Some people keep a list of every book they read. I keep a list of all the flours I use.
Wheat flour is not exactly passé—but a baker who uses it exclusively is an artist with half a paint box. Whether you are gluten-free, grain-free, seeking a healthier diet, or just curious and hungry, new flours can transform and enhance your baking with brushstrokes of colors, flavors, and textures, often with a nutrient boost in the bargain.
Our most familiar flours are made from whole, ancient, or pseudo grains (milled seeds like buckwheat or amaranth, for example), as well as legumes, pulses, and nuts. Since any ingredient that’s dried and pulverized can technically be called flour, new flours are being invented every day. Mesquite pods, arcane tubers, insects, fruits, vegetables, grape skins—all are flours now! Some flours fit our expectation of flour as the main ingredient in baked goods, others are more like flavor powders or additives, and meant to be used sparingly for extra flavor, fiber, nutrients—or even just mystique. Exciting but confusing, right?
Flours are not necessarily interchangeable with each other. Some (like insect and sweet potato flours) have little in common other than particle size. Unrelated flours may or may not work in the same way in the same recipes. How do we even begin to sort and navigate this brave new world?
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My solution—and the way my co-author and I approached our book, Flavor Flours—was to experiment flour-by-flour and recipe-by-recipe, looking for common behavior patterns. We focused exclusively on flours that can be used as main ingredient flours: grains and pseudo grains and nuts—and these same categories remain helpful even as the universe of flours explodes with new entries.
When I encounter a new flour, I sort it based on what it’s made of (by reading the label!), how it feels, smells, and tastes, right out of the bag. Reading, touching, sniffing, and tasting tells me whether the flour can be a main ingredient, whether it’s a nut flour (or will behave like one), or whether it’s more of a flavoring or additive. My goal is always to find the new and delicious—not to duplicate the wheat experience, hide new ingredients, or fool the family into healthier eating. I want the new flour to be the best it can be, sing out, and be a star!
Then, I put the flours to four different tests—the pancake, the sponge cake, the 25%, and the meringue—to find out if I like the taste and texture of the flour and how it actually works in recipes. You don't have to do all four; one or two might suffice, depending on the flour (or your level of desire to bake with it). Don't think of these tests as intimidating; they are more like first dates, to get you acquainted with new flours. You never know what it could lead to. Before we go into the tests, let's get to know the flours, which I have sorted into three categories.
Main Ingredient Flours
These are flours that could be the main ingredient in a recipe. They all feel and taste starchy like wheat flour, and they absorb liquid somewhat similarly. The aromas are gentle. The flavors range from very subtle to quite distinct, but even the latter are not too strong to be the main ingredient in a recipe. Consider this: Rice flour has a delicate flavor; buckwheat has a pronounced flavor; and cricket flour is intense. You could imagine eating a cake or cookie make entirely of rice or buckwheat flour (assuming you like buckwheat), but not one made entirely of cricket flour. Thus, cricket flour does not fit in this category.
Texture: Buckwheat's light crystalline texture may come across as faintly gritty in baked goods. Overmixing can cause it become gelatinous, mushy, or slimy, so be careful.
Good in: Pancakes, waffles and crêpes; butter cookies; spice cookies, gingerbread, and other spice cakes; crackers
Flavor affinities: walnuts, toasted hazelnuts, dried fruit, dark spice, coffee, brown sugar, fresh figs, honey, yogurt, sour cream, maple syrup, blackberries, plum preserves, pumpkin
Chestnut flour is listed here, rather than in the nut flour category, because chestnuts are soft and starchy, unlike other nuts—and thus make a soft, starchy flour that might star in a cake.
Texture: Soft, starchy, and tender in baked goods, more like oat flour than any other nut flour
Good in: Cookies, all kinds of sponge cakes, pound cakes, meringues
Flavor affinities: Honey; hazelnuts, walnuts, or pine nuts; dark or white chocolate; brandy or cognac and Grand Marnier; sweet fortified wines such as sherry and marsala; caramel; ricotta, mascarpone, crème fraiche, and sour crème; cinnamon; coffee; figs; ginger; maple; prunes and plums; pears and apples; orange zest; brown sugar.
This is a whole grain and gluten-free flour, like cornmeal but finely milled.
Texture: Slightly grainy or gritty, often in a good way
Good in: Pancakes and waffles; biscuits and scones; crispy or crunchy cookies; stunning chiffon cake (mixed with rice flour); fritters; seedy crackers; cobbler topping
Flavor affinities: butter; dark and intense fruits, both fresh and dried; aromatics including aniseeds, herbs, and citrus zests; rum; pistachios and almonds; maple; honey
Don't assume this is interchangeable with brown rice flour (flavor-wise) or sweet rice flour (texture-wise), which is the main ingredient in mochi (wonderful in this chocolate snack cake or this matcha and coconut bar. Rice flour is very subtle and slightly floral, with notes of fresh cream.
Texture: Depending on the baked good, it could be gummy or gritty. Finding the right type of recipe, or mixing it with a small portion of another type of flour, or making sure that the flour is adequately hydrated in the batters and baked at the right temperature, are all key to success with rice flour.
Good in: Stunning in chiffon cake; excellent in a genoise; makes good wafers called tuiles; a terrific partner for other flours.
Flavor affinities: Rice flour accentuates all other flavors in a recipe, even the milk, butter, and eggs, and definitely assertive flavors like chocolate or citrus. You can also use it to tone down other, more aggressive flours (like cricket flour).
Whole grain and gluten-free (but check the label to see if it's been processed near non-gluten free flours), oat flour has notes of butterscotch.
Texture: Very soft and tender, without any graininess
Good in: Genoise; cookies such as chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies (duh), and ginger cookies; apple crisp; crispy wafers (tuiles). A small amount mixed with white rice flour adds complexity to the latter. A little oat flour can also soften the texture of grainier flours (like brown rice flour).
Flavor affinities: Nuts; brown sugar; caramel; honey; maple sugar; butter; fresh apples; blueberries; bananas; pears; figs and dates; raisins and prunes; cinnamon and nutmeg; yogurt, cream, and mascarpone; coconut; coffee; vanilla.
Whole grain and gluten-free, sorghum flour is often described as neutral, with nuances of wheat, oats, and corn (but without corn's bitter notes).
Good in: Brownies; flourless chocolate cake; chocolate genoise; chocolate
cookies; spice cakes and fruitcakes; cocoa crêpes; seedy crackers
Flavor affinities: Nuts, chocolate, dark fruits, aromatic seeds
Nut Flours and Shredded Coconut
These flours can be main ingredient flours in some recipes, accessory flours in others. Nut flours are simply finely ground nuts. The European baking repertoire is full of rich and elegant tortes and pastries and cookies made with nut flours—formerly called nut meal or ground nuts rather than nut flours. They are flavorful, crunchy, and edible without cooking. Most are high in fat and lower in carbs than grain flours. Nut flours provide bulk in recipes, but they don’t absorb much liquid, so they don’t swell up and help “glue” a batter together the way grain flours do. We can (famously) get away with swapping nut flour for flour in recipes like brownies—which are meant to be gooey rather than cake-like anyway. Shredded unsweetened coconut (but not coconut flour) behaves somewhat like nut flours in recipes, so it is listed here too.
Flavor: Nut flours taste like the nuts they are made from. Pecans taste like pecans, for example. So use the flour of a nut you enjoy the taste of.
Texture: Nubby and granular
Good in: All kinds of cookies, especially butter cookies, shortbread cookies, and tea cakes; meringues; sponge cakes (seek out nut sponge cake recipes rather than trying to invent them); nut tortes (seek out nut torte recipes). See the 25% rule, below, for how to swap nut flour into recipes with other flours.
Flavor affinities: Fresh and dried fruits; chocolate; spices; all kinds of raw and natural sugars; maple; honey; caramel
Interesting Flours, Best Used as Accessories
These are non-grain flours that are too intense, tricky (downright defiant), or in other ways unsuitable to be a main ingredient—so you can think of them as accessory flours. These may smell and taste strong or intense—right out of the bag—either in a delicious way, like fruit and vegetable flours, or in a...well, just plain intense way, like cricket flour. Some, like grape skin flour, are so intense that they may burn your tongue. They should be used sparingly, more as flavoring or source of fiber or nutrients, than flour in the traditional sense. None behave like grain flours or like nut flours either. They do not pass the pancake test or the sponge cake test, though they may swap for small percentages of flour in a recipe or be a nice addition to meringues (see the meringue test).
Coconut Flour: This is dried coconut with a great deal of the fat removed, then ground into flour. Because so much fat is removed, and coconut is quite fibrous to begin with, the flour is extremely high in fiber—rather like sawdust—and will suck up any moisture it can from any batter you put it in. A little on your tongue will produce a shriveling sensation. With this flour, you can reinvent cardboard (which I have done). The pancake test does not work, nor does the sponge cake test. Use it sparingly and with fingers crossed. Begin by swapping out only 10%-15% of the flour in your recipe. Or find a recipe that someone has already (painstakingly) created with it—you’ll find a superb coconut cookie recipe in Flavor Flours.
Mesquite Flour: Made from dried pods. Based on sniffing and tasting it out of the bag, it is extremely flavorful with yummy notes of smoke and coffee. The 25% rule might apply for some recipes, but I will probably start with 5% to 10%, depending on the recipe. I plan to try the meringue test, use a bit to flavor chocolate chip cookies, and possibly toss a spoonful into a sponge cake.
Cricket and Other Insect Flours: Made from dried toasted crickets (or other insects), these are intensely flavorful and slightly saline. Meant to be used with other flours or to replace a just a portion of the flour in a recipe, I would start with small amounts. Cricket flour may make an unusual (possibly brilliant) savory meringue.
Grape Skin Flour: This flour is extremely tannic—a small amount on your tongue may cause a burning sensation. Grape skin flour adds color, flavor, loads of antioxidants and flavenoids to baked goods. A little goes a long way: recommended usage is 7-10% of the weight of the flour in a recipe.
Fruit and Vegetable Flours: These flours (apple, pumpkin, squash, etc.) are made from dehydrated fruits or vegetables. They taste and smell like concentrated versions of the ingredient they are made from. As deliciously flavorful as they are right out of the bag, they are too intense to use in huge quantities in a recipe, so they need other flours to partner them. I tried the pancake test with pumpkin flour alone and learned that these flours absorb huge amounts of liquid—dehydrated fruits and vegetables just want to rehydrate themselves! My pancake batter was far too thick to adjust with a little milk, and too intense in flavor, too. But the test taught me enough about the flour to improvise a second, successful, batter using a combo of pumpkin flour and rice flour (together, less flour than the recipe called for). The results were delicious.
The Four Tests
The Pancake Test
The pancake test is good for grain and pseudo grain flours (like buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth), and other main ingredient flours. A variation of the test works for nuts and coconut.
Pancakes are the quickest way to taste and appreciate the flavor and texture of any flour in a baked food. Pancakes are thin and more dependent on eggs than gluten for their structure, so you can substitute a variety of gluten-free flours for all-purpose wheat flour. No special recipe is required. Use your regular recipe and simply replace all or part of the flour with the new flour. Let the batter sit for a few minutes so the flour can absorb liquid. Then, if the batter is a bit too thick or thin, adjust it as you would normally—by adding a little more liquid or flour.
The pancake test is a good way to find out if you like the flavor of the flour enough to use it in other recipes and might spark ideas for other recipes. It also shows you how the flour absorbs liquids and whether it bakes with a soft and smooth or grainy texture, all clues which are helpful in making future decisions about use. For example, I have very little experience with garbanzo and lentil flours, but quick mini-batches of pancakes produced tasty pancakes from both. I had to add more flour to thicken the batters—so I learned that these flours do not absorb as much liquid as wheat flour does, which info might help me when I experiment with other recipes. Both pancake textures were moist and creamy inside rather than light and fluffy. Circling back to wheat, you can also make pancakes with whole-wheat flours, including spelt and kamut, and other gluten-containing flours like rye and barley.
For nut flours, the pancake test works differently: Replace flour with an equal amount of nut flour or shredded coconut (not coconut flour), and add half as much white or brown rice flour (for a gluten-free pancake) or all-purpose flour (if gluten is not an issue). Pancakes will be chewy rather than fluffy, but yummy.
The 25% Test
The 25% test is good for most grain (gluten-free or not) or pseudo-grain fours. I suspect it would work with legume and bean flours, too, and it might work with fruit and vegetable flours, and possibly mesquite flour, though I might start more conservatively, swapping only 10% or 15%, for these.
Cakes, cookies, biscuits, muffins—most classic recipe for Western baked goods made with all-purpose wheat flour—depend on the gluten in the wheat flour for their structure. However, most of these recipes will tolerate a 25% (sometimes even more) flour replacement—even if the replacement flour is gluten-free. Replacing 25% of the flour is often enough to transform the flavor of a cake without ruining the texture. If the 25% test works for a specific flour in a specific recipe, you can try increasing the replacement percentage the next time—or not.
For nut flours, the 25% test works a little differently: You can add small amounts of these to baked goods without subtracting flour from the recipe. Or, substitute up to 25% of the flour for about twice as much nut flour. For example, if a cake calls for 4 cups of all-purpose flour, use 3 cups of flour and 2 cups nut flour. Got it?
The Sponge Cake Test
The sponge cake test is good for most grain (gluten-free or not) or pseudo grain fours. (I have no experience making a lentil flour or garbanzo flour sponge, but as of this moment, I plan to try it!)
If you are an avid cake baker open to experimentation (and possible failure), you can experiment with sponge cakes such as genoise and even chiffon cakes. Unlike butter cakes and pound cakes, sponge cakes may tolerate more than a 25% flour swap. This is because sponge cakes get their structure and airy texture more from eggs than gluten. I’ve had success replacing all of the flour in a genoise using the following flours: oat flour, white and brown rice flours, millet flour, wild rice flour, teff flour, chestnut flour, and more. I’ve made chiffon cakes with a white and brown rice flour, as well as a combination of corn and white rice flour. And I’ve made a Passover-style sponge cake with tiger nut flour.
The Meringue Test
The meringue test is good for super flavorful flours that taste strong right out of the bag—even without cooking or baking.
Meringues are delicious with myriad flavorful ingredients folded into them. Grain flours do not get adequately hydrated and cooked in meringues—making for tough meringues that are not very tasty. But nuts, nut flours, and dried coconut flakes are sensational in meringues—other possibilities (on my list to try) are mesquite flour, pumpkin and sweet potato flours, apple flour, and possibly cricket flour. Simply fold a little or a lot of the flour (depending on how intensely flavored it is) into the finished meringue batter, spoon out, and bake as directed for cookies or crispy dessert shells.
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).
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