Using Wheat-Free and Gluten-Free Flours

How and When to Use Culinary Starches and Low-Protein Flours

gluten-free flours
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All-purpose flour is one of the kitchen staples virtually everyone has, whether they cook much or not. But when you have wheat allergies, celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you can't use one of the many conventional all-purpose flour products on the market. Instead, you'll need to choose a wheat-free or gluten-free flour.

Unfortunately, there's no great drop-in replacement for flour for people who can't eat wheat flour (which has some unique properties that make it very useful in cooking). To replace it, you simply have to choose the best wheat-free flour for a specific cooking purpose.

Read on to learn about the different categories of wheat-free flours on the market and how to use them, as well as some more products you might find useful in baking and cooking without wheat.

Culinary Starches

Grains are made up of two basic components: protein and starch. The protein component of wheat is gluten, and it's what makes baked goods stick together so well. The other main component of flour is starch.

Starch works well for thickening soups, sauces, and gravies, although it doesn't act exactly the same as wheat flour in doing so. Being virtually tasteless, it can blend with almost any cuisine. Don't try to substitute starch for flour in baked goods, though. On its own, starch isn't sufficient to hold baked goods together, so it's not a good one-to-one substitute for flour in baking.

There are four major wheat-free culinary starches: cornstarch, arrowroot starch, tapioca starch, and potato starch. From a culinary standpoint, the four are interchangeable, so feel free to mix and match based on your dietary needs and what's in your pantry.

Starch does have a tendency to create gooey lumps when heated; you can combat this by creating a slurry of starch and liquid rather than adding starch directly to a hot pan. Starch-thickened liquids tend to congeal a bit as they cool, but heating brings them back to their original state. Another quirk about starch: while flour-thickened gravies and sauces are opaque, starch-thickened sauces are shiny and translucent.

Starch is also used in a traditional Chinese cooking technique called ​velveting, in which egg whites and starch are used to coat chicken pieces before stir-frying over high heat. The combination of starch and egg protects the meat and keeps it from drying out.

Low-Protein, Neutral-Taste Flours

Low-protein flours include both the protein and the starch from the grain, but come from grains that are naturally low in protein. In general, these flours are the best substitutes for wheat flour in situations where gluten isn't important—that is, where flour isn't holding together a baked good. They are ideally suited for thickening sauces, dredging meats, making tempura batters, and making flatbreads. They also can be used in baking in combination with other flours and baking aids.

White rice flour is the first flour many people experiment with when first diagnosed with a condition that requires them to go wheat-free or gluten-free. Rice flour has a few wonderful traits: it's got a neutral flavor, it's available at many markets that carry few other special wheat-free baking aids, it's reasonably flexible from a culinary standpoint, and it stores well. However, the texture can be gritty. Brown rice flour has similar advantages and disadvantages to white rice flour; make sure to store it in the refrigerator.

For most non-baking applications, millet flour works well. It has a slightly stronger flavor than rice flour but a much softer texture. Millet makes the closest replacement for wheat flour in roux-thickened sauces (like Béchamel). Another useful low-protein flour is corn flour, which is nice for dredging and often combined with other flours in baking. Corn flour is much finer and softer than cornmeal—the two can't be used interchangeably.

Low-Protein, Stronger Tasting Flours

Amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, teff, and buckwheat flour have similar protein contents to millet, corn, and rice (with rice having the least protein of the group). These flours have similar cooking properties to other low-protein flours, and they are generally unsuitable for baking on their own.

These flours, however, taste somewhat stronger than the flours in the preceding group. Because of that, they are less suitable for sauces, where flour is generally not used for its taste. They are primarily used in recipes where their unique flavors are the focal point—buckwheat flour, for example, is the traditional flour used to make Breton galettes—or to combine with high-protein flours, as they can meld nicely and help mellow the flavor of the mixture.

High-Protein Flours

High-protein flours are ground from legumes of all sorts. Garbanzo, fava, and soy are among the most common high-protein flours, with soy flour being available in many supermarkets. In all cases, they are useful in baking because their high protein content is the closest approximation to gluten found in gluten-free flours. However, all high-protein flours on the market at this time are strongly flavored. Most wheat-free and gluten-free bread recipes that use these flours will combine them with a lower-protein flour for a more neutral taste.

High-protein flours are not the best choice for replacing flour in recipes that don't depend on gluten (in other words, most recipes except for baked goods), and their flavors are too noticeable for them to make great sauces or gravies. They are acceptable for dredging meats, however, especially if they will be used in a dish that has other strong, complementary flavors.

Gluten-Containing Flours

People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are unable to use barley and rye for baking, since those two grains (alongside wheat) also contain gluten. However, many people with wheat allergies tolerate these grains.

Both barley flour and rye flour contain some gluten, but they are lower in gluten than wheat and so are not one-to-one replacements for wheat in baking. Rye flour has a strong flavor and is used to make dense pumpernickel breads. Barley is the more versatile of the two from a culinary standpoint, but has higher cross-contamination risks for people with wheat allergies, since it's often grown in rotation with wheat.

A Word from Verywell

Replacing wheat flour in recipes can be challenging, and requires some more advanced cooking skills and some knowledge of how various ingredients work together in recipes.

For example, many ingredients are used to add protein to baked goods that are made primarily from lower-protein flours. Some—like milk, eggs, soy milk, and other nondairy milk alternatives—are grocery store staples. Others are a bit more obscure:

  • Egg replacer is used not just to replace eggs, but also to leaven and add protein to wheat-free baked goods. It's available at many health food stores or at some supermarkets.
  • Nut meals are dense and rich in protein. They are obviously not suitable for people with tree nut allergies. Find them at health food stores or online.
  • Powdered dry milk is available in bags in most supermarkets, usually in the baking section near canned condensed milk.

You'll also find a few ingredients in many wheat-free baking recipes that you might not be familiar with, such as gums. Gums are used in combination with flour mixes in baking as a substitute for gluten. The two you are most likely to find in recipes are xanthan gum, which is derived from sugar (often from corn), and guar gum, which is derived from a type of bean. You can purchase these in many health food stores or online.

Ultimately, with a bit of practice, you'll learn which wheat-free and gluten-free flours work best in which recipes.


Beyond Celiac. Introduction to Gluten-Free Flours.