Award-winning author Alice Medrich shares how alternative flours reinvigorate your baking with deeper flavor and texture, whether you are gluten-free or not.
In your book Flavor Flours (Artisan Books, 2014) and the newly released paperback version, Gluten-Free Flavor Flours, you delve into the world of baking with non-wheat varieties of flour, making them the hero ingredient instead of just a mere substitution for wheat. From sorghum and teff to rice and corn flour (and not to mention nut flours galore!), there are lots to choose from. Of these, do you have a favorite to bake with?
Alice Medrich: I love buckwheat. It has a reputation for bringing robust, earthy flavors, but different approaches can coax delicate characteristics from it. I found that it lends these incredible notes of honey and floral flavors like rose. It’s a great example of how any given flour can produce contrary results, depending on how it is handled and the type of recipe it is used in.
If you are a baker just starting to try your hand at using non-wheat flours, are there any recipes that are good for experimentation?
AM: For bakers who are just getting into this and want to really taste the flavors of these flours without getting into a more elaborate recipe, I suggest starting with waffles and pancakes. Just substitute different flours in, and see if you like the taste. Pancakes and waffles are flat, don’t need much structure, and contain plenty of liquid to hydrate the flour, so you know they’ll come out every time.
Is it a good idea to blend two types of non-wheat flours in a recipe? Or should bakers stick to a single kind?
AM: With Flavor Flours, I set out to prove that these flours can stand alone, but yes, you can definitely pair non-wheat flours together in a recipe. When blending, you want contrasting characteristics in the flours to create an overall balance in the baked good. Rice flour makes a successful pairing with most of the flours because it can open up and lighten the flavors.
Most classic wheat flour–based recipes require techniques to either inhibit or encourage gluten development. When baking with non-wheat flours, you take gluten out of the equation. How does this change your baking procedure?
AM: Alternative flours often make your recipe simpler with less fuss and fewer steps. Your ingredients don’t have to be at room temperature. You never have to worry with that dance of alternating the liquid with the dry ingredient. Flour doesn’t need to be added to batters in three parts alternating with two parts liquid.
If you can disregard a few of the old baking rules, are there new rules you should consider when baking with non-wheat flours?
AM: Hydration is a critical factor. To prevent a gritty or powdery texture in tart and cookie doughs, you need a little more liquid (and sometimes a longer rest period) than usual. These doughs have to be hydrated enough so that they actually taste cooked rather than pasty. Some baked goods, like cookies, tarts, or pastries, taste better when baked for a longer time period at a lower temperature.
Non-wheat flour–based cakes baked in deep pans often sink in the center because of lack of structure. Do you have any suggestions to prevent this?
AM: Change the pan, not the recipe. Use a tube pan or a wide, shallower pan to make a sheet cake to roll up and make a roulade. Bake multiple thin layers, and stack them. Flours without gluten are not strong enough to cause doming, which can be an advantage when creating a layer cake.
What should you look for when purchasing non-wheat flours? Do most grocery stores carry a wide selection, or should bakers seek out health food stores?
AM: Alternative flours often have a shorter shelf life than wheat-based flours, so go for the stores that have high turnover or seek out respectable online sources. Always look at “sell-by” and “best-by” dates on the package and buy conservative amounts. A high-end grocery store or health food store will have all of them, and a chain may have less options. All these flours are available online. Authentic Foods is a wonderful source for superfine flours, and I’ve always been a fan of Bob’s Red Mill.
What is the best way to store non-wheat flours?
AM: Store non-wheat in a cool, dry place. Unopened packages can be kept until their “sell-by” dates. Once opened, store them in an airtight container. The less air in the container, the better. They will keep this way for up to three months. The freezer will also do if you’ve got a lot of flour and don’t think you can use it within a year. Store flours in the refrigerator or freezer for up to six months.