BUILD A NATURAL FOODS PANTRY
This chapter aims to set you up with something other than the standard powder-white pantry. It’s a whole new (and at the same time old) way of thinking about cooking from scratch.
When cookbooks repeatedly call for the familiar cast of cheap, refined, basic ingredients, people forget how to use anything else. The ingredients they seldom use fall out of favor, and they lose confidence in experimenting with new ones. Many of the ingredients that have fallen out of favor with the home cook are whole grains and whole-grain flours, natural sweeteners, and minimally processed fats.
The ingredients outlined here are going to be your building blocks–your go-to pantry of culinary fats, flavors, and flours. This doesn’t mean you have to take what you are currently using and throw it out, it just means that the next time you head to the store you will be armed with the information (and hopefully inspiration) to choose differently.
Just because you overhaul your pantry it doesn’t mean that you have to banish your favorite family recipes. Cook enough of the recipes in this book and you’ll be able to do updated versions of your favorites using better-quality (and better-tasting) ingredients.
Use this chapter as a shopping primer. The focus here is on what to buy, what to look for, and how to navigate toward more healthful ingredients. You will encounter more information on grains and sweeteners (as well as info on other ingredients) in chapters 2 through 5, with more of an emphasis on how to cook and prepare them.
Flours, Meals, and Powdery Stuff
When you think of flour, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is the processed white variety known as all-purpose flour, created by stripping wheat berries of their nutrient-rich bran and germ prior to processing. It is then “enriched” by adding a small fraction of the original nutrients back in so that the final product isn’t completely devoid of nutrients. Baking recipes you are familiar with often call for this type of wheat flour.
The good news is that there is a whole spectrum of other flours out there that can be used in everything from savory main courses to sweet baked goods. Flour can be milled from grains other than wheat; it can also be milled from an exciting range of nuts and legumes. I’ve even seen banana and coconut flours.
One thing to keep in mind is that using alternative flours isn’t always as simple as swapping one for another (although sometimes this is the case). Different flours have different properties, including gluten-protein levels, absorbency, appearance, texture, and of course flavor. The information in the front of this chapter will help you not only understand the recipes in this book, but help you make educated substitutions when you are working with recipes from other books as well.
We well know that different grains (as well as nuts and legumes) contain different types of protein and in varying amounts. So it follows that the many different kinds of flours contain different types of proteins. When it comes to baking however, the proteins that concern us are the ones found in wheat flour–the gluten-forming proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When these particular proteins come into contact with moisture and motion (kneading or beating), they produce gluten and this gluten forms a network lending structure and elasticity to dough. While all wheat flours contain some level of these gluten-proteins, the amounts vary. For instance, durham wheat, whole-wheat, and unbleached all-purpose flours (which are all milled from hard wheat) typically have gluten protein levels in the 12 to 14 percent range, while cake and pastry flours (milled from soft wheat) come in at around 7 to 10 percent. This is the reason hard wheat flours are the defacto choice for baking bread, making pasta, and creating super-stretchy pizza dough. If you are after a more tender crust, biscuit, cake or muffin, you are better off using a soft pastry flour. Wheat gluten is considered by some to be the only “true” gluten, but other nonwheat flours can contain some gluten as well. Typically, there is not enough to form the structure you get from wheat gluten, but enough to cause problems for people with gluten allergies.
I know it’s confusing, but also keep in mind that flours can be nutritionally high in protein, but have no gluten-forming proteins, for example quinoa flour. It is important to make the distinction. Try to make a leavened bread using 100 percent quinoa flour, and you are destined for trouble.
As you’ll see, I like to blend some of the low-/no-gluten-protein nonwheat flours with wheat flours. You end up with the structure you need from the gluten proteins in the wheat flour, alongside the interesting flavors, textures, and nutritional profiles that come with the nonwheat flours. I’ve also armed you with substitution tips on the following pages to help when you are working with recipes from other books.
The natural oils in whole-grain flours can go rancid quickly at room temperature, so purchase them from a store with high turnover. Refrigerate or freeze these flours as soon as you get home, or at least store them in a cool, dark place. In the refrigerator or freezer, store them in an airtight container so they don’t pick up flavors from other foods and moisture. Flours that are bought in smaller amounts, for example from the bulk/bin section, can be refrigerated in wide-mouthed Mason jars. Flours that come in larger, multi-pound bags I normally seal in large, reusable plastic freezer bags. Also, look for stone-milled flours, which are ground slowly; this method doesn’t generate the nutrient-compromising heat that occurs in other milling methods like hammer milling and roller milling.
What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of every possible flour; that could fill an entire volume in itself. Rather, think of this as a list of favorites.
People are convinced that the minute you make something whole wheat it’s destined to be brown, heavy, and unappetizing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because there is a range of whole-wheat flours to choose from, the key to successful use is understanding which whole-wheat flour to use when. These are two of my go-to wheat flours.
Whole-wheat pastry flour is a powdery flour made from soft red winter wheat or soft white winter wheat. Its lower gluten protein content (relative to standard whole-wheat flour) makes it great for recipes where you want a nice, tender crumb–quick breads, biscuits, muffins, cookies, and cakes. It can be substituted one-to-one for all-purpose white flour in many cases with good results. Using whole-wheat pastry flour instead of straight whole-wheat flour alleviates much of the heaviness often associated with whole-wheat baked goods. Of course, you would still opt for whole-wheat flour with its high gluten protein content if you were making a loaf of hearty artisan walnut bread, but this is a great flour to explore in all those recipes where you are after a nice crumb.
White whole-wheat flour is also fantastic and can replace all-purpose white flour one to one. It is less heavy than traditional whole-wheat flour but more flavorful than all-purpose white flour. If you’re trying to slip whole grains into your cooking under the radar, this is an ideal flour to turn to.
Nonwheat Whole-Grain Flours
High in protein, amaranth flour works well as an accent in combination with other flours. Because it’s a New World ingredient ground from the tiny amaranth grain, I like to pair it with other New World foods, but broadly speaking it has a natural affinity for chiles, cheese, honey, corn, brown sugar, and seeds. Try the Seed-Crusted Amaranth Flour Biscuits on page 36 or you can start by substituting amaranth for up to one-fourth of the all-purpose flour called for in recipes for waffles, pancakes, quick breads, cookies, and muffins. Toasting can mellow its assertive flavor. Keep in mind that it has no wheat gluten. Pairing it with a wheat flour in recipes where a leavener is used (or needed) helps.
Mild and sweet, with malty undertones, barley flour lends itself nicely to baked goods. Although barley flour does contain some gluten, it’s not enough to make a dough rise effectively and is often used in conjunction with a wheat flour. When using barley flour in baked goods, reduce the oven temperature by 25°F for more even baking. The maltiness lends itself nicely to pairing with lemon or other citrus fruits. Start by swapping it in for 25 to 50 percent of the flour in recipes, especially in breads, pancakes, crepes, and scones.
Corn flour simply comes from grinding up dried corn. This flour lends vibrant color and sweet flavor to favorites like muffins, corn bread, crepes. Favor stone-ground whole-corn flour, and keep it refrigerated.
Oat flour lends a moist, creamy sweetness to cookies, cakes, and piecrusts. For me, oats evoke a natural feeling of contentment. Maybe it’s the warming spices they are traditionally prepared with, or maybe it’s the memories of growing up with many cozy winter breakfasts enjoyed alongside my little sister. Either way, this comforting quality extends into food prepared with oat flour as well. Though there is no naturally occurring gluten in oats, low levels of gluten are detected in oat flour and evidently come from cross-contamination with other grains during milling and transport. Start by substituting up to 25 percent oat flour in quick breads, cakes, and muffins. It cozies up well with berries, seeds, and generous drizzles of honey.
The cross-contamination from other grains that adds gluten to oats can be a problem for some gluten-sensitive people; if you’re on a gluten-free diet, you’ll need to be careful about using oats, as well as other “nongluten” flours to be sure they’ll work for you.
I discovered quinoa flour quite by accident when I couldn’t find the buckwheat flour I was searching for at the time. Milled from a tiny, fiber-rich power grain, it has a soft texture and a grassy taste that becomes more tempered when cooked. I use it as the base of my favorite crepe recipe (page 48). While it has a high-protein content at 17 percent, it is gluten free, so combine it with a wheat flour for baked goods. As with many of the other flours in this section, start by substituting up to 25 percent. I like to pair it with corn, potatoes, chiles, pine nuts, and brown sugar. Like amaranth, it generally goes nicely with other New World ingredients.
Most of the teff flour I’ve encountered comes from brown teff grains. (There is also ivory teff available if you want to grind it into an ivory flour.) An obscure, iron-rich mini grain indigenous to Ethiopia, the flavor and color of brown teff is rich and seductive to both the eye and the palate. Make a tart crust using 50 percent teff flour and you’ll see what I mean–dark, sophisticated, and delicious. Teff is a gluten-free flour that excels in all sorts of applications–rustic quick breads, cookies, cakes, pie- and tart crusts, and even biscuits. Start by substituting a modest percentage of teff flour (25 percent), and go from there. It is possible to use a higher percentage of teff flour in a recipe with good results, particularly in nonleavened endeavors like tarts, or the teff polenta on page 58. You can also use the tiny whole grains of teff to thicken soups, stews, and sauces.
Nongrain Flours and Meals
It may surprise you to learn that flours are sometimes made from foods other than cereal grains. But flour is basically a powder of varying fineness that can be made from any food, including nuts and vegetables.
A native of Russia, buckwheat is actually an herb, not a cereal grain. You’ve most likely had buckwheat flour in the form of soba noodles or crepes. Although it’s great for crepes and pastas, its purplish gray tone lends an odd shade to baked goods. It is low in gluten and has an affinity for buckwheat honey, ginger, and fruits on the tart side of sweet, like cherries, cranberries, and other berries.
If I can convince you to track down just one esoteric flour, mesquite flour would be it, even though it can be hard to find. Also known as mesquite meal, this flour made is made from the ground pods of the mesquite tree. It has a scent that is warm and comforting, but without the edge of warm spices, such as cinnamon or even cinnamon’s mellower Mexican cousin, canela. When heated, mesquite flour permeates the kitchen with a mellow, sweet fragrance. Because it lacks gluten, start by substituting about 25 percent mesquite flour in place of regular flour in baked goods. Because of its distinct, slightly sweet, malty, smoky flavor, it also works beautifully as an everyday seasoning. Sprinkle it over oatmeal, add it to banana-based smoothies, or dust it over piping hot corn bread. It can be a bit pricey, but the amount needed to make an impact on most recipes isn’t much. (See Sources for mail-order suppliers.)
My favorite pancakes use wild rice flour as their secret ingredient (page 43). As I explain in the chapter on grains, wild rice isn’t technically a grain at all; because it is used like one though, I squeezed it in there anyway. It is a marsh grass native to North America. Wild rice flour is more difficult to locate than whole-grain wild rice, and if you can’t find a source for it, grind your own in small batches until powder fine using an electric coffee or spice grinder. Start by substituting this rich, textured, hearty gluten-free flour for 25 percent of the all-purpose flour in recipes.
Flours to Avoid
It is important to stay away from commercially processed flours that contain bleaching agents and chemical additives; instead, opt for pure flours made from whole, intact (preferably organic) ingredients.