Alternative flours have grown in popularity along with the low-carb and gluten-free diet crazes. Are these newer, trendier products just like the all-purpose flour that we grew up using? Yes, and no. Here’s what you need to know about two of the more popular gluten-free alternatives, almond meal and almond flour.
Simply put, flour is a fine powder made by the grinding of a starchy plant to be used in baking and cooking. What the flour making process begins with, foods like wheat, coconut, or rice, determines what kind of flour will be made. People often choose "alternative flours" (flours made from foods other than wheat) for added nutrition or to cope with food allergies or sensitivities. The tricky part is that all of the various flours on the market are not going to act the same in the context of a recipe, because they are not made from the same plant. Their compositions are different.
Almond flour is made from very, very finely ground almonds. The almonds in almond flour have been slightly processed, but not processed in a bad-for-you way. The skins of the almonds have been removed so that the desirable fine, almost fluffy texture of flour can be achieved. They are typically blanched, so that the flour is a crisp white color, just like the good ol' AP wheat flour it is mimicking.
Meal in general, such as cornmeal, are made by a similar method as flour. The final grain or particle size is just a bit larger/coarser. In other words, it hasn’t been ground as finely as flour. Almond meal, though, is typically made from unblanched almonds with the skins on. This is most likely why a lot of people are gravitating towards almond meal—the skin holds additional nutrients that are lost when they are removed. The result of grinding whole, skin-on almonds is a more dense product with a slightly grainy texture.
When making your own:
If you want to make your own almond meal, grind whole, natural almonds in a food processor. Just stop processing before you reach the brink of a nut butter consistency. If you want to make your own almond flour, use a high quality food processor and skinless, blanched, slivered almonds. You can use homemade almond meal for a ton of applications in the kitche—be creative! Use it to "bread" chicken along with grated Parmesan, or add it to cookies for a more complex, nutty flavor. Just remember that 2 ouncs of raw, natural almonds is 240 calories, which can add up pretty quickly when adding homemade almond meal to dishes.
Almonds are not wheat. So its best to use substitution rules when using them in a recipe that doesn't specifically call for almond meal or flour. Here are a few pointers:
- If the recipe calls for wheat-based flour, try following a 1:2 ratio. So, if the recipe calls for 3/4 cup of all-purpose (AP) flour, use 1 1/2 cups of almond flour. Almond flour has a higher percentage of fat than AP flour and also lacks gluten, which is a binding agent that contributes to structure. Many recipes decrease the fat called for when subbing in almond flour and increase the egg, which also acts as a binder. If you aren't avoiding AP flour for an allergy, you can start experimenting with almond flour by substituting 1/4 of the flour called for in a recipe with almond flour.
- If the recipe is already written for almond flour, you can substitute almond meal 1:1. That means that the two are interchangable. Our test kitchen team recommend toasting your almond meal before using it in baking to pull out the essential oils and increase the overall nuttiness.
- Almond-based flours burn more easily than AP flour, so be aware while baking and keep your oven at or below 350 degrees.