This is the second in a series of articles on low carb baking. You can read the first article on Stocking Your Low Carb Pantry here.
If you’re someone who loves to bake, you may think that starting a low carb diet means your favorite pastime is now off-limits. You can’t have flour and you can’t have sugar, so you can’t possibly make muffins and cakes and cookies, right? Well sure, if you want to define baking in those narrow, high carb terms, then I suppose you might be right. But if you’re ready to explore a whole new world of healthy low carb ingredients, stay with me.
Today we tackle low carb flour alternatives. There are a few wheat-based flour products on the market that have somehow magically been de-carbified. You are free to use these if you wish, but I steer clear of them. I stay away from most things with wheat as it is, but I did try these out a few times and I can’t say that they live up to the promise. They don’t taste very good, they don’t rise well or hold together well, and you have to ask yourself: what sort of processing do they go through to reduce the carb count so much?
So, I stick with the real, whole food low carb flour alternatives like almond flour and coconut flour. It may be hard to believe now, but I promise that you can create baked goods that rival their high-carb counterparts in taste and consistency.
The most commonly known and used nut flour is almond flour, and it is one of the most versatile low carb ingredients. Almond flour can differ greatly between brands in terms of how finely ground it is, so you need to know what to look for. The finest almond flours are made from blanched almonds and have no darker specks of skin. Almond “meal” is often not nearly so finely ground and may or may not contain the husks of the almonds. The finer the grind of the almond flour, the finer the consistency of your baked goods. However, more coarsely ground meals are often less expensive and are still useful in things that don’t require a fine texture, such as muffins.
Not a fan of almonds or have an allergy? There are plenty of other nut and seed meals out there, although few of them are as finely ground as good almond flour. Hazelnut meal and pecan meal can make for some delicious baked goods. And sunflower seed flour is a great nut-free replacement for almond flour.
Now, how to actually use these nut meals and flours? It is not so simple as taking a conventional recipe and swapping almond flour in for wheat flour. Almond flour lacks gluten, a protein found in wheat that helps baked goods rise and hold their shape. It also has much higher fat and moisture contents than wheat. All of these factors need to be considered when making an almond flour recipe.
Almond flour recipes typically require more eggs and more leavening agent to help them rise properly. I also like to add a little dry protein, like whey protein powder, as I find this can help [with rising?]. Almond flour recipes may also contain less oil and liquid as well, to account for the high fat content of the nuts. In my experience, low carb, gluten-free batters are thicker than their conventional counterparts. Resist the urge to thin them out, as you may end up with a soggy mess.
Coconut flour is a different beast altogether from nut flours, and is actually the by-product of coconut milk production. After the coconut milk has been extracted, the leftover coconut meat is dried at low temps for a long period of time and then ground. The end result is a finely powdered substance that resembles wheat flour in texture, although it smells distinctly of coconut. But don’t try to treat it like wheat flour, or you will end up with some tasteless hockey pucks and a stress headache.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of coconut flour is the rather astonishing way it soaks up moisture and liquids. It’s like a sponge in powder form, taking in a remarkable amount of eggs, oil and other wet ingredients, and staying as thick as porridge until it finally reaches saturation.
The trick to working with coconut flour is accepting the fact that it requires a lot of eggs to give it structure and a decent consistency. It can be a little shocking to see half a dozen to a dozen eggs in a recipe, but as you try it out, you will see that it works. The end results are rarely too eggy or rubbery. You will also be surprised to see how little coconut flour is used in most recipes. It’s incredibly dense, but expands remarkably with the added eggs and liquid, so you typically only need about a third of the amount you would need with conventional flour or nut flours.
Even if you don’t like the taste of coconut, you may still want to try baking with coconut flour, as the strong taste can actually be masked well with other strong flavors. I find that vanilla, chocolate, and cocoa powder are good additions to help mask the coconut taste for sweet recipes. For savory items, add a little garlic or onion powder. Enhance other flavors with herbs, spices and extracts, and I think you will find you can still enjoy the end result.
Ready to Get Started?
Don’t be intimidated by this whole new world of low carb flour alternatives, it’s not as scary as it sounds. My advice to new low carb bakers is to never go it alone. Always start with some tried and true recipes to get a feel for these new ingredients. Avail yourself of all the Internet has to offer, as there are so many great resources and recipe writers. Once you have a better understanding of how your ingredients behave, you can start to improvise. And if you’re at all like me, once you start, you will never be able to stop.