Secrets of Gluten Free Flours

If you've tried your hand at making gluten free flour mixes, then you've wondered how come two types of rice can have totally different binding capacity.  And if you've looked at India's cooking (as I have), looking for secrets of gluten free thickening and binding, you've noticed they use something called a wet grinder to prepare grains and beans before making a thickened sauce or a dough.  Today I'm going to explore this aspect of gluten free cooking because I stumbled on a detail I hadn't found before and I want to share it. Maybe it will help someone who's never heard of a wet grinder and might find it useful. 

I've tried several online forums to find out why Indian cooks use a wet grinder, instead of cooking a grain and then mashing the softened grain.  I'm not sure if the technology and strategy of it has survived over time.  Or maybe the people I got in touch with couldn't explain clearly.  Like most people they probably just do as their mothers do.

Cooked versus raw starch is not something that's often mentioned in journals either. Cooked vs. raw protein is a bit easier to understand, when you imagine a raw or a cooked egg. Every grain and bean has both starches and proteins, which are different from each other.  How does heat affect these things? I don't really know, and I don't think many people do.

Corporations may have the answers, but they aren't saying since they consider it to be a market advantage to make better gluten free flour than others. Indeed, reading research on this point can quickly become a vocabulary exercise.  But if something was known at one point, it will be preserved someplace in human memory.

You'll be surprised where I found the answer:  acorn flour!

Acorn Picture by Anastasia Zhenina
This variety of oak is called Live Oak and is sometimes used in human food and ship building.

In this case, on the lovely blog, Eat the Weeds, in an article about acorn flour (an American classic by the way) I finally found the answer to the question, what's the difference between cooked starch and raw starch?  Although I suspect it's even more complex than it says.  Anyway, let's see it first.

"The temperature at which you process the acorns at any point is critical. Boiling water or roasting over 165ยบ F precooks the starch in the acorn. Cold processing and low temperatures under 150 F does not cook the starch.  Cold-water leached acorn meal thickens when cooked, hot-water leached acorn meal does not thicken or act as a binder (like eggs or gluten) when cooked.  Your final use of the acorns should factor in how you will process them. If you are going to leach and roast whole for snacking then boiling is fine. If you are going to use the acorn for flour it should be cold processed, or you will have to add a binder."

So, to paraphrase, some starches (there are thousands, maybe millions of starches), need to be kept uncooked before being used or they lose their "binding" capacity (ie. the part that makes the flour behave more like gluten containing flour).  This dovetails with the best answers from my questions about wet grinders.  The clearest answers I was given basically boiled down to "cooked grains/beans behave different from raw when used in a recipe."  I never found an answer to "different how?" until now.

Soaking grains and legumes (beans) is nothing new although in the case of acorns, it takes on a whole new level.  The tannins can be very high in some varieties of oak.  But I like how the process dovetails with the old wisdom of soaking grains and legumes to make them more edible and with better nutrition. To point out one other wisdom I've learned from India, you can also buy "dal" of many legumes, which indicates that the jackets of the beans have been removed.  We tend to think of that in a negative way, such as "less fiber" but the truth is more complex. I'll get back to that, later.

If you want to try acorn flour, you'll have to either make it yourself from the many online guides, or take a chance on something imported from South Korea where it's used more frequently. But beware of acorn flours mixed with wheat flour.  It's a common practice, and it can be hard to get in touch with a foreign manufacturer to ask about gluten contamination.  
Gathering and Processing Acorns:

The insight, that cold processed starch is more binding, doesn't explain roux though. How come roux, made with sweet rice flour, behaves almost exactly like you would expect roux to behave, yet other flours, notably some types of millet, cause a broken sauce to form and aren't good thickeners?  I think, if there is any wisdom to be had from these observations, it's probably because cooked starches behave differently. Some of them become good binders because they are also good at emulsification.  Others aren't so good at emulsification when cooked.  Roux is definitely cooked, or "gelatinized" starch.  And it's cooked before adding a watery substance like milk, nut milk, tomato sauce or broth. 

The science of emulsification can get wordy very quickly.  For food purposes, and for roux, it means, the "frying" of starch in oil changes the starch so it can help water and oil mix, and form a delicious sauce instead of water with oil floating on top.

Salad dressing has a similar process but usually uses friction with things like mustard seed powder (in mustard) to achieve a stable emulsion.  Incidentally, you can use a roux to make a salad dressing if you like.  I like making it that way because it's less prone to breaking into oil and vinegar.  Also incidentally, vinegar is technically a fatty acid.

As an aside about vinegar as a "health food", there is debate on whether it's really counted as a fatty acid or just a plain acid.  But I wanted to include the link above, because it talks about AMPK signalling, which can have an effect on the wellness of people who have ME/CFS.  One of the theories about why people with chronic fatigue have so many myalgias (muscle pain) and feel so much worse after exercise than regular people, is because of AMPK problems.  
Normally, when AMPK is activated, your body is telling you, OK that's enough exercise, rest now. And usually that shows as mild flu like symptoms, and a strong desire to sleep.  When you wake up, you feel better.  In ME/CFS it causes debilitating symptoms like the worst flu you can imagine... times ten, and it usually makes you so stressed out that you can't sleep. Making AMPK signalling work properly is the focus of some research into how to help people with ME/CFS. 
I know this was a long merry chase, but this explains why dietary vinegar, though touted as an obesity blocker by shady websites, may actually be a good thing for some people.  

Getting back to plant starches and binding capacity, I suspect the use of a wet grinder is a very wise holdover from the time when women ground grains and beans by hand using a grinding stone, and turned the resulting mash into a sauce or a dough.  As people modernized, they remember that there's a good reason why a wet grinder is used, that it's "different" when used in cooking from a precooked grain that's mashed later (perhaps in a blender).  But it's hard to say why.  People in India make something called dosas, which are a thin sheet of batter, almost like a savory crepe, from purely gluten free materials.  Yet we might read a trade journal lamenting that gluten free flours don't "sheet" very well. Traditional foods might hold an answer.

We do know that some beans (such as guar beans) contain gums that act much like gluten, and that may explain why many regional recipes, have both a grain that has "glutinous" starch and a bean that has a bit of gum.  Even the Bible talks about beans and grains used together in cooking.  That habit didn't change until wheat erased the older methods and became the "one grain to rule them all" to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien.  Wheat has both a starch that can form emulsions, and a protein that can add structure like gums.  That's probably why it dominates.  Unfortunately, that's not an option for Celiacs so we need to know as much as possible about how doughs and sauces are formed.

Gums and proteins aren't exactly the same thing though, so let's look at the proteins. We know that experiments have shown that albumin (egg whites) and collagen  are both good at taking the place of gluten, or improving the "bready" properties of baked goods.  The Paleo community has recently embraced collagen as a protein powder, since they can't use the usual favorite of whey protein. For instance, this high protein banana bread recipe grew partly out of the realization that collagen wasn't just an inert additive that gives you more protein, it improves the texture too. 

I wish I could tell you all the starches that are 'glutinous" in gluten free grains, and all the beans that have the least "anti-nutrients" in them.  But at the moment, I have to stick to the known.  That means, most people can tolerate lentils, chickpeas or navy beans pretty well, and you can reduce the anti-nutrients pretty well by a soaking process (although they don't need it for cooking, it helps with nutrition), and sweet rice flour or "sticky rice" flour.

This explains why most gluten free flours are "mixes" of multiple flours.  In the very least, you would need something with a decent gum/protein content (warning, technical, but very good), and something with the right kind of starch, and then you have to treat the starch properly so it doesn't lose its ability to thicken. Then consider adding a sticky protein like egg whites or collagen powder if you aren't vegan.  I also happen to be free of a soy allergy, so I like to use soy milk for its lecithin content in baked goods, and cream sauces.  It seems to improve them.

A New Workflow

The advantage of a wet grinder is that your workflow goes like this:  soak, rinse, add to the grinder, the grinder makes a paste, continue with the recipe, using less added water since  your grains and legumes are already wet.  Always including a soak, reduces some of the gas forming FODMAPs and the nutrition stealing elements in the grains or beans.  So if you're sensitive to such things, and you enjoy grains and beans, you can circumvent some of the problems by using this workflow.

You can probably save enough money on buying expensive gluten free flours, to make up for the cost of a wet grinder, but it is a lot more fuss than buying a package.  So it's a trade off.  I'm probably going to buy one at some point when the budget allows, because I think it's safer.  There is less worry about what could be in a flour.  For me, I'm so sensitive to small amounts of gluten that it's probably a good step to take.  But I can't promise you that it will be worth it for you. 

There are many wonderful gluten free flours out there and the only thing I can say for sure is, a wet grinder is a helpful alternative that is cheaper in the long run.  But at the cost of extra cooking fuss and time.  Also, it will be a while until we have studied the binding capacity of the starches in many gluten free grains.  Until then, we're still down to trial and error, except for a few known things.  A wet grinder gives you better control over the fineness of grind and when exactly the starch is cooked during a recipe.  That can be an advantage in a situation where ordinary methods of cooking don't work, like when wheat flour is removed from the process.

So do I recommend a wet grinder?  Yes, with reservations.  If you're dedicated to cooking and baking from scratch, if you're sure you want to have a regular intake of starchy foods ( in other words, you're not interested in keto dieting), and if you're very sensitive to gluten and want an extra layer of protection.  It's also a way to ensure that any "anti-nutrients" have been reduced before a flour/dough was made.  If this is a problem for you, or you want to maintain as much of a vegetarian diet as possible, then it might be a good choice for you.  As for why it works, I'd have to reference our fore-mothers and say that they probably knew best. Science has to catch up to them.

Epilogue:  Nobody should feel like they have few options other than hard work in the kitchen.  There are some wonderful flours out there and here are two that I know work well. GF Jules All Purpose, and Cup4Cup.  I don't want to make anyone despair from the complexity of understanding gluten free flour. But I do have faith in you, because your fore-mothers did it and so can you!


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