Baking is really all about chemistry, so the second your usual ingredients go out the window, along with them must go your previous idea of how to bake.
“Conventional” baking has access to almost infinite types of flour (all purpose, cake, pastry, bread, “00”, whole-wheat, oat…) .
These vary the elasticity, water absorption, flavour, malleability (and so on!) that your dough will have when you work it and how it will behave in the oven (its rise, baking time, tendency to brown…).
“Conventional” gluten-free baking has access to a smaller, but still extensive, range of flours (and starches), such as tapioca, rice, buckwheat, potato, teff (chickpea)…
But whilst “conventional” gluten-free flour has, well, no gluten (a protein that helps give bread its elasticity), it, like “conventional” baking flour, has high levels of carbohydrates. Broadly speaking our bodies translate carbohydrates into sugar, so if you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake these types of flour are not ideal.
But all is not lost!
There are some key ingredients that, sometimes on their own and sometimes in conjunction, give us something to work with. Which ones to use, when and in what quantities, will be given in each recipe.
The below is intended as a quick introduction to the three base “flour-replacement” ingredients I use most and their basic properties, to give you a foundation of how, when and why!
Note that as the below have no gluten or starches, they usually benefit from having some binders added to give them structure and texture; I describe these under the “Binders” section in The New Basics and include them in each recipe as required.
To me, this is the holy grail of gluten-free and low carb baking.
It is essentially blanched almonds blitzed to a powder.
Broadly speaking, the finer the grounds the better for baking, so if you have almond meal (bigger granules), blitz them in a dry food processor a few times to get them to a more flour-like texture.
If you make your own from blanched almonds I would suggest drying out (not toasting!) the flour a little in an oven on super low heat or a frying pan before using. This draws out a bit of the moisture and will help you assess the dryness and baking times of the dough a bit better.
You can find the already ground stuff in most supermarkets and online; watch out that it doesn’t have added sugar, which sometimes they do.
Almond flour is not a cheap product and you will use hefty quantities of it so it’s well worth buying large quantities (500g, 1kg… depending on how often you use it), and looking for local and wholesales suppliers online who might have cheaper deals.
This flour is slightly nutty in flavour but not overpoweringly so, and will usually form the base ingredient for most breads and cakes.
It is fatty and does not absorb too much liquid, which helps makes cakes spongey (even if you go slightly over with the baking times) but also increases baking times for breads (to avoid gooey centres).
Keep all these things in mind when adding, subtracting or replacing quantities in the recipes, and when assessing oven temperatures and baking times.
Like all nuts, seeds and flours, almond flour should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge, to stop the fats getting rancid and oxidising. Although in my house almond flour doesn’t stand unused for too long anyways!
If you squeeze all the liquid out of coconut meat (as when making coconut milk), and then dry and blitz the meat that is left into a powder, you essentially end up with coconut flour.
Think of it as the weapon that can help make or break your recipe.
It’s infinitely cheaper than almond flour, and you can find it in many supermarkets and online.
You can make your own with dehydrated coconut flakes- just blitz them in a very dry blender/grinder and store it in an airtight container in the fridge.
Like with almond flour, the finer it’s ground the better, so if you can only find coarser stuff, you can always blitz it again for a finer powder.
Unlike almond flour, though, coconut flour absorbs liquid like a sponge, and has an incredibly strong and distinctive coconut taste, which some people love but really throws me off.
Used sparingly, though, coconut flour can help dry out some batters which would otherwise be incredibly soggy and take ages to bake; it helps bulk up the recipe and reduce how much (of the more expensive) almond flour we need to use, and in some specific cases (and in controlled quantities), contributes some of it’s coconutey taste to the recipe.
Just remember that when using coconut flour you’ll probably need to up the liquid/water content of the recipe or expect a drier result, or both!
If almond flour is the base and coconut flour is the weapon, nut and seed butters are just magic on their own.
They are the result of blitzing nuts or seeds, such as almonds, peanuts, cashews and sesame seeds (the list goes on) into a paste. The natural oils are released to create a rich and flavourful, thick liquid that can miraculously, and with little else, be transformed into cakes and breads.
You can find these in every supermarket and even small stores, although sometimes they have added oils and sugars that you really don’t need.
You can make your own with a powerful food processor/blender cup, and a bit of patience. Simply place the nuts/seeds in the processor, and through a combination of pulsing, shaking, scraping and stirring, you can transform these from a nut or seed to a “flour”; then to a crumbly sandy texture, then to a thick bitty paste and finally to a smooth creamy butter.
Needless to say, store in an airtight container in the fridge, and ideally use as close to purchase/blitzing as possible.
These butters are a thing of it’s own, and not really interchangeable with the “flours” above, so if a recipe calls for it, this is usually what you should use. You might get away with going for a different nut/seed (ie. recipe calls for peanut butter, and you might use tahini/sesame seed paste), but the oil content of each nut/seed varies, so results might not be exactly the same.
Just know these nut butters exist and they can have a very surprising use in baking!