Walking down the gluten-free aisle in a large supermarket these days, there are often dozens of varieties of gluten-free flour. Google the term and you have what can feel like a neverending list of options.
The choice can be overwhelming, and a fear of getting it wrong often pushes people into buying pricy gluten-free blends, or worse, giving up altogether on baking and opting instead for packaged cakes and biscuits.
This post is going to take some of the mystery out of gluten-free flour. Hopefully, it’ll make it easier for you to work out how to substitute gluten-free flours in your favourite recipes, and help you to narrow down the types of gluten-free flour you buy – which should save you money and tidy up your cupboards (anyone else keep buying new gluten-free varieties to experiment with? My cupboard kinda looks like an explosion in the gluten-free aisle, but yours can be tidy and clutter-free with just a handful of go-to gluten-free flours).
Getting started in gluten free baking can be wayyy confusing. You might be asking:
- Which gluten free flour should I use?
- Do I need to spend on a branded blend, or can I just use an alternative flour, like rice flour or coconut flour?
- Can I just substitute a gluten free flour for wheat flour in a recipe 1:1?
- What on earth are xanthan gum and gaur gum?
- Do I need to measure out a whole bunch of ingredients with scientific precision?
- Why bother? Gluten free cake is never even that good, is it?
I promise you that there is a way to keep gluten free baking simple and delicious.
In this article I’m going to answer all those questions (and more), and guide you through the basics of using gluten-free flour in baking.
Just a quick FYI: My intentions with this blog are to help people who eat vegan & gluten-free. This is not diet, health or nutrition advice. Go and see a qualified medical professional for that sh*t, take care of yourself, & see my full liability policy here.
The beginner’s guide to gluten-free flour
The three main types of gluten-free flour substitute
Firstly, there are three overarching categories of gluten-free substitutions for wheat flour. We’ll explore each type in a bit more detail later, but first let’s take a look at the characteristics (read: pros and cons) of each category:
Pre-mixed gluten-free flour blends
Sold by specialist food companies known for their gluten-free products, like Doves Farm (UK) and Bob’s Red Mill (US) and, increasingly, under supermarket own-brands too. Pre-mixed blends are a blend of gluten-free flours, sold as a single product. Some of these blends are optimised for particular uses (like bread flour or pastry flour).
Pre-mixed gluten-free flour blends are great for convenience – they are essentially a done-for-you solution. Weight for weight, they do tend to come out pricier than other alternatives though, and there’s no scope for tweaking the mix to suit your tastes or the nature of your recipe. Don’t get me wrong, the right pre-mixed blends can be a godsend in a pinch, especially if you’re trying to recreate a favourite from pre-gluten-free days.
This is just one ingredient, used in place of wheat flour. Single-ingredient solutions are generally comprised of one item, ground to a floury consistency, and often called ‘___ flour’ (UK) or ‘___ meal’ (US) (i.e. ground almonds are also known as almond flour or almond meal). Single-ingredient flours can be made from nuts, grains, seeds, legumes, and a bunch of other things – later in this post, I’ll go over which single-ingredient flours I keep on hand. Many single ingredient gluten-free flour substitutions can be bought in supermarkets and health food shops, with a wider variety available online.
Single-ingredient alternatives to flour can seem to be quite cost-effective in comparison to blends BUT be warned that a single ingredient won’t usually stand up as a like-for-like swap for wheat flour. Instead, recipes developed to be gluten-free can utilise the properties of a particular single flour within the recipe (for example, with brownies or blondies, that are at their best when they’re super-moist, developing a recipe using just a heavy, oily flour substitute, like ground nuts, can have great results).
Single-ingredient gluten-free flour substitutions often work out cheaper, but that doesn’t necessarily make them more cost-effective: many a gluten-free bake has been ruined by an inexperienced baker substituting ground rice, nuts or lentils 1:1 for wheat flour.
Multiple ingredient substitutions or homemade blends
These fall somewhere in between the more pricy and inflexible pre-mixed blends, and the not-always-suitable single ingredient substitutions.
Using multiple ingredients to make your favourite bakes gluten-free can be done in one of two ways:
- Mix up a batch of your favourite blend ahead of time (essentially making your very own pre-mixed blend)
- Use multiple ingredients to substitute the flour directly in a recipe
The clear advantage of using multiple ingredient blends is the flexibility: you can use the flours that suit your tastes, the aims of your recipe, and the contents of your cupboards.
Mixing your own blends (whether in batches or directly within a recipe) usually works out cheaper in the long run than shopbought pre-mixed blends, but a higher upfront cost can be offputting when you first start mixing your own (one bag of a single ingredient substitution may cost less, weight for weight than a pre-mixed blend, but 4-6 different single ingredients to make up multiple combinations can get pricy, until you build up a ‘stock’ of different flours).
As with using single-ingredient blends, you do need to have some level of knowledge to mix up your own blend from multiple ingredients (HINT: I’m about to drop some of that knowledge with my own go-to blend, later in this article).
Which gluten-free flour substitute should you use?
So, we’ve explored the properties of each key type of gluten-free flour blend. They each have their own merits (and their own limitations) and, clearly, there is no one ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ type, but rather the best type for each bake.
As a fairly experienced gluten-free baker, the majority of my recipes use a blend of multiple gluten-free flour types, and some are developed with a single flour.
The variety and flexibility that comes from doing it this way make for an eclectic mix of interesting, delicious bakes.
On the other hand, I have an entire cupboard full of different varieties of gluten-free flour, and (thanks to this blog) I have the time and inclination to experiment and tweak blends and recipes until I get it just right. But I know that not everyone has the time, space or energy to bake this way
There are definitely advantages to pre-mixed blends, especially for bakers who are new to gluten-free, or in a rush. I do use pre-mixed blends from time to time, and I’m planning a post which will test the major brands’ signature blends, to find out which is best for recreating recipes that rely on wheat flour.
The answer to which kind of gluten-free flour you should use really depends. What are you baking? How do you want it to turn out? What do you have in your cupboards? Change it up recipe-to-recipe and bake-to-bake, to figure out what works (and read on to get my formula for blending your own).
The single-ingredient gluten-free flours I use most often
What single ingredient substitutions are out there? A fuĺl list would be just about infinite, but here’s a quick overview of the 8 gluten-free flours that I use most frequently, and their key properties:
Ground almonds (or other ground nuts) give a subtle, pleasantly nutty flavour, and can make gluten-free bakes quite moist, thanks to the oiliness of the nuts. For this reason, it is a good idea to slightly reduce the butter or oil in any bake made with ground nuts.
Whether brown or white, ground rice (or rice flour) is a great way to replace the main starchy component of wheat flour. Commonly used in dishes across Asia, ground rice has a pretty neutral flavour and is usually relatively cheap too.
Typically used in Italy to make a kind of porridge, which cools into a thick, heavy loaf, Polenta is essentially coarsely ground corn. Corn flours are also used in a lot of South American cuisines. Perhaps not what you’d first think of as a flour substitute, but when used as a starchy component in gluten-free baking, polenta adds a heaviness that is great for rich cakes that need to hold liquid (like a lemon cake, drizzled with sugary syrup, or a fruit cake, steeped in brandy).
Coconut flour is a great, allergy-friendly alternative to other nut flours, as coconut is not classed as a tree nut, and is usually safe to eat for people with nut allergies. With a slightly stronger flavour than almond flour, that may put some off, coconut flour makes for a much lighter alternative but, as it is much more absorbent, it shouldn’t replace nut flours 1:1.
Despite the name, buckwheat is not a wheat but a seed, and so totally gluten-free. Buckwheat has an earthy flavour, making it a great substitute for wholemeal wheat flour, and is high in protein too. Available as a dark or light roast, be careful to always choose ground buckwheat that is certified gluten-free, as some suppliers (particularly in the US) combine ground buckwheat with wheat flour to make ‘buckwheat flour’, for use in pancakes.
Gram flour, made from ground chickpeas or garbanzo beans, is a staple of Indian and other Asian cooking and can be found in supermarkets quite cheaply and easily. Similarly to other lentil and bean flours, gram flour can have a strong, savoury taste, so isn’t recommended for bakes with a delicate flavour, but their protein content makes for a great addition to gluten-free flour blends for cakes, in small doses.
Potato starch is another fairly neutral-flavoured gluten-free flour, that is good for replacing the main starchy carbohydrate part of wheat flour. Not to be confused with potato flour, which is made from ground, dried potato, and has a very strong, earthy potato flavour.
Originating in South America and the Caribbean, arrowroot is high in carbohydrates and, combined with a high-protein gluten-free flour, makes a good alternative to wheat flour in baking. Like corn flour, arrowroot is also useful as a thickener for sauces and soups.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list – not even close!
A simple formula for multiple ingredient gluten-free flour alternatives
So, back to basics.
Wheat flour is the key ingredient in most traditional western breads and cakes, and makes up much of the ‘structure’ of these baked goods.
Wheat flour is predominantly made up of carbohydrates (in the form of starch) which is about 70% of the total weight of wheat flour, and protein (in the form of gluten), which is around 10-13% of bread flour, and a little less in plain all-purpose or cake flour, more like 9-12%. The remainder is made up of minimal amounts of other components, like moisture, sugar, fibre, and vitamins & minerals.
This means that, to make up a solid gluten-free replacement (one that you can just grab and go to replace wheat flour in recipe 1:1), you need to mimic those properties.
As a rule of thumb, I blend around 2 parts starchy, carbohydrate-based flours to 1 part protein-based flour.
My go-to combination? 1 part (e.g. 50g) ground almonds (protien-based) + 2 parts (e.g. 100g) ground rice (starch-based).
Don’t take that as gospel though: if you understand the properties of different gluten-free flour ingredients, and the desired properties of different bakes (heavy, moist brownies vs. light and fluffy sponges), you can adjust your blend to get the perfect combination for every recipe.
Another reason not to take this as gospel? I’m not a scientist. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m a home baker. I’ve done some research online to back to back up (to the best of my ability) why my go-to combination works so well, but honestly most of my knowledge on the topic comes from personal, kitchen-based experimentation. I know what works and what doesn’t on a practical, ‘this-cake-is-awesome’ Vs. ‘this-cake-is gross’ level, but I struggle somewhat to translate that into adult-sounding, science-based words.
A word on xanthan gum and gaur gum
The protein in wheat flour is gluten, which reacts with water to give us the elasticity needed for baked goods.
Unfortunately for celiacs and other gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant people, gluten also reacts with us, resulting in discomfort, illness and other unpleasant side-effects.
As mentioned in the previous section, to make a good all-purpose gluten-free flour blend, you’ll need a certain amount of protein-containing flour substitute, besides a predominant makeup of starchy carbohydrates.
But (depending on the bake), you may also need something to replace the elasticity provided by gluten. That’s where xanthan gum comes in.
Xanthan gum is produced by fermenting sugars with the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris (hence the name). It is generally agreed that, scientifically, xanthan gum is perfectly safe for normal adults, especially in the minuscule amounts you’ll use in gluten-free baking.
The sugars used to make xanthan gum though, may be derived from wheat or other allergens (like corn), so always make sure to purchase a specifically labelled gluten-free variety.
I know that some people aren’t comfortable with xanthan gum, as it is defined as an additive. That’s okay. A good alternative to xanthan gum is guar gum, which is derived from the guar bean and has similar properties to xanthan gum, you may just need to add a little more for it to have the same effect on your recipes.
Not all gluten-free baking recipes require a gum to bind them, but many do (and many premixed gluten-free flour blends and premade gluten-free baked goods already contain a gum as a binder).
As a rule of thumb, add half a teaspoon of xanthan gum per 120g of the homemade gluten-free flour blend, to bind baked goods, and give them a structure and elasticity more similar to cakes made with wheat flour.
You can learn more, and discover other binding agents, in this post about xanthan gum.
Gluten-free self-raising flour
Now you’ve got a good idea how to make a simple gluten-free flour blend, let’s take it up a notch with gluten-free self-raising flour.
Like plain or all-purpose gluten-free flour, you can buy pre-mixed self-raising gluten-free flour blends from the supermarket, speciality health-food shops or online.
But where’s the fun in that?
You can ‘hack’ any gluten-free flour blend (pre-mixed or of your own invention) to make it self-raising in the same way you would make self-raising wheat flour: add baking powder and a little salt.
Specifically, add around 1.5 tsp. baking powder + 0.25 tsp. salt for every 120g of the gluten-free flour blend.
Obviously, this varies somewhat recipe-to-recipe, depending on the required rise and flavour profile.
As with xanthan gum, make sure to select a certified gluten-free baking powder, as some varieties and brands are made with wheat flour as a thickening agent.
How to save money on gluten-free flour
Baking with gluten-free flour does, inevitably, cost somewhat more than baking with wheat flour.
But you gotta do what you gotta do: if you can’t or don’t eat gluten, then gluten-free flours are the only way you’ll be able to bake and enjoy cakes and other baked goods.
So how can you keep costs down?
First, its good to experiment, but you definitely don’t need to go out and buy ten different varieties of flour right now.
Find a blend you like, and keep the component ingredients on hand by looking out for offers and buying in bulk, or buying cheaply online (I buy most of my gluten-free flour ingredients on Amazon).
Then, if you want to experiment, buy other varieties whenever you see them at a great price.
To sum up: there are three key types of gluten-free flour: pre-mixed blends, single-ingredient flours, and multiple-ingredient, or homemade blends. You’ve had a brief overview of some of the most commonly used single-ingredient gluten-free flours, and I’ve given you my go-to formula for homemade gluten-free flour blends.
Getting the right mix is tricky. You need a blend that’s in your price-point, with a balanced mix of ingredients that make up something similar to wheat flour, without being overly complex or requiring a novel-length shopping list.