Mention “flour,” and I think of the stuff made from wheat. But if cooks don’t live in a wheat-cultivating region–or can’t eat wheat products–they rely on flour milled from rice, nuts, beans and other raw ingredients.
Many of those so-called “specialty” products are going mainstream, thanks to the growing ranks of consumers diagnosed with celiac disease (also known as gluten intolerance). The gluten-free market is projected to balloon to $6.6 billion in sales by 2017.
I’m not gluten intolerant, but I appreciate the increased availability of intriguing new ingredients turning up on supermarket shelves, in health-food store bulk bins and, as always, tucked away in ethnic markets.
But there's a caveat to using these flours: The gluten in wheat flour gives baked goods structure, so you can’t simply swap out wheat flour for gluten-free flours in recipes and expect the same results. If you’re gluten intolerant you’d use a blend of gluten-free ingredients (or pick up a box of gluten-free baking mix) to mimic the qualities of wheat flour. Others without intolerance can sub some of the wheat flour in a recipe with one of these specialty flours (The Cook’s Thesaurus has a great guide to subbing specialty for wheat flours).
Here are three types of specialty flours. Please note: these are ideas for cooks like me, who aren’t gluten intolerant but are curious about what these ingredients can bring to our cooking. If you have celiac disease, check out Shauna James Ahern’s blog Gluten-Free Girl and The Chef.
These have a finer texture than nut meals, but they can be used in many recipes that call for nut meal. Almond flour is the most common type, but you’ll also see flour made with hazelnuts and chestnuts. They have a high fat content and can go rancid quickly, so store them in the freezer.
Try it: These flours add deep, nutty flavor and moisture to baked goods. Substitute for up to a quarter of the all-purpose flour. Nut flours also are a tasty way to thicken sauces.
Rice flour can be milled from white, brown, red or any variety of rice, and it has a long tradition throughout Asia, from India to Japan. Brown rice flour has a nutty quality whereas white rice flour is more neutral.
Try it: Rice flour lends baked goods a crumbly texture, which you can use to your advantage–in shortbread, for instance, which should be crumbly, or to create a tender crumb in cakes. Substitute rice flour for a quarter of the all-purpose flour in baked goods. Use starchy Japanese mochiko (made from glutinous short-grain rice) as a thickener.
Visit any Indian market and you’ll be blown away by the variety of flours milled from beans and other legumes, which are used in baked goods. These days, you’ll find chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour in many supermarkets, too. Bean flours add and earthy, well, beany flavor to food.
Try it: I used chickpea flour to make this socca, a Provencal street-food snack. It’s also a key ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking for falafel and is ideal for making a super-smooth hummus. As with nut flour, bean flour is a terrific to thicken a sauce. Robin Asbell's terrific new book, Big Vegan, uses chickpea flour in a number of creative ways, including a sauce for terrific vegan mac ‘n' “cheese.”
There’s a whole world of wheat flours, too, and we’ve tackled in The Whole Story on Whole Wheat Flours. In the meantime, try this simple socca. Viva la France!