HFG guide to gluten-free grains

Reviewed by our expert panel
HFG guide to gluten-free grains

With a range of alternatives to wheat now available, nutritionist Dr Sue Shepherd investigates what they are, what to do with them and what they can do for us.

Almonds are often referred to as nuts but they’re actually the seed of the fruit of almond trees. Almond meal is almond ground into a flour-like texture.

  • Best used for making flourless cakes and friands, and as a base for stuffings and crumbles.
  • Nutritional properties Ground almond is low in carbohydrates, and high in protein, fat and fibre. It is also a great source of calcium, vitamin E, manganese and magnesium.
  • Find it in supermarkets and health-food stores.

Amaranth is a high-protein grain with a strong, distinct flavour. The flour is made from ground amaranth seeds and is best used as part of a flour blend.

  • Best used for making flat breads, biscuits and slices. When puffed, it is also used to make breakfast cereal and muesli.
  • Nutritional properties Amaranth is a great source of protein, fibre and minerals such as iron, magnesium and manganese.
  • Find it in health-food stores and select Bin Inns.

Arrowroot is virtually tasteless and is made from a tropical American plant. It contributes ‘stretch’ and chewiness to baking.

  • Best used for making a gel, so it is useful for thickening fruit sauces but it is not suitable for cheese or savoury sauces.
  • Nutritional properties Arrowroot does not pack much of a nutritional punch as it is almost pure carbohydrates with virtually no protein or fat.
  • Find it in supermarkets.

These are names for flour made from roasted chickpeas, often used in Indian cooking. Besan flour is an ideal substitute for soy flour.

  • Best used for a proportion of a gluten-free flour blend as besan flour has a strong taste.
  • Nutritional properties Besan flour is low in carbohydrate, high in protein, fibre, copper, folate and manganese.
  • Find it in Indian grocery stores and Bin Inn.

Although ‘wheat’ appears in the name, buckwheat is not related to wheat at all! It is a seed with a strong nutty flavour and it is the main ingredient in soba noodles.

  • Best used for making crêpes and pancakes. It can also be incorporated into a cereal or muesli mix.
  • Nutritional properties Buckwheat flour is high in protein and fibre, low in fat and a good source of iron, zinc and selenium.
  • Find it in supermarkets.

Nutritionally, chestnuts are closer to a grain than a nut. They are also seasonal, similar to fruit, and have a sweeter flavour.

  • Best used for replacing other nut-based flours as chestnut flour is lower in fat and not a tree-nut allergen. Chestnut meal is ideal for dishes requiring a grainier texture.
  • Nutritional properties Chestnut flour is low in fat and an excellent source of fibre. It is also a good source of vitamin C.
  • Find it in gourmet delis.

In some countries (including New Zealand), flour made from wheat can still be called cornflour, but gluten-free cornflour must be made from maize (another name for corn).

  • Best used for a proportion of a wheat-free flour blend for baking due to its neutral taste and protein. It can also be used to thicken sauces and stews, to coat meat and for a batter mix.
  • Nutritional properties Cornflour doesn’t contain much other than carbohydrates.
  • Find it in supermarkets.

Cornmeal (also called polenta) is ground corn that is not as finely ground as cornflour. It has a grainy mouth-feel.

  • Best used for making cornbread or as an alternative to breadcrumbs. Cornmeal is also an alternative to mashed potatoes when cooked in milk to thicken. When cooked more firmly it sets to make a slice for lunch or finger-food bites.
  • Nutritional properties Low in fat and carbohydrates, cornmeal is also a source of protein and fibre.
  • Find it in supermarkets and health-food stores.

Millet is not a grain but a grass. It is a wheat-free staple in African, Indian and Asian countries. It has small, round, yellow kernels that swell when they are cooked.

  • Best used for a proportion of a flour mix once ground or used to make porridge. The grains can also be cooked like rice and used in salads and savoury side dishes.
  • Nutritional properties Millet is a very good source of manganese and protein.
  • Find it in health-food stores and supermarkets.

This is a very fine white flour with virtually no flavour. It is made by grinding potato to a pulp and removing the fibre and protein through water-washing.

  • Best used for blending with other flours for baking as it has elastic properties. Potato starch flour substitutes well for tapioca flour or arrowroot. If used to thicken sauces, it will become a little ‘stretchy’ or gel-like.
  • Nutritional properties Potato starch flour is fat-free and very high in potassium.
  • Find it in Bin Inn and Asian and Indian grocery stores.

This ancient grain (pronounced ‘keen-wa’) is now increasingly available as a whole grain and flour, and in pasta and breakfast cereals. It has a slightly bitter taste.

  • Best used for a basis for salads or savoury side dishes. Quinoa can be cooked like rice.
  • Nutritional properties Quinoa has been described as ’the most nearly perfect source of protein from the vegetable kingdom’ by the National Academy of Science. It is also a great source of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, folate, vitamin B6.
  • Find it in health-food stores and supermarkets (in either the health foods or pasta aisle).

Rice flour is a major contributor to a wheat-free flour blend and it is essential in any wheat-free pantry. The texture can range from fine to gritty. Glutinous rice flour (which is gluten-free) provides elasticity and has a neutral taste.

  • Best used for sauces and gravies as a thickener.
  • Nutritional properties Rice flour contains very little fat and fibre but it does contain protein. Brown rice flour is also available and can be used in wheat-free baking to increase the fibre.
  • Find it in supermarkets, health- food stores and Asian grocery stores.

This is a high-protein flour made from soy beans. It can have a strong flavour, which can be bitter. Bitterness decreases with cooking, but it is best to purchase de-bittered soy flour if possible.

  • Best used for a small but important part of a wheat-free flour blend.
  • Nutritional properties While soy flour is quite high in fat, it is also high in fibre and a good source of thiamin, iron, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese.
  • Find it in Bin Inn and health-food stores.

This is made from ground, dried pearl tapioca (small white balls of the cassava root). Tapioca flour has little flavour and it is useful in a wheat-free flour blend. Its elastic properties give a chewy texture to baked goods.

  • Best used for a substitute for potato flour and arrowroot.
  • Nutritional properties Tapioca flour has virtually no fibre, protein or fat.
  • Find it in health-food stores and Indian and Asian grocery stores.

The best choices for:

  • Porridge: Millet, quinoa
  • Pancakes/crêpes: Buckwheat flour
  • Baking: Ground almonds (for cakes, friands and crumbles), amaranth (for flat breads, biscuits and slices), arrowroot (for ‘stretch’), cornmeal (for cornbread), tapioca flour (for a chewy texture)
  • Breadcrumbs: Cornmeal
  • Coatings/batter: Maize cornflour
  • Wheat-free flour blends (good for mixing together, to create different consistencies and tastes): Potato starch flour, soy flour, besan flour, millet, maize cornflour, tapioca, rice flour
  • Stuffings: Almond flour
  • Sauce thickeners: Arrowroot (fruit sauce only), maize cornflour, potato starch flour, rice flour
First published: Jun 2011


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