Essentially, more of the stuff we want, and less of what we don't want – including gluten, for those with celiac disease, wheat allergies, or sensitivity to wheat or gluten.
If you're switching out your regular all-purpose flour for something more nutritious, though, make sure it's really worth it.
Almond flour, coconut flour, flax meal, chickpea flour, and black bean and white bean flours are some of my favorite gluten-free flour replacers.
Other gluten-free flours, however, like rice flour, arrowroot flour, and tapioca flour really aren't any better than regular all-purpose flour – and in many cases they have more carbs, with the same – or less – protein.
But simply buying gluten-free flours is one thing; knowing what to do with these flours can be the challenge.
Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, rye and barley. It gives dough its elasticity, and is also part of what makes bread rise, giving texture, structure, and shape to baked goods.
Which is exactly why cooking and baking with gluten-free flours can pose quite a challenge. It's incredibly easy – and not uncommon – to end up with a dry, crumbly product on our first attempt with gluten-free baking.
But with just a little know-how and a few strategic ingredient tweaks, cooking and baking with gluten-free flours can be relatively simple and deliciously rewarding.
We turned to the experts for their advice, including the folks at Bob's Red Mill, one of the largest producers of flours and grains, including a full range of gluten-free flours, and one of my favorite gluten-free baking experts, Carolyn Ketchum of AllDayIDreamAboutFood.com.
Ketchum is a talented baker and blogger, and, since she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2010, she has become quite the expert in all things low-carb, including gluten-free baking and cooking. She is currently working on her first low carb, gluten-free cookbook, due out in fall 2017.
Here's a summary of their tips for a beginners guide to gluten-free baking, including seven good-for-you gluten-free flour alternatives to try, and how to use them.
Ketchum considers almond flour to be one of the most versatile low carb ingredients. And she's quick to point out that almond flour and almond meal are two very different products.
"Almond flour should be so finely ground that you can make beautiful, fine-textured cakes that rival their wheat-based counterparts," says Ketchum. "Almond meal (which is less pricey) is better for products that don't need a fine texture, like muffins and breads. And you don't even have to buy almond meal; you can make it yourself with a food processor."
When it comes to substituting almond flour for wheat flour, there is no guaranteed formula, says Ketchum.
Almond flour is ground almonds, so it's full of fat and moisture, entirely without gluten, and not nearly as powdery, fine and dry as wheat flour. So there are a variety of factors to account for when adapting a wheat-based recipe to a gluten-free recipe with almond flour.
For almond flour baking newbies, Ketchum recommends sticking with tried and true recipes for a while, to get a sense of how almond flour "behaves" in baking.
For those who are looking to experiment, however, she suggests using more flour than the original wheat flour recipe calls for – up to 50 percent more flour – and cutting back on the liquid by as much as 50 percent – to account for almond flour's lower density and natural moisture content. She also often adds whey protein to make up for the lack of gluten, and to give the finished product more structure, allowing it to rise and stay risen.
Ketchum cautions that almond flour batter will almost always be thicker than batter for wheat-based recipes. But resist the urge to thin it out with liquids, she says, or we're likely to end up with a soggy mess.
Coconut flour is very finely ground dried coconut, with the natural sweetness and richness of coconut.
"Coconut flour is a very useful low carb and gluten-free ingredient," says Ketchum, "but it's a strange beast that behaves in strange ways. If you attempt to treat it like wheat flour, it will taunt you out of pure spite." Or, as the folks at Bob's Red Mill put it, baking with coconut flour is a "unique experience."
One of the highest-fiber flours, coconut flour is powdery and extremely dense, and it "soaks up liquids like nobody's business," says Ketchum. Coconut flour recipes also require more eggs, and often other binders like xanthan gum, to help keep the final product intact.
Her recommendations for modifying wheat-based recipes for coconut flour are essentially the opposite of what she does for almond flour: Use less coconut flour – as much as 50% less than wheat flour – and more eggs and other liquids. As a general rule of thumb, Bob's Red Mill team suggests an equal ratio of liquid to coconut flour.
And if you don't like the taste of coconut, you might want to try another flour, as baked goods can still taste pretty coconutty, especially if they don't have other strong flavors to mask it, like cinnamon, chocolate, or savory herbs and spices.
If you're not looking to remake an entire recipe, but just boost the fiber and nutritional value a bit, coconut flour can be used to replace up to 20% of the wheat flour called for in a recipe – just remember to add an equal amount of liquid, as well.
Garbanzo bean (chickpea) flour
With one-third less carbohydrates than regular whole wheat flour, garbanzo bean flour adds creaminess along with a sweet rich flavor. It can be used to replace up to 25 percent of regular flour in baked goods, and it also works well to thicken soups, sauces, and gravies.
Black bean flour
A good source of fiber, black bean flour can be used as a base for black bean soups and dips, or added to veggie burgers, enchiladas, burritos, tacos and more. Because of its rich, earthy flavor, black bean flour works best in savory recipes. If you're using it for sweets or baked goods, try pairing it with bolder flavors like chocolate, mocha, or chipotle.
White bean flour
Similar to black bean flour, white bean flour can be used as a thickener for sauces and gravies, as well as a base for soups and dips. Its lighter color and milder flavor give it more versatility than black bean flour, however, and it works well in both sweet and savory recipes from flatbreads to crackers to pancakes or cookies. You can replace about 1/8 of the flour called for in a recipe with white bean flour, to boost the fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Flaxseed meal is rich in magnesium, fiber and heart-smart fats, and is one of the top food sources of lignans, which can have a protective effect against cancer. Add flaxseed meal to breads, pancakes, muffins, bars, cookies and other baked goods for an extra nutritional punch and a mild nutty flavor.
While flaxseed meal is not a replacer for 100 percent of a flour, you can use flax meal to replace up to 25 percent of the flour in a recipe. Flaxseed meal can also be used as an egg replacer in recipes for baked goods, using one tablespoon of flaxseed meal and three tablespoons of liquid to replace each egg called for in the recipe.
Commercial gluten-free flour blend
If you're new to gluten-free cooking, and experimenting with a variety of gluten-free flours is overwhelming, you can always try a store-bought gluten-free blend like Bob's Red Mill Low Carb Baking Mix to eliminate much of the guesswork – and cut carbs by nearly 50 percent.
With a blend of gluten-free flours and grains like oat bran, wheat bran, soy flour, rye flour and flaxseed meal, Bob's Red Mill Low Carb-Baking Mix can be used cup-for-cup to replace all-purpose flour in most recipes, both sweet and savory.
More gluten-free baking tips:
In addition to gluten free flours to experiment with, Ketchum also recommends keeping a stash of xanthan gum or psyllium husk on hand.
Xanthan gum is used in many gluten-free recipes, improving the texture of baked goods. It acts as an emulsifier and a binder, and adds volume to gluten free breads, cookies, and cakes.
Ground psyllium husk, often used as a fiber supplement, can be used as a substitute for xanthan gum.
Weighing versus measuring. Gluten-free powders are often more finely-ground and powdery, making them a bit more challenging to measure with measuring cups. Using a kitchen scale to weigh flours is a more precise approach, especially for recipes where small deviations can be significant.
And finally, be patient. "Please, please let your baked goods cool completely," says Ketchum. "It can be tempting to start cutting them up soon after they are baked, but try to resist, or you can wind up with a heap of crumbs. The texture and cohesiveness of gluten-free baked goods always improves upon cooling and sitting. Crackers, cookies and tart crusts will crisp up better and breads and muffins will hold together better when left to sit for an hour or two."