If gluten-free is the buzzword of the modern food world, grain-free is its quirky, all or nothing, determined little cousin. Diets, such as Paleo and Primal, have been designed around the idea of eliminating grains (a.k.a. unnecessary calories) from one’s diet. Although it may be another fad, the concept might be worth the consideration. While not all grains are created equal, grains and starches potentially cause inflammation, elevated blood-sugar (even whole grains!), increased appetite, and a decrease in the ability to absorb nutrients; not to mention that they tend to crowd out the veggies and even protein right off of our plates. Following is a list of grain-free flours and foods to cook and bake with.
Almond Meal is made by finely grinding almonds that are often blanched first to remove the skins. It is used together with other flours to create volume and density to baked goods. When used alone, it can make for heavy, soggy baking. It is sometimes sold as almond flour, but does not have the same texture at all. Almond flour is light and powdery, and is harder to find in stores, although it is readily available online. I have had success making and baking with homemade almond flour, which I explain at the bottom of this post. Although the skins are left on (because who has time to blanch and peel almonds?!) it creates a lighter baked product. It is also much less expensive to buy almonds, than it is to buy the flour. It should be kept in the fridge or freezer to keep its freshness.
Arrowroot Flour is harvested from the rhizomes of a plant that grows in the Caribbean; It is nutritionally limited, but very easy to digest, and its minimal flavor works well in gluten-free baking. It is nice in combination with other flours, resulting in lighter, more tender baked goods. It also works well as well as a thickening ingredient in fruit sauces and desserts; however, it is not recommended to be used for meat gravies or dairy products, as it can give them a slimy texture. When thickening a sauce, arrowroot powder is best added to the mixture at the end of cooking, as continued heat will make it loose it thickness.
Coconut Flour is made much like other nut flours. The milk is removed by pureeing the flesh together with water. The mixture is then strained and the remaining pulp is dried. This pulp, once dried, is coconut flour. Coconut flour has a subtle, sweet flavor, not overly coconut-y at all. In baked goods, it is usually paired with another flour. It can also be used as a thickener for sauces and gravies. Coconut flour has the unique ability to hold a lot of moisture, and often several tablespoons to a quarter cup is all that is necessary in a recipe, compared to one or two cups of another type of flour.
Chickpea (Garbanzo Bean) Flour is commonly used, and is found in popular foods such as falafels and pakoras. It has a higher level of protein than other flours; it also has a stronger flavor than other flours and is balanced out with chocolate, nuts, and spices. It is a dense flour, and works well in combination with other, lighter flours like arrowroot and tapioca. It should be stored in the fridge or freezer to keep its freshness.
Nut Meals and Flours, like almond meal and flour, can add varying degrees of texture and density depending on how the nuts are prepared. Each nut offers its own unique flavor. The fat content of the nuts can create a very satisfying dish, while still feeling light. They are great for baking, and can be used in combination with other flours or alone, depending on the desired texture. Alternating one nut flour for another in a familiar recipe can seem to create an entirely different dish. Depending on which nuts grow locally can also influence which to choose.
Potato Flour is made by drying the entire potato. Like chickpea flour, it is quite dense and works well when combined with a lighter flour. It is excellent for thickening sauces, as well as baking, and has a very subtle potato flavor. When used in baked goods, it works best when it is sifted first, and is great in recipes that call for eggs.
Tapioca Flour is made from the dried cassava root. It’s growing regions include South America, Asia, and Africa. It has very few nutrients, and is virtually flavorless, and therefore works well when paired with heavier, more nutritionally dense flours. It can be used to thicken sauces and gravies, and offers a very light, delicate texture to baked goods when combined with other light flours or starches.
Sweet potatoes, black beans, and squash, as well as shredded coconut or carrots, nut and seed butters, bananas, applesauce, dried dates, and others, also belong in this section (although many of them will be covered in more detail in future pantry posts). These ingredients add volume to any recipe, and when combined with other ingredients, these can be turned into breads, brownies, pasta, pancakes, etc. These “filler” ingredients tend to add moisture and tenderness. Their unique flavors even create a seasonal signature in each dish they are a part of, whether savory or sweet.
Happy gluten-free cooking and baking!