There's much more to life than all-purpose flour: 7 flavourful alternatives to explore
From red fife to rye — here's how and when to try something other than AP the next time you're in the kitchen
A decade ago I started a blog called 'Odd Flour'. I felt like I was breaking ground at the time, revising my mom's old, whole wheat baking recipes to work in specialty flour varieties that my grocery store was starting to stock: spelt, red fife, oat flour. I posted a handful of recipes before talking myself out of the project. "Who's gonna read this?", I thought.
Little did I know that in the near future we'd embrace Spelt Chocolate Brownies, leave out cookies for Santa made with rye flour and serve red fife cupcakes to our kids. In retrospect, the transition to alternative flour was a natural evolution and anyone with an oracle could have confirmed it. Many of us are trying to eat a little healthier, adding more whole grains to our diet, and even going entirely gluten-free depending on our needs.
It could be argued that the best part of this change is the world of flavour that's opened up with the move beyond all-purpose flour as the go-to. It's never been easier to experiment — you don't even need to leave your house, you can now order red fife, rye and buckwheat online. Your only task is to figure out how to use the abundance of available options.
That's where I come in again; I've put together a list of flours you can start experimenting with if they are new to you. Once you taste them, see how they act, and how to use them, you can try mixing them with other flour to get your own perfect blend! Just keep in mind that all-purpose flour has the bran and germ removed, making it shelf-stable (and also less nutritious). The flour listed below tends to be fresher, and some still contain the bran and germ, so consider storing them in the fridge or freezer where they'll stay fresher longer.
Otherwise known as flax meal, it's best to buy whole flax seeds and grind them yourself in a powerful blender or spice grinder. Once ground, flax goes rancid fast, so use quickly and grind them before they take on a fishy aroma. Why bother? Flax is more digestible in flour form, so you'll reap more of their nutritional benefits including fibre and omega-3 fatty acids.
You may find both golden or brown flax at your grocery store. You can use either one, but the darker brown seeds have a more distinct, nuttier and earthier taste.
How to use it: Blend flax flour with something else like red fife or spelt, to soften its strong taste that could easily overpower. Start with ¼ cup of flax flour for every 1 ½ cups of other flour and adjust to your taste. Add flax to muffins, cookies, or pancakes, or into your favourite granola bar recipe.
With a mellow oat-y taste, soft texture, and gluten-free properties, oat flour is a great choice to start with if you're beginning out from AP. You can generally get away with using 100 per cent oat flour in things like cookies and quickbread recipes, as long as those recipes call for eggs to help bind the dough, because gluten-less oat flour won't bind the way all-purpose flour would.
You can make your own oat flour easily by grinding up old-fashioned oats in a food processor. Just keep in mind that if you are baking for someone with celiac disease, to look for oats or oat flour that are specifically labelled 'gluten-free'.
How to use it: Make oat flour banana bread or swap it into your favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe. Serve homemade Scottish oatcakes with cheese and jam at your next party as your gluten-free cracker option, or swap a bit of oat flour into your favourite bread recipe for a subtle twist.
Red fife flour
I use sifted red fife flour in place of all-purpose flour in my kitchen. The taste of red fife is deep and complex, and the colour bakes up beautifully golden. The sifted version is softer than whole grain red fife, but it can be harder to find (I order mine online from Flourist and they ship across the country). Mixing both sifted and whole grain together in equal parts makes a versatile and healthful flour blend that works in muffins, bread and pancakes.
How to use it: Make pizza dough, "cupcakes", or swap it into any spice cake recipe where it'll complement the warmer flavours. Also, make graham crackers from scratch with whole grain red fife and see how happy this makes kids.
Rye has an assertive, sweet and sour flavour. It can be difficult to work with because of its lower gluten content and tendency to absorb a lot of water — this creates a gummy texture if you use it in too high a proportion. To avoid that, mix it with another flour at a one-to-one ratio for a bold-flavoured flour blend.
How to use it: Of course, make pumpernickel bread, or sourdough starter, but if that sounds too ambitious, simply swap it into any cake recipe that contains molasses — these two love each other — or to replace some of the all-purpose flour in chocolate muffins, brownies or chocolate cake, where its subtle sweet flavour complements the cocoa. It's also great in the crust of an apple or pear galette, or a stone fruit tart in summer.
Spelt flour is a mellow and light-tasting flour that I'm seeing sold in big-box stores more and more often. You'll find it to be pretty user-friendly, and a good option when you're just starting out. Look for sifted spelt for a softer texture for cookies or cakes, and use a mix of whole grain and sifted when you're not so fussy about the texture, like say, for bread or pancakes.
How to use it: While you can get away most times with swapping sifted spelt in for anywhere you'd use all-purpose flour (and use its whole grain version going anywhere you'd otherwise use whole wheat flour), you'll find many recipes call for using spelt outright. Try these chocolate brownies, sourdough bread, or even homemade treats for the dog!
Buckwheat flour is gluten-free and has a nutty, grassy taste — you've probably already enjoyed it in soba noodles — though most store-bought soba noodles contain other flours and are not necessarily gluten-free. To make soba succeed, buckwheat flour is usually mixed with a little all-purpose flour, otherwise they'd crumble and break apart. Buckwheat works better alone for things with a higher moisture content like pancakes or crepes.
How to use it: Make buckwheat blinis and top them with sour cream and smoked salmon (or caviar if the occasion calls), or no-flip ployes.
Sweet and nutty, almond flour is a versatile gluten-free option and useful if you're following diets like paleo or keto. Baked goods made with almond flour can be more crumbly and fragile than those made with all-purpose, and you won't get away with using solely almond flour in your baking with the exception of recipes that contain a good amount of eggs or another binder.
How to use it: Find a recipe for a gluten-free, breakfast almond cake online and turn that into cupcakes if you'd rather. Seek out directions for Italian almond meringue cookies, or swap a bit of almond flour into anything you're baking for a boost of protein.
There's no denying chickpea flour's subtle, bean-y taste, so you'll want to use it for savoury applications where its taste makes sense. Chickpea flour is lovely to work with because it's so dense, and it binds well, making it a good choice for certain gluten-free applications.
How to use it: Look up a recipe for panisse (fried chickpea flour sticks), or the delicate flatbreads socca and farinata. Master those and you'll have lots of gluten-free, quick meal options since they can be topped with as many embellishments as your imagination allows, from canned tuna, cherry tomatoes and arugula, to mushrooms and pesto.
Not that you've caught a glimpse of life beyond all-purpose, here are a few more recipes to get you baking beyond AP.
Jessica Brooks is a digital producer and pro-trained cook and baker. Follow her food stories on Instagram @brooks_cooks.