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Flour is basically the powder obtained by grinding grains, seeds and tubers. Many plants other than wheat-can be made into a flour and include maize, chickpeas, tapioca, chestnut and potatoes. For those who suffer a wheat or gluten allergy (coeliac disease) or people who are intolerant these flours offer an alternative to wheat.
Lack of gluten is not always a drawback - how many times have you seen corn flour or arrowroot used a preferred thickening agent in recipe books.
Many gluten free flours are higher in protein or in amino acids - take quinoa or amaranth, which were staples in the ancient South American cultures. Some are higher in fibre and others have more flavour than conventional flour. A friend recently remarked that they were not a pastry fan but my chickpea pastry had a bite they had never encountered before and they really enjoyed Even if you are not wheat free try substituting ¼ part of flavoured flour for wheat flour in a recipe to give it a kick.
However non-wheat flours do pose some problems in baking as the lack of gluten means things don't stick well and pastry cracks, dough for bread is really a batter and raising can be a problem. However, all things are possible with practice and a little cheating - tamping down dough with fingers, rolling between layers of cling film, adding a little banana/plantain/apple for pectin to help bind.
If you are used to baking with conventional flour you will need to remember to add slightly more liquid to all your recipes. Where a recipe calls for self-raising flour, mix 1 level teaspoon of baking powder or bicarb to every 200g or 8oz of gluten free or wheat free flour.
When it comes to storing flours I suggest that potato flour, arrowroot, tapioca, gram, white rice and corn flour can be stored at room temperature for 6 to 12 months in an airtight container. I prefer to grind my own quinoa, millet and amaranth flours, as I need them.
Flours I commonly use
Amaranth flour: Milled from the seeds of the amaranth plant which you can grown in your garden, has a higher percentage of protein and the amino acid lysine, and is more fibrous. It has a slight kick (like pepper) and can be used in biscuits, crackers, breads, and baking as well as a muesli or porridge s. It is expensive and does not keep well as a flour. However I find the dried seed keeps well and can be easily ground in a coffee mill or liquidiser.
Arrowroot flour: Is made from the rhizomes of the tropical plant, Maranta arundinacea - the Bermuda Arrowroot. It is usually sold in small tubs and but you can buy bags of it in the "Caribbean" section of the supermarkets. It is used as a thickener for sauces and desserts where chefs want clarity and gloss. Beware not to boil as if you do it breaks down and the sauce thins. It is extremely useful as it has no starchy flavour and is easily digestible and is often found in children's rusks and biscuits, hence its use in making delicate biscuits.
Buckwheat flour: Is tolerated by some wheat free people and coeliacs but I only tend to use it when it is in a ready prepared g/f flour as it can upset me when used by itself. Made from milled buckwheat (a primitive wheat) and used widely in Japan where it is called Soba. It is available in light, medium, and dark varieties (the darker the colour, the stronger the flavour). It is often used for commercially available pancake mixes.
Chestnut flour: Made from Sweet Chestnuts, which are quite low in fat and calories for nuts. This pale brown flour has a slightly sweet and nutty flavour. It can be purchased in Italy very easily and in good Italian delis. It is most often used in Italian baking along with chocolate and the Romans were quite fond of it. One can also use it for gnocchi and polentas.
Chickpea flour (also called chana, gram or besan flour): A bright yellow protein-rich flour with a very definite flavour made from dried chickpeas and widely available in the UK. It is used commonly used in India - onion bajiis! It also can be found in Mediterranean cuisine for pancakes, pizzas, and dumplings. It is excellent for egg free pancakes but needs to be combined with another flour such as rice or maize if making baked goods or breads.
Corn flour (starch): In the UK this is the silky white flour made from the starchy part of maize, it is a flavourless light flour beloved by French bakers who often use ¼ part in baking recipes as it gives very light cakes. It is excellent for shortbread and as a thickener and very easily obtained.