branching out from regular old white flour to alternatives like coconut and buckwheat flours can create baked goods with deeper, more enjoyable flavors that will have you coming back for seconds and thirds. As baking goddess Alice Medrich says in Flavor Flours: “Tasting familiar grains in new forms likewise reveals unexpected flavors.” She’s not the only one. In Anna Jones’s book A Modern Way to Eat, the vegetarian guru says she looks to “unusual, exciting and flavoursome ingredients to add depth and interest to my cooking,” citing “different and interesting grains” at the top of her list. For example, she says, “the spelt flour in my ginger and molasses cake adds structure and a deep toasted malty flavor and is naturally easier for us to digest.”

It can be harder than it looks to substitute these grains and flours for the regular old white stuff. It’s not a cup-for-cup ratio. That’s precisely why we’ve put together this handy guide to baking with alternative and gluten-free flours.

First, a few rules: Particularly with non-wheat flours, you should measure by weight. Medrich also advises not to mix the batter quite as much as you would with regular baked goods and to bake more-delicate recipes in a tube pan or sheet pan instead of a deep cake pan. Last but not least, because gluten-free flours can sometimes soak up liquid and make baked goods dry, look for recipes with ingredients like buttermilk, oils, applesauce, and liquid honey to add that moisture back in.

Now go forth and bake, alternatively!

Nut and Coconut Flours
What They Are: Flours made from ground almonds or coconut meat, for example.
What They Taste Like: Predictably nutty but also dense (they’re also pretty calorie-dense).
What They’re Good For: Cakes and cookies. Coconut flour’s compactness works especially well in tart crusts like the cherry and rosewater macaroon tart in A Modern Way to Eat. Or try the decadent Italian chocolate-almond cookies made with spelt flour and almond meal in Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

Teff
What It Is: A tiny whole grain that originated in Ethiopia.
What It Tastes Like: Sour and earthy. In Sweet Goodness: Delicious Gluten-Free Baking Recipes, authors Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming say dark versions hit molasses notes while lighter versions are nuttier.
What It’s Good For: Cookies and dense breads and muffins, like the graham crackers and hazelnut muffins in Good to the Grain or the double-chocolate cake donuts in Sweet Goodness.

Buckwheat
What It Is: A whole grain most commonly used in soba noodles.
What It Tastes Like: Toasty and nutty. Medrich says she was surprised to find “notes of honey and rose” in it.
What It’s Good For: Pancakes and heartier baked goods like the pear and buckwheat pancakes in Good to the Grain. Of course, don’t be afraid to try something unusual with it: Flavor Flour’s buckwheat sour cream soufflés work quite well!

Brown Rice Flour
What It Is: Flour made from rice. Look for brown-rice flour rather than white, and be sure not to mistakenly use rice starch or sweet rice flour.
What It Tastes Like: Neutral and mild, with a slightly nutty taste.
What It’s Good For: Sweet Goodness says it can help thicken recipes as well as prevent liquids from separating (say, when you’re refrigerating dough for a bit). Meanwhile, Medrich says it will lend baked goods a buttery quality, and that it can even make brownies taste more chocolaty. Win-win.

Oat Flour
What It Is: Flour made from ground rolled oats.
What It Tastes Like: Mild, but it will lend a butterscotch-y flavor to your baked goods.
What It’s Good For: That butterscotch taste works well in almost everything, especially the chocolate swirl banana loaf in Sweet Goodness. If you’re looking for a lighter dessert, try the strawberry poppy seed crisp in A Modern Way to Eat.

Cornmeal
What It Is: Corn kernels ground into a flour-y consistency.
What It Tastes Like: Slightly sweet and very dense.
What It’s Good For: Textured baked goods like the honey-polenta cornbread in Good to the Grain and the apricot and the almond-cornmeal muffins in The Violet Bakery Cookbook.

Megan Giller

Megan Giller is a Brooklyn-based food writer and the author of Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution. Find her work in Slate, Food & Wine, and The New York Times, among other publications. Read more of her writing on craft chocolate on her blog Chocolate Noise, and follow her on Instagram at @ChocolateNoise and on Twitter at @MeganGiller.