March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Once upon a time, the typical American pantry had a single canister of flour. Today, supermarkets stock myriad milled options — beyond traditional wheat flour — reflecting increased consumer demand for diversity in the baking aisle.
Flour is the finely-ground, sifted meal of grains, nuts, seeds, legumes or certain vegetables — and each kind of flour has a different nutrition profile and cooking or baking qualities.
Gluten-free bread mixes often are blends of flours from non-wheat grains or plant sources. For example, one gluten-free baking mix contains garbanzo bean flour, potato starch, tapioca flour, white sorghum flour and fava bean flour.
Although bulk options may be available for some flours, most are sold in pre-packaged quantities — proper storage increases flours' shelf lives. Whole-grain flours (with oil from the germ) and nut flours may turn rancid over time. Refrigerate or freeze flours in airtight containers so they retain their powdery quality. And remember to bring to air temperature before using.
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Whether exploring health trends, culinary interests or ethnic cuisines, here is some information you can use as you foray into the world of flours.
Almond meal/flour: Made from blanched almonds. Low in carbohydrates, high in protein. In ¼ cup: 6g protein, 3.5g fiber, 60mg calcium and 14g fat, nearly all unsaturated. Adds moisture and nutty flavor to pastries, baked goods and dessert filling. Not meant to replace flour in yeast or quick breads. Short shelf life. GF
Amaranth flour: Ground from an ancient seed. Has a high level of complete protein, including lysine. Use in baked goods for up to 25 percent of flour content. Excellent thickener for sauces, gravies and soups. Has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor. GF
Soy flour: Made from milled soybeans. High in protein, lower in carbohydrates than all-purpose flour. In ¼ cup low-fat soy flour: 10g protein, 8g total carbohydrates and 3g fiber. Good source of calcium and excellent source of iron and magnesium. Use to thicken sauces. As a wheat flour substitute in quick breads and cookies, use 1 part soy flour to 3 parts all-purpose flour. Reduces fat absorption in frying batter or dough. Lightly toast in a dry skillet over moderate heat for a nutty flavor. GF
Rye flour: Heavy, dark flour made from rye. In ¼-cup whole-grain medium rye flour: 4g fiber. Contains less gluten than all-purpose or whole-wheat flour. Produces heavy, dense bread. For better rising, blend with a higher protein flour. Mostly sold as medium rye flour; light and dark rye flours available. Pumpernickel flour is dark rye flour made from whole grains and is used in bread making. WG option
Rice flour, brown: Made from unpolished brown rice. In ¼ cup: 2g fiber in brown rice flour, compared to 1g fiber in white rice flour. Nutty flavor. Used like white flour, but gives a grittier texture in baked goods such as cornbread and pound cake. GF, WG
Potato flour: Ground from whole, dried potatoes. In ¼ cup: 2.5g fiber and 400mg potassium (12 percent Daily Value). Use as a thickener for smooth, creamy sauces, soups, gravies and frozen desserts. For baking, adds starch to dough, which attracts and holds water; makes bread more moist and extends freshness. Use ¼ cup per loaf of yeast bread (rye, white or whole-grain). In meat, chicken, fish and vegetable patties, extends, binds and retains moisture. GF
Flaxseed flour or meal: Made by milling whole flaxseeds, making omega-3s available. In 2 tablespoons: 4g fiber. In baked goods, use as a fat or egg substitute. GF
Oat flour: Ground from oat groats. Used to replace some flour in a variety of recipes. Adds a rich, nutty flavor and denser texture. In baked foods that need to rise, must be combined with other flours. GF, WG
Barley flour: Made from pearl or whole-grain barley. Adds fiber to baked foods. In ¼ cup: 4g fiber. Contains gluten, but not enough for adequate rising. Good as a thickener in soups, stews, sauces and gravies. WG option
Sorghum flour: Ground from ancient grain sorghum. Mild in flavor. High in antioxidants. In ¼ cup: 2g fiber. Use in cookies, cakes, brownies, breads, pizza dough, pastas, cereals, pancakes and waffles. GF, WG
Spelt flour: Made from spelt, an ancient grain and cousin to wheat. Slightly higher in protein than wheat flour. In ¼ cup: 4g protein, 4g fiber and 1.5g iron (8 percent Daily Value). Has a mellow, nutty flavor. Can be substituted for wheat flour in baking. May cause reactions in wheat-allergic people. Both refined and whole spelt flour available. WG option
Rice flour, white: Made from white rice. Used mostly in baked goods such as pie crusts and cookies. In shortbread, gives a tender mouth feel. Sweet or glutinous "sticky" rice flour is made from high-starch, shortgrain rice, which is used to thicken sauces in Asian dishes. (Does not contain gluten despite its name.) GF
Buckwheat flour: Made from buckwheat, a cousin of rhubarb (not a wheat varietal, nor technically a grain). Combine with other flours to add a hearty, grassy flavor and color to bread. Good for pasta and pancakes. Whole buckwheat flour has a stronger flavor and more nutrients. White buckwheat is milder and has fewer nutrients. GF, WG option
Non-Wheat flours Legend:
GF: gluten free; WG: whole grain
Note: All flours could potentially be cross-contaminated with gluten-containing ingredients during processing. Look for gluten-free or allergy labeling if you follow a gluten-free diet.