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Every week, Shauna Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef -- and Gluten-Free Girl Everyday -- will be sharing smart tips and smarter recipes that will please even the most devout gluten-eaters among us. Come one, come all -- we're going flourless.
Today: Shauna shows us that grain-free baking is possible, and introduces us to the ingredients we'll need to do it well.
If we break it down, flour actually means a grain ground down into a powder -- which means there are many possibilities for baking without gluten. There’s sorghum flour, millet flour, oat flour, sweet rice flour, corn flour, and teff flour, and that's just to name a few.
But even other grains are hard for some people, too; I’ve heard from quite a few people whose systems can’t seem to tolerate sorghum. Even though a number of companies have taken the care to grow and sell certified gluten-free oats, a good number of people react to the protein in oats as though it's gluten. There are folks with rice allergies, some with corn intolerances, and some whose systems react to teff as though it’s a foreign object. Some people have come to understand that their bodies cannot tolerate any grains at all.
Enter a new challenge: how do you bake not only gluten-free, but grain-free as well?
The Nut Flours
The answer is grain-free flours -- and they're everywhere. Think about nut flours first: almond flour is made from blanched raw almonds pulverized into a fine flour. (Almond meal is just a coarser grind than almond flour.) Julia Child’s Chocolate and Almond Cake -- oh heavens, yes! -- calls for 2/3 cup of almond flour and 1/2 cup of cake flour. Can’t eat gluten or grain flour? Replace that cake flour with more almond flour. The cake might be a bit denser, but you've just made it your own -- you've made it new. Almond flour makes amazing tart crusts, too, especially when you combine it with chopped dates, shredded coconut, and a little butter or coconut oil. Seriously -- who’s going to turn that down?
I like hazelnut flour when I’m baking anything with chocolate. You can buy hazelnut flour, but it costs a fortune and goes rancid quickly -- so I make my own. All you need is fresh hazelnuts, a good food processor or blender, and some patience. Play with all the nuts you like for grain-free baking; how about walnut flour, sunflower seed flour, or pecan flour? Think about the flavors you want to build and choose the flour by the taste of the nuts you have on hand.
If you want to move beyond nut flours, consider the starches. Potato starch is the dried starch from potatoes, and potato flours come from dehydrated potatoes that are ground down into a flour. (Potato starch and potato flour are very different -- and you should start slow with potato flour. It has an intense potato-y taste.) Tapioca starch (also known as tapioca flour) is the starch extracted from the tuber known as manioc, cassava, or tapioca. Arrowroot powder is the starch that comes from the arrowroot plant, native to South America. In supermarkets, it’s often sold at exorbitant rates in the spice section. Order it in bulk online and it’s a new, affordable flour for your grain-free pantry.
Amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa are all considered pseudo-cereals, or plants whose seeds can be ground into flour but are not true grasses like wheat or teff. Some folks who avoid grains avoid these pseudo-cereals as well, while others consider them beneficial for their diet. Before you bake anything for someone who is grain-free, ask if buckwheat crepes are a safe breakfast. If yes, you have your go-ahead.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to play with baking that don’t involve grains. Start combining flours for taste, and see what happens. Make a recipe your own. Lately, I've been baking with a combination I love: finely ground almond flour, buckwheat flour, and arrowroot powder. The warm, nutty flavor of the first two flours -- combined with the way the starch in the arrowroot lightens up the density of the almond flour -- makes for some mighty fine muffins.
Don’t let the idea of baking without grains stop you from playing. After all, it’s fun to prove preconceptions wrong, right?
Top photos by Shauna Ahern, bottom photo by James Ransom