During the holiday season, when baking is in high gear, why not turn to alternative whole-grain, nut, and bean flours to boost the flavor and nutrition of dinner rolls, crackers, cakes, and pies? Choosing whole grains for holiday baking is smart because they offer more fiber, more vitamins, and in some cases more protein than highly processed wheat flour. They also add exciting flavors and textures to baking that characterless wheat flour just can’t supply.
Because whole-grain flours are made from the entire grain—the bran, the endosperm, and the germ—they are higher in naturally occurring oils than refined white baking flour that has had most of the germ stripped away. Caution: These oils can become rancid over time, so it’s best to store whole-grain flours in containers in the refrigerator or freezer if you aren’t a frequent baker. Many grocery stores offer these flours in bulk, so you can buy as much or as little as you’ll use within a few months.
Native to Peru and used ceremonially by the Aztecs, amaranth has been grown for its edible leaves and tiny yellow seeds for at least 6,000 years. High in protein and calcium, the cream-colored flour has a pronounced grassy flavor; blend it with wheat flour and use in recipes that carry other strong flavors like chiles, sharp cheese, or dark sweeteners like molasses.
Also called besan, this pale yellow flour made from dried, ground chickpeas is popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. It adds a buttery, savory flavor (think falafel) to baked goods and makes crunchy crackers that stay crisp for up to a week. The flavor is pronounced; balance it with savory ingredients like garlic, herbs, and cheese.
Ground from the seeds of the Andean plant of the same name, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) flour is high in protein and lysine. The grain is used in South American kitchens in pilafs and soups, as one would use rice, but light gray/beige quinoa flour is now widely used in baking; its strong, nutty flavor makes it a natural for baked goods laced with pungent spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
Made from tiny seeds of a grass native to Africa, teff flour is the primary ingredient in injera, the spongy bread served in Ethiopian restaurants. Teff leads all grains in its calcium content (123 grams per cup) and is high in protein. Teff has a malty flavor and dark color. It lends a fine crumb to cakes, pancakes, cookies, and quick breads; pair it with cocoa powder, molasses, or dark brown sugar for best results.
Baking with whole grains is a good thing, but don’t be tempted to swap alternative whole-grain flours for wheat flour in your favorite recipes entirely; risk it and you might end up with a hockey puck instead of a feather-light biscuit. Many whole-grain flours lack the gluten structure of flour, so they don’t behave in the same way in baking. The key is balance, so follow these tested recipes first to become familiar with the properties of ancient whole grains before experimenting on your own. Once you’ve found a whole-grain flour you like, try replacing small increments of wheat flour in your favorite recipes with whole-grain flours until you arrive at recipes with a texture and flavor you love.
In all but one of these recipes, a blend of both whole-grain alternative flours and organic wheat flour is used to get the right texture and lift. You’ll still taste the grassiness of amaranth, the nuttiness of quinoa, and the slightly bitter, chocolaty effect of teff flour in these recipes, but the final products will be light and familiar enough to serve to even the pickiest eaters at your holiday table.
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, December 2013/January 2014
Photo stylist: Susan Semenak