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Gluten-Free Flour

The Myth of “All-Purpose” Gluten-Free Flour and How to Choose the Right One for You

Welcome to the I’m Free Blog! This marks the first of many (hopefully) interesting and informative posts about all things gluten-free. The purpose is to provide information that’s useful to anyone living a gluten-free lifestyle. Yes, there’s a lot of information out there already, but there’s also a lot of misinformation too. So the goal of this blog is to become a trusted source, which the gluten-free community can rely on to educate, entertain, and tell it like it is.

Let’s jump right in.

One of the most important things to get right when baking gluten-free is the flour. I’ve actually created a guide called the 7 Deadly Sins of Gluten Free Baking and using the wrong flour is the first cardinal sin. I recommend you download this guide if you want to learn about other common mistakes in GF baking.

But here’s what you need to know about flour:

Good bread (or any baked good, really) starts with good flour. The flour you use will influence both the taste and the texture of the bread. This is especially true for gluten-free flours, so it is important to make the right choice.

The role of gluten in baking

In order to understand the problems with most gluten-free flours, you need to first learn a bit about the nature of traditional flour. Wheat flour is milled from wheat berries, which contain starches, proteins, and fats. The primary proteins in wheat flour are glutenin and gliadin. Glutenin provides most of the strength and elasticity in dough, allowing it to bounce back after it is stretched. Gliadin, on the other hand, provides the stretch.

On their own, glutenin and gliadin are just lifeless strands wrapped around granules of starch. But they transform when they come in contact with water, a process known as hydration. Once wet, the protein molecules link up with one another and form long elastic chains called gluten.

These gluten strands combine to form a network that traps swollen starch granules and gas bubbles produced by yeast or chemical leaveners. This network stretches as the batter or dough rises and then solidifies, giving the finished bread or other baked good its structure and “chew” (texture).

Several factors can affect gluten development. One is the flour itself. Bread flour is typically milled from high-protein wheat, which is capable of developing more gluten and thus better structure. The result is ideal for chewy artisan bread. Cake flour, on the other hand, is made from low-protein wheat, so it produces less gluten, which is perfect for tender cakes. Traditional all-purpose flours typically fall in between the two in terms of protein content.

Gluten development is also affected by the amount of water present. The more water that a dough or batter contains, the stronger and more elastic the gluten will be. This additional strength and elasticity produce airier bread, with an interior hole structure that professional bakers refer to as a “good crumb.”

A third factor is the mixing time of the dough or batter—the longer it’s mixed, the more gluten forms. That’s why cake or muffin batter is gently stirred until it’s just combined, whereas bread dough is kneaded extensively.

No such thing as “all-purpose” gluten-free flour

Perhaps you’ve seen, or have even bought, “all-purpose” gluten-free flour. Seems convenient, right? Unfortunately, it’s a marketing ploy, as there is simply no one-size-fits-all solution. If you want to remove wheat flour from your favorite recipe, you need to think about the role that flour is playing in the recipe in order to choose the right substitute. Remember that wheat flour contains both protein and starch. That means that the appropriate substitute will vary, because some recipes rely on one but not the other.

In baking, the main role of gluten is to provide structure. Finding an alternative to replicate this structure is especially challenging because most gluten-free flours contain less protein than wheat, so they don’t do as good a job of holding the starch granules or trapping air bubbles. The proteins that they do contain are also generally less elastic than gluten. So, in order to replace wheat flour with a lower- protein option, like rice flour, you must boost the effectiveness of that protein (which you’ll learn about in a future post).

No beans, please

Many gluten-free cookbooks advocate the use of bean flours, like those made from garbanzo or fava beans, because beans are high in protein. The major problem with this approach is that these flours have a distinctive beany flavor. Not that there is anything wrong with the taste of beans, but it is an odd and unexpected flavor to encounter in baked bread. And when it’s used in sweet baked goods, it is so out of place that it can be downright … well, disgusting. So, unless you’re looking to make bean cookies or bean bread, I recommend you steer clear of bean flours and commercial mixes that contain them for your baking.

Down to the nitty-gritty

Another common substitute for wheat flour is rice flour, which has a more neutral taste than bean flour but isn’t perfect by itself either. Rice flour has less protein than wheat flour and much higher starch content. This can lead to that gritty mouthfeel that people tend to associate with many gluten-free baked goods.

But that may not be the only reason your baked goods taste gritty. It could also be due to the texture of the flour itself. If the rice isn’t finely ground, you’re left with coarse granules that you’ll be able to feel when you bite into the bread. Not only that, but the coarser the flour, the less liquid and fat it is able to absorb. This can lead to a mushy texture and an unpleasant greasy feel in the finished product. While this is true of both white and brown rice flours, the problem is potentially worse with brown rice because it also contains bran, making it coarser and therefore grittier. Brown rice also has a short shelf life and can impart an unwelcome earthy flavor to bread.

In summary, if you want the right gluten-free flour, make sure it has a neutral taste and the right balance of protein and starch, and that it is ground sufficiently fine.

I hope you found this to be helpful. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments below. Love to hear from you!

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Christopher Anderson

Publisher at I'm Free
Chris is a an entrepreneur and co-owner of several specialty food businesses.
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