Against the grain: a guide to gluten-free flours

Against the grain: a guide to gluten-free flours

by Howard Middleton 19 February 2016

Howard Middleton describes the differences between gluten-free flour alternatives and learn which ones to use in your baking.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients. He now demonstrates his creative approach to gluten-free baking at numerous food festivals and shows and by teaching baking classes around the country, including at corporate events, commercial promotions and private parties. Howard continues to entertain audiences as a public speaker, compere and broadcaster.

Many people ask me if you can just replace standard wheat flour with gluten-free flours in a recipe. The short answer is no. Whilst the commercial gluten-free flour blends (usually a mix of rice, potato and tapioca) can make a pretty good stab at sitting in for wheat flour (as long as you add extra liquid), they’re really only part of the picture. It’s a bit like asking Dame Edna to stand in for Her Majesty (or vice versa) – better to accept that these are very different characters and celebrate their uniqueness.

To get on well with gluten-free flours you need to understand their individual qualities and personalities. Whilst some – like rice, potato and oat – are good all-rounders, others have a supporting role and some are best used in small doses for added interest. Here are a few of the key players.

The all-rounders

Rice flour

Reliable rice is the staple in many a gluten-free bake, providing a good all-purpose base from which to build. White rice flour is widely available and brown rice flour is becoming more so. Some people complain that rice flour has a slightly dry, gritty texture. It’s never really bothered me, though I do find it can be a little overly ‘ricey’ on its own. Try combining with something like ground almonds or desiccated coconut to make a delicious cake and douse with a fruity sugar syrup for extra moistness. Rice flour also makes a great batter, as any tempura fan will tell you.

Potato flour

Often called potato starch, this is a good partner for rice flour in gluten-free baking blends. It’s regularly used in Scandinavian recipes, where its starchy quality provides extra crispness in biscuits like the Swedish butter biscuits uppåkra. Loyal to potato flour’s cultural heritage, I buy a brand called Kokkens Potatismjöl for the simple pleasure of being able to sound like the Muppets’ Swedish chef. I probably need to get out more.

Corn flour

This ubiquitous thickener is so commonplace that many fail to realise it literally is flour made from corn. In its familiar finely ground form (what Americans call corn starch) it combines well with rice flour to make a beautifully light fatless sponge cake or Swiss roll. It’s also good mixed with its coarser relative polenta in a fruity upside down cake. Yellow corn flour (or maize flour) is less starchy and is an essential ingredient in tortillas and corn breads.

Gram flour
Gram flour is used to make onion bhajis
Oat flour
Oats are a well-loved addition to all sorts of bakes

Gram flour

Also known as besan, ground chickpeas produce a rich, golden flour that’s great for absorbing moisture. Traditionally used in Indian dishes, such as the batter for onion bhajis, it’s also found in south European and North African dishes like the pancakes known as socca or farinita. It’s now my favourite flour for making savoury sauces and gravies and it makes a very tasty cheesy biscuit, but in a carrot cake it truly shines. Combine gram’s earthy flavour with nuts and cinnamon, dried pineapple or apricots soaked in orange juice (not forgetting the grated carrots, of course) and you have the start of something truly (gr)ambrosial.


If you’re used to rubbing butter into ordinary wheat flour to make biscuits or pastry, you’ll immediately notice a difference here – tapioca squeaks. It feels very different and it sounds (to me anyway) like boots on fresh fallen snow. Extracted from the cassava root, it’s native to Brazil where it turns up in pão de queijo, which loosely translates as cheesy bread. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s good for adding crustiness to gluten-free bakes.

Oat flour

Tapioca flour feels very different and it sounds (to me anyway) like boots on fresh fallen snow.

Howard Middleton

Oats are naturally gluten-free but were, until recently, off limits because of cross-contamination from production processes. Gluten-free oat products are now widely available (look out for ones specifically labelled as such), though sadly some people are still sensitive to them. Coeliac UK says this is a very small number, though that’s little comfort if you’re one of them. Oat flour is impressively versatile – ideal in breads and tea loaves and perfect with its porridgey pals like fruit and honey or with the oatcake’s cheeseboard chums.

Nut flours

Ground almonds are such a mainstay of baking that it’s hard to think of them as a flour, but essentially that’s what they are. Some manufacturers are now marketing ground almonds as almond flour and there are apparently ‘cold-pressed’ and ‘fat-reduced’ versions available. It’s pretty easy to make cakes and biscuits with ground almonds as the sole floury ingredient, but invest in a nut grinder and you’ll be able to experiment with lots of other different varieties.

The assistants

Millet flour

Beloved by budgies, millet has more to offer than just birdseed. Its different varieties appear in African, Indian and Far Eastern dishes. In baking, millet flour is particularly helpful with crumb texture, so it’s very good in pastries and scones.

Coconut flour

Incredibly absorbent, coconut flour can tend to ‘tighten’ bakes, so use it sparingly. It works well in biscuits and in small quantities will help bind pastry without imparting a distinct coconut flavour.

Quinoa flour

Once the trendy grain of salads and pilafs – the gluten-free alternative to couscous and bulgar wheat – quinoa now appears in a variety of forms, from breakfast flakes and pops to chips for snacking. Quinoa flour has a fairly strong nutty flavour that adds interest to gluten-free bread and sweet or savoury pastry.

Flaxseed meal

Prepare to swoon as flaxseed flexes its culinary muscles before your very eyes. Marvel as it replaces eggs in vegan recipes, adds nutritional benefits to your breakfast bars and still manages to find time for a weekly Zumba class. It will never be a lead player, but it provides admirable support.

Hemp flour
Hemp flour packs a punch and has a musky flavour
Quinoa flour
Quinoa is often ground down to create a nutty flour for breads

The wild bunch

Amaranth flour

The theatrical grande dame of gluten-free flours, amaranth’s versatility is legendary. Purportedly popular with the Aztecs, it also provides essential amino acids. I’m particularly fond of amaranth flakes, which add texture and flavour to cakes containing soft fruits like blueberries and raspberries. There’s also a floral variety of amaranth with the melodramatic name of Love-lies-bleeding. So that’s amaranth for you – lovely in a cake, also works in a hanging basket.

Chestnut flour

I’m off with the fairies for this one, where I imagine little woodland folk busy grinding their nuts for our delectation. It’s a magical dust but the flavour can be stronger than you expect so sprinkle with caution. Scarcely sourced from Italy and France (so you’ll probably need an online trawl to get your hands on some), it’s fantastic in Christmas recipes but it can also add its woody spirit to puddings and pastry at any time of the year.

Hemp flour

Coming from the cannabis family, hemp flour carries its reputational baggage like a big Woodstock backpack, but this is the industrious one that’s trying to make an honest crust. Brownish green in colour, it looks and smells like no other flour. Though it’s not narcotic, it needs to be used sparingly. Rich in nutritious oils and protein, add a spoonful or two for its musky depth of flavour (and, let’s be honest, a bit of a talking point) to gingerbread, apple cake, and a deliciously dark loaf of bread.