Gluten-Free Baking and Alt Flours: A Primer
Baking with alternative ingredients can be a little intimidating, especially when it comes to gluten-free flours. Fortunately, there are people like Chloé Charlier of LA’s Breadblok. Charlier has mastered the art of gluten-free bread and pastry.
She’s been baking this way her whole life—her family has been gluten-free for three generations in the South of France. Over the years, they developed gluten-free bread recipes to accommodate health issues (before it became a trend). What they ended up with was a totally gluten-free artisan loaf that’s also free of gums, preservatives, and refined sugar.
In February of 2020, Charlier opened Breadblok in Santa Monica. She’d cemented her fan base after years of selling loaves and pastries at LA farmers’ markets, and this is her first brick-and-mortar space. Breadblok has staples that are hard to do well with gluten-free flours, like baguettes and croissants—which some of Charlier’s gluten-free customers hadn’t had in years. The clean, minimalist space feels warm and, as you can guess, smells amazing. (Don’t worry if you can’t make it to LA anytime soon: They ship nationwide.)
Baking bread at home may be more popular now than ever, but it’s not without its quirks. There are many variables, like temperature and humidity, that will affect the outcome of your bake—and this is before you introduce the wild card of alternative flours. We asked Charlier to give us some tips on how to get started with gluten-free baking at home and for a primer on gluten-free flours.
Her biggest piece of advice: Be open to experimentation. Play around to see what you like and what works for you. There are lots of recipes online you can use as a jumping-off point. Just be sure to log what you’re doing in a notebook. There’s nothing like nailing a bake and not having a record of what exactly you did differently.
1. Always use a combination of gluten-free flours—at least two and as many as four. None of these flours will behave completely like wheat flour, but they can each offer elements of it so that you can somewhat approximate its effects. (Almond flour is rich in protein. Rice flour adds structure. And cassava can lend elasticity.) Plus, you’ll get a more nuanced flavor profile from a mix of flours.
2. Once you’ve chosen your flours, choose a starch to add to your dry mix (potato, arrowroot, and tapioca are her go-tos), along with psyllium-seed husk (a natural binder that replaces the gums found in commercially made gluten-free bread).
3. Then you need filtered water, a yeast source (either instant or a gluten-free starter), and some kind of sugar to feed the yeast (like honey, agave, or maple syrup).
4. Making an entirely grain-free bread is totally possible (and delicious), but grain-free flours will lack structure, and free-form loaves like boules or bâtards will be difficult to shape. Instead, try using a loaf pan to help reinforce the shape and ensure an even bake.
5. If you don’t feel like you’re ready to take the bread-baking leap, start small. Quick breads, flatbreads, cookies, muffins, waffles, and pancakes are forgiving. You can begin by using half gluten-free flour and half all-purpose (or a gluten-free–all-purpose blend). You’ll begin to learn how different flours behave, which flavors you like, and which textures you prefer.
Gluten-Free Flours to Know
This is a dense, high-protein, low-carb, grain-free flour. Almond flour is great for grain-free baking and is a powerhouse of nutrients, in particular vitamin E and healthy fats. It’s nutty and slightly sweet. Try it in this Lemon Yogurt Cake or these Chocolate Chip Cookies with Coconut.
Like almond flour, chestnut flour is nutty and sweet, but the flavor is much deeper and more pronounced—perfect for desserts like this chocolate cake. Chestnut flour contains fiber and is also low in fat. (The chestnut loaf at Breadblok happens to be the goop favorite.)
Used as a grain-free alternative, this flour adds flavor and texture to breads and baked goods. It is a very porous flour, so don’t be alarmed if recipes call for a small amount—it’s just that absorbent. Use it in snickerdoodles and pancakes.
Buckwheat is a seed that is a great source of soluble fiber, has a naturally low glycemic index, and is a good source of minerals. It’s very earthy and traditionally used for making Japanese soba noodles, blinis, and crepes.
Millet comes from a small seeded grass and is cultivated around the world. As a flour, millet is dense, highly nutritious, and good for your gut. It adds great crisp texture as rice flour does (in fact, combining millet and rice flour might be the key to the crispiest gluten-free crackers ever), but it has a sweeter, almost cornlike flavor.
Brown, white, or sweet rice flours
In combination with other flours, rice flour creates a great nutritional balance in breads, and the texture provides a nice crust for bread and pizza. It can even be used in gluten-free flour blends for dredging crispy cauliflower nuggets.
Like its cousin tapioca starch, cassava flour is created from the whole cassava root, a longtime staple crop in South America, Asia, and Africa. It has more dietary fiber than tapioca flour and is great for grain-free baking. Cassava brings a distinctive, pleasantly elastic chew that is often missing in gluten-free baking. Use it to make fresh tortillas or pancakes.
Oats are one of the most nutritious grains. Eating fiber-rich oats guarantees a slow release of energy, helping to maintain sugar levels. Oats provide iron and magnesium, and oat fiber feeds your gut cells. Oat flour is one of the easier gluten-free flours to make at home—just blend it up in a food processor. And use the oat flour to add heft and flavor to these sweet potato pancakes.
Sorghum is an ancient grain that comes from India and Africa—jowar roti is a traditional Indian flatbread that uses it. It’s light in color and has a neutral flavor that makes it easy to combine with other flours. In addition to baking, it can be used to make porridge or thicken stews.
A good source of calcium and iron, teff is the smallest of all the grains (like a poppy seed). Teff’s nutty flour can be used to enrich and add flavor to breads. You might have had it in injera, the traditional tender-yet-chewy sour fermented flatbread served in most Ethiopian restaurants. Similar to cassava flour, teff can do a good job mimicking the elasticity of gluten in breads and baked goods.
Quinoa is a good plant-based source of protein and has a high fiber content. It also adds a great grassy, slightly bitter flavor to breads, which can balance out some of the sweetness in pastries like blondies. If you find it a little too bitter, try toasting your quinoa flour to neutralize it a bit. Just spread your quinoa flour on a baking sheet and bake for about an hour in a 300°F oven, checking on it occasionally to prevent burning.