The wheat-free wagon

Non-wheat flours

April 18, 2008

As a companion piece to an earlier Culinate 8 on wheat flours, here’s a look at eight other types of flour. A couple of these flours are good options if you’re gluten-intolerant or allergic to wheat; all are good if you’re just looking to broaden the range of whole grains you eat on a regular basis. All of these flours are a pleasure to bake with once you’ve identified their best qualities and shortcomings.

The eight flours below may be high in protein, but most are short on gluten. Some are also high in fat, so purchase them in small amounts or store them in the freezer to prevent them from turning rancid.

  1. barley
    Barley comes in several forms, whole pearl barley being the most familiar. A good wheat-free option, barley is low in fat and high in antioxidants and fiber. Mild-tasting barley flour is an excellent candidate for surreptitiously boosting whole-grain goodness in your baking. Plus, it has the distinct advantage of mimicking the buttery, fatty mouthfeel we expect from baked goods.

    Barley flour is low in gluten and must be combined with wheat flour. Substitute barley flour for up to 50 percent of the flour called for in your recipes for cookies, pancakes, and items requiring less structure. For higher-rising baked goods, like cakes and quick breads, substitute 25 percent barley for wheat.

    Uses: Scones, quick breads, and pancakes; cakes and cookies; pie crust.
  2. kamut
    Kamut is actually a brand name for the grain believed to be conventional wheat’s Egyptian ancestor. Also known as QK-77 and khorasan, kamut is related to durum wheat. Kamut can be agreeable to gluten-intolerant individuals, but those with celiac disease or wheat allergies should steer clear.

    Kamut grains are larger, sweeter, and higher in protein than today’s wheat, making the flour a solid substitute in recipes calling for whole wheat. Substitute equal parts of kamut for whole-wheat flour.

    Uses: Bread, pasta dough, and crackers; cakes and cookies; muffins, quick breads, and biscuits.
  3. spelt
    Because it’s missing phenolic acid, the element in wheat’s bran layer that makes it bitter, spelt is mild in flavor. Smooth, sweet, and nutty, spelt has four times the fiber of wheat and is rich in manganese and B-complex vitamins. With 40 percent more protein, spelt is capable of producing more gluten than wheat, making it unsuitable for those with wheat allergies.

    Although it’s plentiful, spelt’s gluten is more delicate, causing it to absorb liquids quickly, then release them just as readily. This is easily remedied by resting cookie doughs or cake and quick-bread batters before baking.

    Uses: Pizza crust, foccacia, and flatbreads; cakes and cookies; muffins, pancakes, and quick breads.
  4. quinoa
    Until recently, quinoa was only consumed whole. Quinoa is the most nutritionally rich grain, boasting up to 20 percent protein balanced with amino acids. It’s also full of iron and fiber. Quinoa flour has more fat than wheat, which lends a moist mouthfeel to its slightly grassy flavor. It’s a great choice for those who eat gluten-free.

    Substitute up to 50 percent quinoa flour for all-purpose flour, or entirely for whole-wheat flour.

    Uses: Cookies and cakes, pancakes.
  5. corn kernels
    Corn adds a sweet, nutty flavor to everything from fritters to shortbread cookies. When ground to varying degrees, from coarse meal to fine flour, corn is a good source of vitamin A, manganese, and potassium, but has less protein than wheat.

    Cornmeal and corn flour have no gluten, but can be paired with wheat flour to add lightness, lift, and structure to baked goods. Both work well as the only grain in tortillas, flatbreads, and pancakes.

    Uses: Good for sweet and savory applications: bread, pizza dough, waffles, muffins, and crackers.
  6. rolled oats
    Most people find the vaguely sweet, nutty flavor of oats appealing and soothing. With twice the protein of wheat or corn flakes, oats are a nutritional powerhouse. Oat flour contains 17 percent protein and can be substituted for as much as one-third of the wheat flour in bread recipes. It also works well in smaller amounts, in cake and cookie recipes that call for creaming butter and sugar. Remember what Wilford Brimley said: “It’s the right thing to do and the tasty way to do it.”

    Uses: Bread, some cakes and cookies.
  7. rice
    Milled rice is a traditional ingredient in the foods of other cultures — rice cakes, noodles, drinks, and spring-roll wrappers. Because it is slow to absorb liquid, bread bakers use it to prevent sticking when forming loaves. Rice flour has no gluten, so it must be combined with another flour and should represent no more than 5 percent of the total flour used. When used with wheat flour, it adds a sandy quality characteristic of crackers and shortbread.

    Uses: Pancakes, shortbread, crackers.
  8. chickpeas
    Legume flours, including pea, bean, chickpea, and lentil flours, can be used to add flavor and nutrients to many dishes. Use black-bean, chickpea, or green-pea flour to make tortillas or crackers. Flours made from neutrally flavored white beans, pea beans, and navy beans can be substituted for 5 to 15 percent of the flour in your recipe without affecting quality or flavor. They produce especially soft bread because they are very finely ground and contain no gluten-forming proteins.

    Uses: Bread, crackers, tortillas, soup bases.

Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by Carrie Floyd on Apr 18, 2008 at 10:29 AM PDT

Thanks, Ellen, for demystifying alternative-to-white flours. A few questions: I recently went to buy spelt flour and was confused by the choices—there was white spelt flour and spelt flour. Is there a difference or is this just a marketing maneuver? Also, where do you find barley flour? I’ve looked for it in both the bulk and baking sections of two different stores but have yet to find it. And, finally, how easy is it to make your own flours out of these grains? What happens when you put barley or quinoa in a food processor or blender? I imagine loud, harsh sounds with the first, and absolutely nothing with the second—yes, no?!

2. by janice on Apr 18, 2008 at 11:54 AM PDT

Woah, there. Barley is NOT gluten-free. Yummy, but not GF, so not safe for people with celiac. Ditto for rye flour.

3. by Kim on Apr 18, 2008 at 2:58 PM PDT

Thanks, janice; we stand corrected. I’ve removed the line that said barley was gluten-free.

4. by cindy mason on Nov 28, 2010 at 8:46 PM PST

HI, I would also add buckwheat! Its great flour for scones, pancakes, and I’ve made flatbreads as well. Its actually a grass, so is a great substitute for celiac/allergy folks. I often use coconut oil or olive oil in my baking, I would suggest either an extra egg or a bit more oil.

5. by anonymous on Feb 19, 2011 at 2:17 PM PST

Thanks, but you start by talking about people who are allergic to wheat or gluten, and then for most or all of the flours you say to substitute this or that percentage of wheat flour by a different flour. That will not help someone who is allergic. I think you should somehow remedy this inconstancy. Maybe say which can be used without wheat, or how, or maybe just provide a link.

6. by anonymous on Mar 9, 2011 at 1:41 PM PST

I am looking forward to the answer to #5.

7. by Ellen on Mar 9, 2011 at 2:33 PM PST

Thanks for your observation. This article was not intended to specifically address baking options for individuals who are allergic or intolerant, but to cast light on lesser known whole grains that can be using to boost flavor and nutrition in baked goods. There are loads of good books out there on gluten free baking and resources far more informed than myself when it comes to achieving the nuances of texture and mouthfeel most of us look for in baked goods without using traditional wheat flours. I’d recommend Karen Morgan’s Blackbird Bakery Gluten Free Baking Book. Perhaps others will chime in with their favorites.

8. by Kim on Mar 9, 2011 at 2:39 PM PST

Anonymous: Thanks for pointing this out. We’ve amended the article to say that a couple of the flours are good options for people with wheat allergies (corn and quinoa). But all of the flours are good for those without wheat allergies who simply want more variety. For more information on baking with gluten-free flours, we recommend you check out the recipes at Gluten Free Girl and the Chef.

9. by anonymous on Apr 9, 2011 at 11:42 AM PDT

A few more errors? As a wheat-allergic individual without celiac, I am able to eat spelt without reaction. I’m wondering what the range really is of people who can/can’t, same with kamut.

10. by anonymous on Feb 9, 2013 at 1:19 PM PST

Barley, kamut (or more correctly, Khorasan wheat), and spelt are all Triticum grains. They all contain gliadin and therefore cause reaction, albeit not necessarily every type of grain in every individual.

I was diagnosed with wheat intolerance over forty years ago and cannot even eat oats that aren’t certified gluten-free, nor can I have wheat starch, so the point is not gluten, it’s wheat.

Every body is different. Medical science just hasn’t figured that out yet. One size does not fit all.

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