Unimpressed with gluten-free baked goods on the supermarket shelves, Hatty Willmoth decides to make her own.

This article was originally published in print in the Winter 2022-23 issue of Optimum Nutrition magazine.

Going gluten-free can be a challenge. Fortunately, even the smallest supermarkets are likely to have a gluten-free section, but products can be expensive and hit or miss in terms of quality.

Some are sickly-sweet or come with a bitter under taste. And, because gluten gives baked goods their pleasant chewiness, gluten-free alternatives can have dry or dense textures that are unwanted in a slice of bread or cake.

But how easy is it to make our own? To find out, I raided the flour aisle of my local health food shop, buying one of every variety they had.

Flatbreads: testing out different flours

Probably the simplest thing to make with flour, flatbreads made a fair-ish test to understand how each flour behaves.

I also conducted two ‘controls’: one using a wheat flour, and the other with a supermarket free-from flour blend already in my cupboard.

The former was delicious — in taste, smell, texture — and the latter not so great; as a dough, it struggled to stay together. As bread it was thick and dense with a bitty and, at times, squeaky texture, and a strange taste.

Separate to the ‘controls’ here’s my ranking for each flour in order of success.

No. 1 - chickpea flour

Chickpea (or gram) flour produced the most successful results. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it’s already commonly used to make a flatbread called ‘socca’, popular in the south of France.

The yellowest of my flatbreads, it smelt like a pancake as it cooked and crisped up beautifully, with lovely brown spots.

Taste- and texture-wise, it was plain but inoffensive, and in the end served as an excellent vehicle for hummus.

Also a glowing success were beetroot falafel and sweet potato fritters, made with chickpea flour.

For 100g of chickpea flour:

  • 47g carbohydrate
  • 21g protein
  • 14g fibre
  • 6g fat
  • Approximately 87p per 100g

No. 2 - buckwheat flour

Buckwheat worked well as flatbread, with a nutty aroma while cooking, and very brown appearance.

Once cooked, it struck me as hardy, utilitarian, get-the-job-done food: filling, dense and wholesome, with not much taste. This flatbread didn’t necessarily spark joy, but was perfectly adequate.

As advised by friends and the internet, I then made American-style buckwheat pancakes. Light and fluffy, they tasted a bit ‘off’ to me, but were good with substantial toppings — berries and cream, for instance, or apple and nut butter worked better than lemon and honey.

For 100g of buckwheat flour:

  • 74g carbohydrate
  • 6g protein
  • 3g fibre
  • 2g fat
  • Approximately 87p per 100g

No. 3 - brown rice flour

Although it has a similar macronutrient composition to buckwheat, brown rice flour made a different flatbread.

It broke apart while cooking and tasted fairly neutral except for a subtle bitter aftertaste. Texturally, it was firm, soft and chewy and occasionally squeaked when chewed.

For me, this was the most middle-of-the-road option, which I used a lot when mixing different flours — including mixing it with almond butter to make chocolate chip cookies.

These weren’t as chewy as hoped — more of a biscuit — but, for a made-up recipe it was remarkably successful: nutty, substantial, and not too sweet.

This was the cheapest I found — after readymade gluten-free flour blends.

For 100g of brown rice flour:

  • 74g carbohydrate
  • 6g protein
  • 3g fibre
  • 1g fat
  • Approximately 60p per 100g

No. 4 - quinoa flour

Another that disintegrated in the pan, this produced a mid-brown flatbread with some pleasing spots, but immediately smelt strange.

When cooked, it had a strong, bitter flavour that I found hard to get over. Despite a great texture — crisp and chewy — it needed a lot of hummus to be palatable to me.

After that, I was reluctant to try any solely quinoa-flour creations, but did add it to mixed-flour recipes.

In small enough quantities, its taste was obscured. But when I included it to make flatbreads from four flours of roughly equal quantities, the overriding flavour was quinoa.

For this reason, quinoa flour and I are not friends.

For 100g of quinoa flour:

  • 64g carbohydrate
  • 14g protein
  • 7g fibre
  • 6g fat
  • Approximately £1.27 per 100g

No. 5 - chestnut flour

Chestnut flour ranked fifth mostly because it confused me. Liable to crumble and fall apart as dough, it ended up cooking fine.

When it was done, it looked strange – brown but normal on one side, and like mottled tree-bark on the other – and in the mouth it was chewy and almost creamy in texture.

Yet its flavour quickly changed from pleasantly nutty to vile bitterness; most of this flatbread went in the bin.

That said, I did learn to love chestnut flour. Mixing it with ground almonds and rice flour, it made my favourite gluten-free creation to date: a spiced apple cake.

Flavoured with festive cinnamon and nutmeg, it was not perceptibly gluten-free and had a texture similar to banana bread. Absolutely delicious, this cake stayed soft and moist for days after baking.

It was, however, the most expensive box by far, at a whopping £6.29 for just 350g.

For 100g of chestnut flour:

  • 74g carbohydrate
  • 6g protein
  • 9g fibre
  • 4g fat
  • Approximately £1.80 per 100g

No. 6 - coconut flour

Finally, coconut flour was disastrous. As flatbread dough, it broke into so many pieces that some crumbs burnt while bigger bits were still cooking.

And, though it might have smelt nice, it tasted savoury and flat — almost meaty — and its texture was sawdust-dry. “Coconut,” I wrote in my notes, “does not bread.”

After that, I was hesitant to try using coconut flour by itself. I’ve added it to lots of flour mixtures, and my partner has mixed it with supermarket gluten-free flour to bread tofu with remarkable success.

I do hear that it makes excellent sweets and I plan to eventually make macaroons out of it — once I pluck up the courage.

For 100g of coconut flour:

  • 19g carbohydrate
  • 16g protein
  • 37g fibre
  • 18g fat
  • Approximately 84p per 100g

Mixing flours together

It may be more expensive than it’s worth for the average home-baker to buy lots of different flours and mix them together at home, but for me it produced the best results; I could balance the various flours’ properties so no single strange flavour or texture dominated.

For instance, by mixing five flours, using rice and buckwheat as the base, I was able to bake a lemon drizzle cake that was divine: moist, crumbly, soft, sticky, rich and tangy. The crumb was noticeably gluten-free, but only just.

Other helpful ingredients

A key discovery is that, while texture may pose the biggest hurdle, it can be tackled with savvy recipe choices — as well as generous quantities of baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.

Gluten-free cakes tend to work best when straying from classic sponges. Additions such as drizzles and fruit/veg, to achieve moist, sticky textures, work well: for example, lemon drizzle, coffee drizzle, carrot cake, banana bread, chocolate and beetroot cake, and so on. These cakes don’t need to be glutinous to be excellent.

For biscuits, crumbly textures were more easily achieved than chewiness — unless making flapjack, which is a great gluten-free option.

Other ingredients also turned out to be helpful. Ground almonds, or oats blended into a powder make for acceptable flours, albeit with their own quirks — ground almonds, for example, can be quite dense and heavy.

Meanwhile, whole oats and ground/chopped nuts — with some butter, syrup/honey/sugar, and spices — can make for a chewy, crispy alternative to fruit-crumble topping, or toasted in the oven can be a biscuity ‘crumb’ that’s great with stewed fruit and ice cream.

My research even told me that nut butter can be used in completely flourless biscuits and brownies — although I’m yet to try this.

With so many more recipes to try, my gluten-free baking adventure is far from over. But for now, I’m pleased that, compared to what’s on offer in supermarkets’ free-from aisles, and what I could rustle up with a standard free-from flour, these creations have been a significant step up.

Some gluten-free recipes:

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