9 Important Tips for Baking and Cooking with Gluten-Free Flour

It takes some practice to work with gluten-free flours

gluten-free flour and baking
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To understand how to substitute gluten-free flour for wheat flour when baking and cooking, it helps to know a bit of basic food chemistry. Even if you're terrible at chemistry, it's really not that complicated. Learn important facts about flour and how to substitute gluten-free flour for wheat flour.

What Is Flour?

Flour is made by grinding grains, legumes, nuts, or seeds into a fine powder.

When these substances are ground into coarse powders, the result is referred to as "meal" rather than "flour."

When most people think of flour, they're thinking of wheat flour, which obviously is off-limits on a gluten-free diet. Flours made from wheat, barley, or rye contain gluten and will make those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity sick. Fortunately, it's getting easier and easier to find a variety of alternative flours. You can find them in the natural foods section of any large supermarket or online.

Basic Facts About Flour and Gluten

With gluten-free cooking and baking, it helps to know what gluten does before you try to work without it.

  • Gluten makes dough "doughy." As soon as glutenin and gliadin are surrounded by water, the gluten molecules develop and begin to form strong, sticky, elastic bonds. These elastic bonds give the dough its stretchy qualities. Have you ever seen pizza being made? The bakers toss the pizza dough up in the air with a circular motion to stretch it. That stretchy dough has a lot of gluten in it.
  • Gluten helps the dough rise. The amount of water that's added to the flour affects gluten development, with more water resulting in more gluten development and a chewier dough. The amount of mixing or kneading is the second factor. Kneading helps the bonded gluten molecules form into long elastic strands or sheets. That's why dough can rise when yeast has been added. The yeast gives off gas, the gas is trapped by the sheets of gluten molecules, and the dough rises.
  • Different purposes call for different flours. Different types of wheat flours have different amounts of gluten development. Bread flour develops a lot of gluten, while cake flour is relatively low in gluten because cakes should be less chewy than pizzas and bread. Cake flour still has enough gluten to keep baked goods from crumbling. In contrast, pie crusts—which should be tender and flaky—have much less gluten than either bread or cakes. Instead, pie crust doughs have a lot of shortening and only a small amount of liquid, and they are mixed only enough to combine the ingredients.

Since gluten plays so many roles in baking, you'll need to use different types of gluten-free flour to achieve the best results in different recipes. Gluten-free flours break down into four general categories:

  • gluten-free starches
  • neutral-tasting, low-protein flours
  • strong-tasting low-protein flours
  • high-protein flours

Each type of flour has a place in your gluten-free baking repertoire.

Gluten-Free Culinary Starches

Grains contain both starch and protein (gluten is, of course, a protein). When you separate out the protein component of grain, you're left with the starch. Gluten-free starches in common use in baking include:

  • cornstarch
  • tapioca starch
  • arrowroot starch
  • potato starch

These starches don't have much taste; instead, their job is to thicken liquids and to add some bulk and texture to baked goods. You can use starch to make gravy or to thicken soups. In fact, many recipes call for cornstarch to make gravy, rather than wheat flour. However, you can't use only starch in baked goods, or they'll fall apart. Note that you can substitute any of the four starches for another type of starch. They mostly behave the same in cooking.

When working with starch, beware of the lumps that tend to form when you heat it. To avoid a gooey mess, mix the starch and your liquid in a measuring cup first and then add them to a heating pan.

In addition, if you find your gravy or soup is too thick once it has cooled, try heating it again to thin it out.

Note that gravy thickened with cornstarch or another starch will be clearer and less "creamy"-looking than gravy thickened with wheat flour.

Low-Protein Gluten-Free Flour

Many grains are low in protein, including rice, millet, and corn. Flour made from these grains does include protein, but since the grains themselves are low in protein, the resulting flour is low, as well. You can use flours made from these grains in baking, but they won't hold your baked goods together well. You'll get the best results when you combine different types of low-protein flour in their baked goods.

Rice flour (from both white rice and brown rice) is the most common low-protein gluten-free flour in use, and lots of people bake and cook with it. It's also reasonably priced, doesn't have a strong taste, and is available at most larger grocery stores. You may find that you don't like the texture of rice flour, since it can be a bit gritty. Manufacturers recommend storing these flours in the refrigerator.

Millet flour is a less common, but also useful, low-protein gluten-free flour. You'll find that it has a better texture than rice flour. Corn flour (not corn meal, which isn't interchangeable) also has a soft, fine texture, but a stronger taste.

Potential uses for low-protein flours include:

  • thickening sauces (use millet in roux-thickened sauces like Béchamel)
  • coating meats for frying (corn flour works well here)
  • making tempura (again, try corn flour)
  • baking flatbreads (a combination of rice flour and millet flour works well)

Several gluten-free grains are low in protein but have a strong taste, which makes them less suitable for certain recipes. These include: amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, teff, and buckwheat. Use these grains where you want to taste them: for example, in gluten-free bread. Alternatively, you can combine them with high-protein flours.

High-Protein Gluten-Free Flours

High-protein gluten-free flours aren't made from grains at all—instead, they're ground from legumes such as garbanzo beans, fava beans, and soybeans. These flours are dense and heavy, and often taste strongly of beans. You can use them to help replace the gluten protein in wheat flour-based baked goods, but it's not recommended to use them in large quantities, or your baked goods will taste like hummus.

To use these products effectively in baked goods, combine them with one or more of the low-protein gluten-free flours. You'll find they don't work well to make gravy or thicken soup, so choose a starch for that purpose. You can use high-protein legume-based flour to dredge meat for sauteeing, especially if the tastes in the recipes blend well.

Substituting Gluten-Free Flour for Wheat Flour in Baked Goods

Gluten gives important properties to regular dough. You'll have disappointing results if you simply eliminate it without compensating for it in some way. Here are tips for successful baking with gluten-free flours, reviewed by Chef Richard Coppedge, professor in Baking and Pastry Arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

  • Buy or make a gluten-free flour mix. If you just need to coat something in flour before you saute it, you can get away with a single-grain gluten-free flour. But for baking, gluten-free flours work better when used in combination. For thickening sauces and gravies, use cornstarch or potato starch rather than gluten-free flour. Start with a gluten-free flour mix that can be substituted one-for-one for wheat flour in recipes. Many commercial ones are available, or you can buy the individual flours (you might need to order them by mail) and make your own mix.
  • Bake breads and rolls in containers with walls. Without gluten, bread loafs and rolls don't hold their shape. Bake bread in loaf pans or Bundt pans, and use muffin tins for rolls.
  • Add gums to your gluten-free flour. The sticky effect created by gluten can be simulated to a certain extent by adding gums, such as guar gum or xanthan gum. These gums are only added to recipes in small amounts (such as 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour) and are already included in many commercial gluten-free flour mixes.
  • Add some protein when you use gluten-free flour. Chef Coppedge explains that because gluten is a protein, it can help to add some protein to baking recipes when you're substituting gluten-free flours for wheat flour. For instance, he suggests, try replacing half a cup of water in your recipe with egg or liquid egg whites.
  • Read gluten-free cookbooks and blogs for new ideas. Many great gluten-free cookbooks are available. As gluten-free cooking becomes more common, you will find new tips and innovations.
  • Experiment with some old favorites. Don't be afraid to work with your favorite old recipes, adapting them to gluten-free. It may take several tries to figure out exactly what to do. Set aside a weekend day to experiment, and see if you can recreate something you love in a form you can eat.
  • Remember to protect against cross-contamination with gluten. For example, never prepare gluten-free foods on the same surface used to prepare foods with gluten unless it's been thoroughly cleaned (and it's capable of being cleaned—for example, you can never clean a wooden cutting board well enough to make it gluten-free). You're much safer to have separate sets of utensils for gluten-free food preparation. Always use different sifters for gluten-free and regular flours. 
  • Store gluten-free flour in the refrigerator or freezer. This advice is particularly important if you buy your flours in bulk. If you store your flours in the freezer, let them come to room temperature before you use them.
  • Be sure the flour you are substituting is gluten-free. Beware of the following flours. They have ambiguous names but contain gluten and must be avoided:
Flours to Avoid
All-purpose flourPlain flour
Bulgar flourSauce flour
Bread flourSelf-rising flour
Brown flourSemolina flour
Cake flourSpelt flour
Durham flourTriticale flour
Granary flourWheaten cornflour
Graham flourWholemeal flour
Kamut flour

A Word from Verywell

Since wheat is such a useful ingredient in recipes, it can be challenging to replace. If you're used to experimenting with recipes, you may find that you need to follow a gluten-free recipe more closely than you're used to doing. In addition, you may find that your first attempt (or first couple of attempts) at a recipe don't work very well—perhaps your bread will be like lead, or your tempura will fall apart. 

Most successful gluten-free cooks have numerous types of gluten-free flour in their pantries. Don't be afraid to experiment (bearing in mind that your success rate might be lower than before) until you find flours and proportions that work for your favorite recipes.

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Article Sources
  • Coppedge RJ, Charles C. Gluten-Free Baking With the Culinary Institute of America. Avon, MA: Adams Media; 2008.