The first time I attempted to bake with flours other than the standard "white devil" was a disaster. Although my boys and I had a blast making blueberry muffins with quinoa flour and cookies with spelt flour, our enthusiasm faded rapidly when we took the first bite. None of us could even stomach a second try because the whole lot tasted that dreadful.
Since then, I have learned a great deal about the diverse types of whole-grain flours. I've come to know the varieties that successfully produce pancakes, muffins and cookies and those better for flatbreads and pizza crust. I've learned to take it slow and mix unfamiliar flours with familiar selections until my family's palate adjusts.
To save you some bad batches of baked goods, here is a cheat sheet for baking with healthful flours.
Why choose flours other than refined white? Refined white flour, called "the white devil" by many in the nutrition community, is made by removing the fiber, wheat germ and B vitamins from a wheat kernel. In fact, it has been shown that 93 percent of the fiber, 25 percent of the original protein content and almost 20 other essential nutrients are lost. The starchy (gluten) part of the kernel remains, is finely ground and is then bleached with chemicals. Sometimes the resulting refined flour is enriched with synthetic vitamins and minerals to make it "healthful" again, although the jury is out on whether our bodies absorb and use those synthetic vitamins as effectively. The body immediately turns this processed final product into glucose, which raises insulin levels and can contribute to sugar highs, energy lows, weight gain and cravings.
Most whole grains and many nuts and beans can be ground into flour, but they are not all interchangeable. Each has its own character, ranging from silky to gritty, and they yield different outcomes when baked. Wheat is the most versatile and popular because of its gluten content, which allows recipes to bind easily without crumbling.
When experimenting with whole-grain and bean flours, do so in stages. If a recipe calls for a cup of white flour, try a quarter-cup of a whole-grain flour and three-quarters cup white. Next time, increase the amount of whole-grain flour by a bit, ensuring it still suits your palate. There are countless cookbooks chock-full of recipes using all kinds of flours. Pick one up for tested recipes that will keep you from tossing batches of rock-hard muffins, crumbling cookies and bitter-tasting breads.
The method of production has an effect on the flour's performance, flavor and nutrition. Organic flour from a stone-ground mill is ideal. Bob's Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills are two high-quality brands that can be found in grocery stores nationwide.
Store in an airtight container, ideally in the refrigerator. Processed white flour has a long shelf life, but whole-grain flours go rancid more quickly. Freshly ground, whole-grain flour has a shelf life of one to two months in a pantry and four in the fridge. Store-bought flour will have a use-by date on it. A rancid flour will begin to smell and give an unsavory taste. Rancid flours also have lower nutrient content.
Bob's Red Mill, a producer of many high-quality whole grains and whole-grain flours, suggests using 2 ½ teaspoons of baking powder per cup of a wheat-free/gluten-free flour. And when baking without wheat or gluten, add xanthan gum or guar gum (both binders that keep batter from separating) to improve the texture of the baked good. Visit bobsredmill.com for additional details. My favorite brands of gluten-free flour are Deya's Gluten Free Flour, which can be bought at deyasglutenfree.com, and Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour and Pamela's Gluten-Free Bread Mix, both of which can be found at grocery stores nationwide.