Everything you need to know about branching out beyond all-purpose flour, and why you might want to.

By Darcy Lenz
Updated: February 20, 2019
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Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Once upon a time, buying a bag of flour was a relatively simple endeavor. You'd pick out whichever brand of snowy white all-purpose flour you’d pledged loyalty to. Maybe you’d put a bag of cake flour or bread flour in your cart too, if you were an avid baker.

Those days are gone.

You don’t have to shop at a high-end, specialty grocery store to have access to flours that go far beyond wheat. If you’ve taken a stroll down the baking aisle of your favorite supermarket recently, I don’t have to tell you that you have options. A lot of them. Nut flours, gluten-free flour blends, cereal grain flours, starch- and tuber-based flours… they’re all at your fingertips.

Not long ago, I took stock of just how many distinctly alternative flours lined the shelves at my local supermarket. Not including gluten-free and paleo blends, I counted 16 types of flour in addition to the traditional wheat-based varieties. Even for an enthusiastic home baker, that’s an overwhelming number. 

But the thing is, all of those options mean something: opportunity. And despite the implication that accompanies the word “alternative,” alt flours don’t necessarily need to be a replacement for the traditional. Sure, plenty of people turn to these options because they are actively avoiding wheat-based flour for health reasons—but having an allergy or sensitivity isn’t the sole reason to embrace an alternative-flour lifestyle. 

Here's an overview of ten of the nontraditional flours our team has found commonly available and deeply intriguing. And while each of these flour varieties offers its own perks and quirks, in researching and experimenting with them, one thing became crystal clear: Alternative flours can act as a replacement or as a supplement to your standby, but either way, they vastly expand what’s possible in a home kitchen. 

As you’ll see from the recipes below, expanding your flour horizons isn’t all about going gluten-free. It’s about texture. It’s about flavor. And most importantly, it’s about fun.

The Textural Trailblazers

Rice Flour 

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Rice flour is made, unsurprisingly, from very finely ground rice. While it has a silky, powder-like texture that might seem dainty next to many wheat-based flours, rice flour is valued for the stable structure it gives to baked goods and is a common component of gluten-free blends for that very reason. Aside from GF baking mixes, you’ve likely encountered this flour in the form of rice noodles via dishes like pad thai.

Standard rice flour is available in two varieties: brown and white. Brown being milled from whole-grain brown rice and white being made from white rice. In most baking applications, the two are virtually interchangeable. Brown rice flour offers a slightly nuttier flavor and whole-grain health points, but also has a slightly shorter shelf life than white. Whether you opt for brown or white, go ahead and stash this flour in the freezer between uses to maximize its lifespan. (Actually, this is a good rule of thumb for every flour to follow, if we’re being honest.) You may also come across a product called “sweet” or “glutinous” rice flour, which is still totally gluten-free, but made from short-grain “sticky rice.” This is the variety of rice flour used to make Japanese mochi. And should you ever find yourself face-to-face with a bag a rice starch—no, it’s not the same thing as rice flour and should not be used as a substitute.

Now, there’s a reason I’m listing rice flour first in this guide. Because, to me, rice flour was the most exciting revelation to come out of my deep dive into alternative flour-ing. It’s a versatile flour that can be used for thickening sauces or soups, breading/battering, and making dumplings or noodles; however, I fell head over heels for rice flour due to the unique character it brings to baked goods. 

Whether you’re baking something entirely gluten-free (like the Cashew Butter Cookies pictured above) or you’re simply supplementing a wheat-based flour, rice flour contributes a unique texture that I can only describe as pleasantly sandy. Sure, that may sound a little strange, but trust me, it’s a distinct substantiality that’s both delicate and delightful within the context of something like shortbread cookies or a batch of homemade cheese crackers. 

WATCH: How to Make Butternut-Nut Butter Bars

 

Another important trait of rice flour is its capacity for embracing liquid—it's much more absorbent than all-purpose. This absorbency can be leveraged in the kitchen to achieve a crisp texture where you may have accepted “cakey” as the only option. Take these butternut blondies, for example. Most baked goods that incorporate a moisture-dense ingredient like pumpkin puree (or in the case of these blondies, butternut squash puree) are inherently going to be soft and fluffy due to the moisture content. That’s all well and good when it comes to something like a bundt cake or a quick bread, but it’s downright disappointing when you bite into a “cookie” that feels like an over-baked muffin top; enter, rice flour. Using the absorbent flour means you get the flavor you’re looking for when you stir mashed banana or pumpkin into a batter, but you can also have the substantial texture you want from a cookie bar. 

Ready to give rice flour a try? Start with these easy, gluten-free Cashew Butter Cookies. We opted for brown rice flour for added toothiness and toasted it to deepen the nutty flavor. 

GET THE RECIPE: Cashew Butter Cookies

Tapioca Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Tapioca flour is another neutrally flavored, gluten-free option. Made from the extremely finely ground pulp of the cassava root, tapioca flour is often used to create crispness in gluten-free baked goods. It is also a stable thickening agent for anything from gravy to pie filling (more on that below).

When shopping for tapioca flour, keep in mind that whoever names these flours legitimately wants to trip us all up. Though it is created from pulverized cassava root, it is a distinctly different product than cassava flour. They are not interchangeable. And unlike rice flour, the terms “flour” and “starch” can generally be applied interchangeably when it comes to tapioca. Finally, if your recipe calls for tapioca flour or starch, you do not want a tapioca product that’s been pregelatinized—i.e. pre-cooked and dried for the purposes of instant thickening power. My advice: Skip any packages that open the door to further questions and look for a bag that straight-up says “tapioca flour” or "tapioca starch” from a trusted brand such as Bob’s Red Mill

Once you've brought it home, put it through its paces and see what all this wonder flour can do. As mentioned above, tapioca is prized for its ability to deliver crispness to baked goods, particularly as a part of a gluten-free flour blend, but it’s not a flour you lean on for heft. Thus, one of its more traditional (and mouthwatering) uses is in the cheesy, light-as-air Brazilian bun, Pão de Queijo. Additionally, it can be deployed undetectably to thicken sauces, stews, custards, and more, much like you would use all-purpose flour or cornstarch. I like to use it (in a one-for-one swap) in place of all-purpose flour in my apple pie filling because I find that it’s more seamlessly incorporated with the fruit’s juices and leaves behind no trace of flavor. 

In the gluten-free Salted Grapefruit Pie you see here, our test kitchen opted to demonstrate both of tapioca flour’s greatest strengths by incorporating it into the flakey, gluten-free crust as well utilizing it to stabilize the custard filling. Whether you’re looking to get fully acquainted with tapioca flour or you’re simply in need of a downright impressive dessert, this pretty-in-pink pie is for you. 

GET THE RECIPE:  Salted Grapefruit Pie

Potato Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Potato flour is the product of grinding peeled and dried white potatoes. Like rice flour, it is a distinctly different powdery product from potato starch. It is commonly used in tandem with wheat flour in products like potato bread, in addition to being a go-to for gluten-free recipes. Like the other fine, starchy flours we’ve covered thus far, potato flour can also be utilized as a thickening agent. Though it is not typically considered as reliably versatile as tapioca in this capacity, it’s an intuitive fit for enriching soups and stews. And if I had to take a stab in the dark at potato flour’s sign, I’d guess it to be Pisces—soft, sweet, artistic, and really into water.

This is the thing to know about potato flour: it has a true (really, the truest!) affinity for liquid. Thanks to the flour’s starch content, it acts as a sponge, soaking up and locking in moisture. Thus, it’s excellent for creating supple baked goods that retain their moistness for an exceptional amount of time. The flour is valued among bakers as a means of extending shelf life, as well as contributing tenderness to both gluten-free baked goods and wheat-based yeast breads.  

A great way to welcome potato flour into your kitchen is with a traditional Swedish cake known as sandkaka, or sand cake. Endearing in its simplicity, this recipe requires less than two cups of starchy potato flour to become an irresistibly dense, spongy loaf that’s similar to a pound cake in crumb. And because the buttery cake will retain its youthful charm for a few days, it’s a fantastic standby when you need an easy-to-love, make-ahead dessert. 

GET THE RECIPE:  Sandkaka

The Nuanced and Nutty

Peanut Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Peanut flour is created by processing roasted peanuts and defatting (i.e. pressing oils from) the resulting paste to create a dry powder. The amount of oil extracted during the defatting process determines the flour’s fat content; you can buy peanut flour with anywhere from 12% to 28%. Because it’s dense in both protein and flavor, this gluten-free flour attracts cooks of all kinds.

Peanut flour is often used to boost the nutritive value of recipes, both savory and sweet, as it packs a notable amount of protein, around 14 grams per ¼ cup, without a significant amount of fat. After all, if you mix peanut flour with a bit of liquid, you’ll find yourself with a peanut butter-like paste that lacks the fat and sugar found in a jar of Jif. (I’m not saying you should make a PB&J with the stuff, just making a point.) This protein content also means it can provide structure in gluten-free baking projects. That said, with peanut flour comes an intense package of concentrated roasted peanut flavor, which lends the flour a strong culinary appeal. Peanut flour can be used to bring structural oomph and impressive toasty flavor to sauces, stews, baked goods, breading, and beyond. 

OK, so now for the million dollar question: Is peanut flour the same thing as peanut butter powder? 

Answer: Sorta, but not exactly. The difference between the two products is that peanut butter powder, which is generally touted as a healthy way to achieve peanut butter flavor without the fat, contains a bit of added salt and sugar for flavor—whereas plain peanut flour does not. However, peanut butter powder, such as PB2, may be easier to find at your local supermarket and for all intents and purposes is going to act just about the same as peanut flour in the context of whatever you’re cooking. 

In fact, we tested the peanutty dredged fried chicken I’m about to tell you about with peanut butter powder and found it to be a seamless swap. For this recipe, our test kitchen went with a blend of peanut flour and Wondra flour (which is all-purpose flour that has been cooked and dehydrated), along with a few dried spices, to create the perfect quick, skillet-fried chicken coating. The Wondra flour contributes intense, instant crispiness, while peanut flour shines as a source of massively roasty-toasty flavor. It’s not gluten-free, but applied to boneless, skinless thighs—which cook fast and retain their juicy succulence with ease—this dredging formula yields a wow-worthy fried chicken experience in just 30 minutes. Can’t beat it.

GET THE RECIPE:  Weeknight Fried Chicken

Hazelnut Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

You're likely already familiar with almond flour—a mealy flour made by grinding almonds. Hazelnut flour is similar, but offers a slightly different flavor profile. Before being milled, hazelnuts are skinned in order to yield a flour with a fine, near fluffy, consistency. Nut flours like hazelnut and almond are also sometimes blanched so that the flour will be closer in color to AP flour. 

As you can imagine, hazelnut flour brings a richly nutty, buttery flavor wherever it may go. And it’s an easy flour to understand and experiment with in the kitchen. Try using it when breading chicken or fish, or for topping a casserole or gratin, swap a little into your waffle batter… really, the sky's the limit here. Being a nut-based flour, it is low in carbohydrates, but has a notably higher level of fat than wheat flour. This is important to take into consideration when incorporating hazelnut flour (or other similar nut flours) into your baking. 

For example, a nut flour like hazelnut is wonderful in a pie or tart crust (remember our Salted Grapefruit Pie?), but you’ll likely need less butter than your typical crust because of the oil in the flour. Additionally, you will want another flour or crumb working alongside your nut flour to provide textural strength and to cushion the delicate, oily nut flour from burning. In baking, you won’t often see hazelnut or almond flour acting solo, particularly in recipes that need to achieve volume, like cakes. The nut flour contributes significant depth and character, but needs a little help when it comes to structural integrity. 

But here’s a little exception. Hazelnut flour is the only flour necessary to create these dense, dark, unimaginably decadent Chocolate-Hazelnut Brownies. Sure, cocoa powder is there to lean on, but we really wanted play up the hazelnut presence in these show-stopping brownies. Because this is a gluten-free flour, we used fewer eggs than you’d typically see in a brownie recipe calling recipe for 2 cups of flour in order to prevent the brownies from veering too far in the direction of “cakey.” My final word on the matter is this: if you have strong ties to using boxed brownie mix, be mighty careful around this recipe. You may never be able to turn back.

GET THE RECIPE: Chocolate-Hazelnut Brownies

Coconut Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Produced from dried coconut meat that is finely ground, coconut flour is similar to tree nut-based flours in that it offers rich nutty flavor and has a higher fat content than wheat flour. Although it can’t be substituted one-for-one with other nut flours in every recipe, many find it’s a great flour to play with if tree nut allergies are a concern or if you’re looking to infuse a recipe with an added boost of coconutty presence. 

The thing to keep in mind about coconut flour is that, like potato flour, it’s highly absorbent. This means you may need to bump up the liquid in a baking recipe if you’re experimenting with incorporating coconut flour for the first time, but once you get the ratio right, you’ll have a luxuriously moist final product. 

Such was certainly the case with our Ultimate Coconut Cake, which features coconut flour, coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut sugar, coconut extract, and, of course, flaked coconut. Ideal for a real-deal coconut lover, this is possibly one of the most tender, moist layered cakes to ever come out of our test kitchen. People fought over the leftovers. 

GET THE RECIPE:  Ultimate Coconut Cake

The Flavor Makers 

Chickpea Flour

gluten-free

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Also known as garbanzo bean flour or besan, this flour is created by grinding raw chickpeas into powder. It's often used in Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian, and French cuisine. Chickpea flour is high in protein, fiber, and iron, and is sometimes used to lend structure in gluten-free baking. However, one of the flour’s greatest traits also keeps it from being a subtle, all-purpose player in the world of alternative flours: It tastes like chickpeas. 

However, for many a savory recipe—from classic dishes like farinata or socca to less traditional applications like this vegan omelet—that bean-forward flavor is just right. And as Cooking Light explains, because of its protein structure, chickpea flour is a real MVP when it comes to binding (foods like patties and fritters) and battering (basically anything for deep frying). 

Leaning into both of these strengths, we found that one of the most delightful ways to use chickpea flour is perhaps the simplest: mixing the flour with boiling water yields a simple dough that can be chilled and then fried in oil to form an light and crispy, savory cracker. We paired these salty chickpea crackers with hummus and a rustic castelvetrano olive tapenade for an easy, but impressively dynamic, appetizer. 

GET THE RECIPE: Chickpea Crackers with Chunky Tapenade

Spelt Flour

contains gluten

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Spelt is an ancient cereal grain. While it's in the wheat family, spelt is distinctly different than wheat in many aspects. In fact, for those with sensitivities to wheat, spelt can be significantly easier to digest. That said, spelt flour acts similarly to wheat flour in many cooking applications, so it’s easy to experiment with this flour when making your favorite recipes. And because spelt flour is generally always milled using the whole spelt grain, it’s a great way to get some whole-grain goodness while simultaneously bringing a pleasantly bittersweet, nutty flavor to baked goods.

If you’re new to using spelt and looking to swap it in for all-purpose flour (as with all whole-grain flours), you may want to work it into recipes incrementally as you become acquainted with its hearty flavor and toothsome character. I mean, no one wants to be turned off of a flour they just bought an entire bag of and ruin their most cherished family dinner roll recipe all in one bite, right?

This cereal grain-based flour does contain gluten, but it’s important to note that the gluten present in spelt flour is not as resistant as that found in wheat based flours. Because it breaks down more easily, it’s exceptionally important to avoid over-mixing baked goods made with spelt flour. Unless, of course, you’re trying to buy a one-way ticket to hockey puck city; in which case, have at it. 

If you’re ready to dive head-first into a relationship with spelt flour, congratulations! This is an exciting time! This flour will bring such strong, wholesomely comforting flavor/texture personality into your life. It’ll feel nourishing an robustly satisfying—especially if you welcome spelt in with a dish that provides all the deeply savory and earthy complements this flour needs to shine. Might I suggest our Turkey Pot Pie with Spelt Biscuits? See, this recipe gives spelt flour the opportunity to impress in both the biscuit topping and the pot pie’s gravy. In both applications, spelt flour delivers brawny whole-grain sweetness that jives really well with the umami-rich mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and turkey (though, you could definitely sub chicken too) in this soul-warming pot pie. It’s like a snuggly bear hug baked in an 8x8-inch dish. 

GET THE RECIPE: Hearty Turkey Pot Pie with Spelt Biscuits

Rye Flour

contains gluten

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Milled from rye, which is closely related to wheat and barley, but technically falls into a classification known as “true grass,” rye flour is lower in gluten and typically richer in many of the nutrients that are processed out wheat flour. Rye is a noticeably dark and heavy flour, and because of its relatively low gluten content, it is generally paired with another higher-protein flour in applications like bread baking so that a nice rise is possible and the final product is not overly dense.  

This whole-grain flour has a strong and distinctive grainy flavor that’s most commonly appreciated in bread products, but can also make a deliciously intriguing addition to sweeter recipes, like pies and scones. There are several types of rye flour—including white rye, cream rye, dark rye, and pumpernickel—but the most common variety for home bakers is medium rye flour. 

We originally reached for medium rye flour in developing this Cheesy Rye Pizza, but found ourselves really wanting more rye flavor. See, the thing about rye is that all of its hearty, bittersweet notes pair exceptionally well with cheese. And given the amount of salty, rich cheese going on with this white pie, dark rye flour ended up being exactly what was needed to form a true palate-pleasing power couple. 

Get the Recipe: Cheesy Rye Pizza

Oat Flour

gluten-free*

Photo: Greg Dupree; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Kay Clarke and Laura Evans

Oat flour is made from ground whole-grain oats and is popularly used to replace or partially replace wheat flour in recipes to provide a nutritional boost. *As long as it’s made from certified gluten-free oats, oat flour is a gluten-free flour. 

Beyond health perks, oat flour can contribute a wonderfully earthy sweetness and chewiness to all kinds of baked goods. (Just think about all of the things you love about oatmeal cookies.) Plus, it’s a whole-grain flour you can easily make yourself simply by buzzing oats in the food processor until you reach a flour-like consistency. Because oats are already a familiar pantry staple in many homes, oat flour is an easy-to-embrace alternative flour. 

In these oat-tastic muffins, we take oat flour’s inherent warming toastiness one step further by literally toasting the flour in the oven before incorporating it into the batter. You can skip this step if you really want, but given the depth it provides to these wholesome prune-studded muffins, I’d humbly ask you to reconsider. Topped with a brown sugary oat streusel, these Toasted Oat-Prune Muffins make it easy to see why oat flour deserves a place in your kitchen. 

GET THE RECIPE: Toasted Oat and Prune Breakfast Muffins

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