There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the wisdom — or lack thereof — of our nations’ wheat-heavy diets. Best-sellers like William Davis’ Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health and diets of the Paleo or Primal variety encourage us to excise it entirely from our lives, and bask in the resulting good health and trimmer waistlines.
The basic idea, evolutionarily speaking, is that Homo sapiens weren’t designed for the consumption of wheat. The agricultural revolution only occurred around 10,000 years ago (relatively recently, in terms of our biological history), and our hunter-gatherer bodies simply haven’t had time to adjust. Increased wheat intake has been linked to weight gain, inflammation, high cholesterol and raised blood sugar.
Wheat can also act eerily like a narcotic in terms of the effect it has on our brain chemistry – in other words, it can be addictive. We’ve known for a while now that whole grain flour is better than refined, but supporters of these theories espouse that all wheat is risky for us, whole or not.
All these facts may inspire you to visit the supermarket to check out your other options, only to be confronted with a panoply of gluten-free products that do their best to approximate their wheatier counterparts. But wheat alternatives don’t need to be limited to dense, frozen breads or processed foodstuffs: there’s a whole slew of exceptional options to turn to. In fact, calling them “wheat alternatives” undermines what they really are: toothsome and almost excessively nutritious foods that can be whipped into things you never even dreamed of. You’re probably already familiar with a few – cornmeal, for one – but to help you separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, here are a few other flours you can start experimenting with.
If you’ve eaten at a Chinese restaurant, you’ve probably unwittingly enjoyed rice flour, made from white or brown rice (or the sweeter sticky rice). Rice flour is relatively easy to make on your own, which means plenty of chances to test out dozens of flavors, like the basmati rice used in this Chocolate Basmati Rice Soufflé. Once the husk is removed, the raw rice inside is milled into a fine flour that makes a great substitute with fairly endless culinary uses – as a thickener, in noodles and breads or often as that deliciously glutinous (but still gluten-free!) Japanese treat, mochi.
Rice flour also makes for a wonderfully crisp crust, so the next time you’re struck by the urge to fry, put rice flour to good use in something like Crispy Maryland Soft-Shell Crabs. It may be a little higher in calories than wheat flour, but most of that comes from complex carbohydrates, rich in vitamins and minerals.
There’s no doubting that quinoa’s day has come; the evidence is overwhelmingly apparent in every gourmet restaurant and salad bar, and it’s even been considered by NASA as a potential crop for long-term manned spaceflights! It may come off as hype, but quinoa has some hardcore bragging rights to back it up. The 3,000-year-old pseudocereal has an incredibly high nutrient value — it’s a complete protein (making it one of the few non-animal sources of all nine essential amino acids), and is a better source of iron than other whole grains.
Of course, this would all be moot if it didn’t measure up in the taste department, but quinoa has a great, toasty, nutty flavor that’s versatile enough to use in both savory and sweet dishes.
Bean flours – which run a wide spectrum, from black and white beans to fava and soy – are nutrient-dense (loads of protein and fiber), versatile and unfairly underused. They’re wonderful as thickeners, in gluten-free baking and for dips and fillings. One variety that’s gained a little notoriety of late is chickpea flour, also known as garbanzo or gram flour. Made from either raw (slightly bitter) or roasted (develops a deeper flavor) chickpeas, it’s especially popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking. To get you started, try it out in Crispy Chickpea Cakes to get a taste of the East, and then hop over to the Mediterranean with a savory Simple Socca.
Millet is a traditional food eaten all over the planet in both sweet and savory dishes, either whole or ground into flour. Millet consumption today is highest in West Africa (where it likely originated), but it pops up in Indian, Russian, German and Chinese cuisines as well. Millet was one of the earliest cultivated grains, and was the grain du jour of prehistoric times – archaeological evidence suggests it was produced in even vaster quantities than rice.
Pearl millet is the most widely available variety, but finger, proso and foxtail millet are also grown in abundance. Millet has comparable protein content to wheat or maize and is high in fiber. Steamed, the whole grain is similar to couscous, and the flour has a subtle, nutty flavor.
These four flours can definitely expand the limits of your wheat-free diet, but if you want take a crack at alternatives that are a little more familiar-tasting, buckwheat, nut and potato flours, and — though not 100% gluten-free for those among us with full-on Celiac — spelt, kamut and oats, are all superb options. For most of us, wheat is the be-all and end-all of flours, but that’s no reason to stop you from having fun with the growing number of available products – why not finally make that gluten-free pizza or chickpea socca or mochi dumpling? And with all of the added nutritional benefits (and adventurousness credit), you can definitely feel good about yourself for doing it.
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