So you kiss all things wheat and grains goodbye. And you’ve come to learn that gluten-free foods made with replacement flours like cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato flour, and rice starch are incredibly unhealthy, since they make visceral fat grow, send blood sugar through the roof, and contribute to diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
But perhaps you’d sure like a few muffins or cookies once in a while . . . without paying the health price that follows wheat and grain consumption such as high blood sugar, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune conditions, acid reflux, and increased potential for dementia.
What “flours”–-non-wheat and without gluten-free junk carbohydrates–-are truly safe and provide reasonable baking characteristics? Here’s my list, the flours I use in my recipes:
Almond meal—Also called just “ground almonds,” the meal ground from whole almonds is versatile and yields a great texture, though heavier than that from conventional flours. Shop around, as prices vary widely. Where I live (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), I can pay anywhere from $4 to $18.99 per pound from local grocery stores.
Almond flour—Almond flour refers to flour ground from blanched almonds that may or may not have had the excess oil pressed from it. This yields a finer flour but minus much of the fiber. It is also more costly. I therefore reserve the use of almond flour for dishes where a lighter texture is required, e.g., layer cake.
Ground pecans—A coarser meal than that from almonds, ground pecans can be used in place of almond meal or flour. Ground pecans are my preferred choice to create pie crusts. Anyone allergic to almonds may find ground pecans useful.
Ground walnuts—Similar to ground pecans, ground walnuts are coarser and best used as pie crust or in recipes in which a coarse texture is acceptable, e.g., scones. As with ground pecans, ground walnuts may be useful for almond-allergic individuals.
Coconut flour—The flour ground from coconut meat has a wonderful taste and scent (surprisingly not coconutty, for those of you who do not like coconut). However, it yields an exceptionally dense and hygroscopic (water-absorbing) product. It is so water-absorbent that it can even become lodged in the throat if used as the sole flour. I therefore prefer to use it–-for both texture and safety-–as a secondary flour to modify the taste and texture of a primary flour, such as almond meal, and to add structure to the final product. Typically, I use 8-12 parts almond meal to no more than 1 part coconut flour, e.g., 2 1/2 cups almond meal + 1/4 cup coconut flour.
Ground golden flaxseed—It’s the golden flaxseed you want, not the more common brown, when you desire a flour replacement. The golden yields a finer texture. Used by itself, the ground golden flaxseed tends to be too crumbly, so it is best used as a secondary flour along with almond meal or other nut meal.
Pumpkin seed meal—Easy to grind, pumpkin seed meal is dense and oil-rich and thereby tends to yield a denser end-product.
Sesame seed meal—Sesame seeds yield a surprisingly light flour. I’ve been making sesame seed crackers with ground sesame meal, whole sesame seeds, mustard powder, onion powder, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to dip in hummus–wonderful. Buy your sesame seeds in bulk, not the costly small quantities in the spice aisle. Also, choose the lighter, not black, varieties.
Sunflower seed meal—Like pumpkin seed meal, sunflower seed meal yields an oil-rich and dense flour replacement. It also confers a unique green color, perfectly healthy and due to chlorophyll, just like spinach or broccol; avoiding use of baking soda or baking powder reduces this tendency.
Garbanzo bean flour—While legumes tend to be high in carbohydrates, garbanzo bean (AKA “chickpea”) is among the lowest of the various bean flours available. Yeah, sure, there’s the phytate anti-nutrient issue with garbanzo beans, but if consumed occasionally as a flour it is not a practical concern. Like coconut flour, I find garbanzo bean flour useful as a “lightening” flour to make nut flours a bit lighter and less dense.
Chia seeds and meal–Use chia, either whole or ground, when a very dense end-product is acceptable. Given its great absorptive capacity, chia will also increase need for liquid and sweeteners. (I actually find chia most useful in smoothies and making jams, less useful for baking, but I list it here for completeness.)
There are indeed many other flours and meals you can purchase or grind yourself, but I’ve crossed those off the list for a variety of reasons, such as the unacceptably high carbohydrate content of chestnut flour, teff flour, amaranth flour, and sorghum flour (not to mention that the latter three are grains with problems beyond carb content).
And don’t sweat the linoleic acid/omega-6 content of these flours. Contrary to some silly conversations that circulate online, complete avoidance of omega-6 oils is unhealthy, even fatal, as they are essential for human life. We just need to avoid the grotesque overexposure to omega-6 fatty acids that develops when you use oils such as safflower and corn oil while consuming modern processed foods made with these oils. The modest omega-6 exposure in, say, almond meal that is mostly monounsaturated fats with some omega-6 oils, adds to the modest omega-6 quantities from meats and other foods, but does not result in overexposure. Have your three egg omelet, for instance, with olive oil, spinach, and mushrooms, some bacon or sausage, followed by a couple of grain-free chocolate chip cookies. You’ve obtained saturated fats (which we do not avoid), monounsaturated fats, and some omega-6s, and you will come out just fine.