A Curious Eater’s Guide to Alternative Flours
You can grind almost anything into a flour, but that doesn't mean you should. Here are six alternative flours that are actually worth trying.
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The COVID-19 pandemic boosted interest in many domestic pastimes, but baking came out on top. Sourdough starters became a kitchen staple, and close-up shots of homemade banana bread had their moment on Instagram. Then there was a run on baking supplies in the spring—when staples like wheat and bread flour sold out, many home cooks turned to alternative flours like oat and quinoa.
But it can be tricky to stick the landing on your homemade baked goods with something like rice or coconut flour. Non-wheat options have different nutritional profiles than wheat flour, and most don’t contain gluten. That’s a great selling point for anyone on a gluten-free diet, but it has a big impact on texture. Gluten gives dough its doughiness, helping it stretch and rise, trapping air bubbles, and making the finished product chewy and fluffy. Don’t fret—as long as you know how your choice can affect density, texture, and moisture, you can make great things with alternative flours.
Whether you’re looking to experiment because of scarcity, a gluten intolerance, or culinary curiosity, here’s a helpful guide to the alternative flour landscape.
You can buy oat flour at the store or make it yourself by grinding rolled oats to a fine powder in a food processor or blender. Elliott Prag, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, explains that oat flour absorbs more liquid than other flours, which makes for drier, denser baked goods. It’s great in pie crusts or granola bars, but you’ll need to add a little extra liquid or fat for moisture. If you’re making bread, cake, or anything that’s supposed to be fluffy, you can’t use only oat flour—the batter or dough won’t rise. But if you still want to add flavor and a crumbly texture, try mixing three parts all-purpose flour with one part oat.
A quarter-cup serving of oat flour has a similar nutritional profile to all-purpose flour. It’s mostly carbs—22 grams—with four grams of protein and two grams of fat. It also packs in three grams of mostly soluble fiber, which gels up when mixed with liquid, slowing digestion and lowering LDL cholesterol (the bad kind).
While traditional wheat flour is made up of mostly carbs, almond flour is mostly fat: 15 grams of it in a 170-calorie quarter-cup serving. It has fewer carbs and more protein than traditional flour, with six grams of each, and it’s overall more calorically dense. The high fat content keeps things moist but can also weigh things down. Prag recommends doctoring your recipes with ingredients that add rise, like eggs or baking soda, as well as add-ins that can help lend some structure, like bananas. Almond flour is flavorful, making it a great option for a dense, nutty cake or a sweet quickbread.
Coconut flour has an even stronger taste than almond, so Prag recommends using it in recipes with complementary flavor profiles, like pineapple upside-down cake or banana bread. While its somewhat high fat content—four grams per serving—makes for denser baked goods, it’s still mostly carbohyrates. Eighteen grams of carbs lend sweetness and starch, so you can still get a cakey crumb when you bake with coconut flour. Just be ready to experiment with extra leavening agents like eggs, baking soda, or baking powder. A 120-calorie quarter-cup serving has four grams of protein, which adds a little bit of chew. One thing to note: all that fat is saturated, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting to no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories. That’s about 22 grams for people who eat 2,000 calories per day.
Chickpea flour has traditionally been used in Mediterranean cooking to make carb-rich dishes like socca, a chickpea pancake. These days, people are using it to make all sorts of baked goods—including a mean gluten-free pizza crust. Its high starch content helps bind batters and doughs together, unlike crumbly oat or almond flour. With 120 calories, one gram of fat, 21 grams of carbs, and five grams of protein, a quarter-cup serving is nearly identical to all-purpose flour in terms of calories and macronutrients, but it has the added benefit of five grams of fiber, which is great for digestion and overall health.
Kimberly Hansan, who wrote an entire cookbook about rice flour, explains that it has always been a staple in Eastern cultures—it just happens to be booming in Western cooking right now thanks to the rise of gluten-free diets. Rice flour has almost no fat and just two grams of protein—about half of what’s in all-purpose flour. It’s high in starch, with 24 grams of carbs per quarter-cup serving, which means it can bind doughs together and create a chewy texture. While rice flour is traditionally used in dense, flat recipes like scallion pancakes or noodles, it also works for baking since it’s almost flavorless and rises easily. Just be sure to use baking powder or soda to help create and trap air bubbles.
Although quinoa has been a key part of South American cuisine for centuries, the idea of grinding it into a flour didn’t really take hold until gluten-free diets became popular. It has slightly more fat than all-purpose flour—two grams per quarter-cup serving—but is otherwise similar, with most of its 105 calories coming from carbs. Prag explains that quinoa flour bakes similarly to oat flour, creating a denser, more crumbly texture. You can try mixing all-purpose and quinoa flour in a three-to-one ratio to add nutty flavor to bread without sacrificing that squishy, chewy texture. If you’re working with just quinoa flour, opt for something like muffins or pancakes.