Thursday, May 31, 2012

Baking 101: Almond Flour Basics



Let's say this upfront: Almond flour is Wonderful for baking. In fact, there was a time when it was as widely used for baking as wheat flour is now! Some of my FAVORITE french pastries use almond flour as the base ingredient and that's why I was baking with almond flour LONG before I had to be grain-free. 


Since going totally grain-free, I've basically started using it for ALL of my baking needs, which works great, it just requires a bit more creativity to get the results that I want. There are, however, a few tricks to the almond flour ”trade” that I'd like to share with you. Below are some of the questions that I most often get asked when someone begins baking with almond flour. 


I hope that some of these tips will help you feel more comfortable diving in and trying out almond flour baking. Just remember, this is only an introduction; much of what you'll need to know can only come through first-hand experience. So go ahead and try....and don't worry, I'll be happy to help you out if you get stuck somewhere along the way.


Will using Almond Flour Help Me Lose Weight?
Not likely! Although almond flour is packed with nutrition, like vitamin E, calcium (1 ounce is 8% of the RDA), magnesium and protein (6 grams per 1/4 cup), as well as being fairly low in carbs (6 grams of carb per 1/4 cup), it also packs a hefty punch at 160 calories per 1/4 cup and 14 grams of fat. So while it's an excellent gluten and grain free flour, it needs to be consumed in moderation. If you are trying to lose weight, it is a good idea to keep almond flour baked goods to a minimum. (As is the case with all nuts in general, when losing weight is the goal)
Can I Sub Almond Flour Cup For Cup?

This is a biggie: In a few select applications it can be substituted at a 1:1 ratio, but because its weight, fat content and absorption rates are so different from that of wheat and other grain based flours, it does not reliably cross over. For instance, a wheat flour recipe might call for more liquid than what can be reasonably absorbed by almond flour. So if you simply substitute 1 for 1, your finished product will likely be soggy, grainy feeling and “sunken” in. You can, however, adjust the ingredient ratios to account for that and come out with almond flour baked goods that are nearly indistinguishable from the grain based recipes that you know and love. 

A note on breads: Almond flour is most often best suited to quick breads, cookies and crusts . This is due to it's lack of starch and gluten. If your diet allows for starches and even yeast, you might enjoy experimenting a bit by adding yeast, arrowroot, tapioca and other “non-grain” based starches to your almond flour baked goods
The moral of this paragraph is….unless you’re something of an adventurer and don’t mind some “baking fails”, you might find it best to stick with recipes that are intended for almond flour from a source that you trust (I have listed some great "sources" at the end of this post). 


Why Can’t I Find Very Many “Egg Free" Recipes?

Because of the lack of starch and gluten, almond flour often needs extra “binding” ingredients to give it volume and stability. Ingredients such as eggs, vinegar, extra baking soda/powder are the easiest way to make that happen. But there are plenty of egg free cookie recipes and even some flat bread recipes out there if eggs are a problem for you. However, when it comes to (yeast free)muffins and breads, it is much harder to get a nice texture/crumb without the eggs. I have tried subbing with chia, flax, applesauce and other typical egg substitutions in my breads and muffins and have yet to find one that I am really happy with. They aways seem to lack body and a stable "crumb", tending toward gooeyness. That doesn't mean it can’t be done though. Or that gooey muffins can’t still taste great. So again, if you are an adventurer, experiment until you create a recipe that you LOVE!


What Kind Of Almond Flour Works Best?

The type of almond flour you use can make a huge difference in the volume, quality and taste of your final product.

In my experience, the very best results with regards to texture, volume and taste came when I started using a truly 'fine ground' blanched almond flour. Brands such as Bob's Red Mill and other bulk bin, store bought flours might say “fine ground” on the label, but they can still have a much coarser grind than the flour that many bakers use. And if the recipe that you’re using was created with a finer ground flour, the resulting baked goods can turn out overly grainy and heavy, or even oily and flat.

I will say this though: many people have expressed to me that they are happy with the results these coarser flours give them so if it is working for you then by all means, stick with it. However, if you haven't tried a finer ground flour like Honeyville brand (more source options are listed below), I highly recommend trying one. Sure, it can be a bit of a change to order your ingredients online, but it really is worth the difference that you will experience in regards to quality, not to mention the money you can save. I get my almond flour for as little as $5 a pound. That really beats the average store price of $7-$12 per pound.

I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised at what a difference the 'grind' can make. I know that when I made the switch I was blown away at how much better the quality of my final product was.


Blanched/Meal/Raw & Homemade Almond Flours

Ok, let's talk about the different almond flours available. Technically "flour & meal" can be referred to as the same thing, but here is how the different types are most commonly used and referred to.

Blanched almond flour is made by removing the skin of the almonds before grinding. This is often done by putting the almonds into a warm steam bath, so that the skins will loosen up and can easily be removed. Then the nuts are dehydrated and finely ground, resulting in a very fluffy, light and airy flour. I find that the blanched almond flour with the proper grind makes the best textured and tasting baked goods

Raw & Homemade Almond flour. There is such a thing as 'raw' blanched almond flour. This involves soaking TRULY RAW almonds, removing the skins, dehydrating and then finely grinding them. (Almond flour is NOT 'raw' unless otherwise stated by the manufacturer.) You can even make your own blanched raw almond flour at home if you own a dehydrator. Many people find that coffee grinders work well to get a nice fine grind. Although you may not be able to get the finest grind possible at home, this option may be well worth your while. 

Some people who have digestion trouble from commercial blanched almond flour (which is not presoaked, just blanched) often find that they can tolerate almond flour when the almonds are pre soaked and/or sprouted and dehydrated first. (more on this below)

Almond Meal is simply ground almonds made with the whole almond, skins and all. It generally has a coarser grind. (Honeyville does make a "natural" almond flour that also contains the skins but it is ground as fine as their blanched almond flour.) Almond meal can be used to give grain free breads a nice corn bread like texture. It also works well for breading chicken and fish, or topping off casseroles, cobblers and more.


Do I Need To Soak My Almond Flour?
(because of enzyme inhibitors)

There are many differing opinions on this issue. However, many of the “enzyme inhibitors” are believed to be in the outer brown skin of the almond. When that is removed through steaming, the almond becomes much more digestible and easier on the stomach.

This is not always the case though. Some people say that they still need to soak and/or sprout their almonds in order to digest the almonds comfortably. My family doesn’t seem to have any problems with digesting the commercially available blanched almond flours, so we go with ‘easy’. You have to decide what works best for you and your family. Check out this video by Real Food Forager on how to make almond flour from almonds that have been soaked/sprouted. 

Keep in mind that nuts are a “concentrated” food. Meaning that they are nutrient and calorie dense, as well as being high in fat. If eaten in excess, you will mostly like experience some digestion issues as well as weight gain, regardless of what you do about enzymes. So, eat responsibly!


Should I Measure, Weigh, Scoop Or Dump?

Just like with wheat and other grain flours, it is important to measure or weigh your flour correctly. If done incorrectly, you may not end up with the quality of product that you had hoped for. Now you may be fine with this. For some people, if it looks like bread and pretty much feels like bread than that is all that matters. For our purposes today however, we are talking about getting the BEST results possible out of your baked goods.





Measuring By The Cup


If you are going to use measuring cups, it is best to use the "dip and sweep method". To do this, dip the measuring cup into the container of almond flour and level it off by drawing a butter knife (or other flat-edged utensil) over the top of the measuring cup. Pouring or dumping the almond flour into the measuring cup will most often result in less almond flour making it into the recipe than what was intended by the creator. This of course brings up a very important issue....


With so many food bloggers creating recipes today it is important to use recipes you trust. If the person creating a recipe does not understand these basic universal baking principals, it can be nearly impossible for you to know what amount of flour was actually used in any particular recipe. This may not always be a noticeable problem, as some recipes are more flexible than others. However, I have had many people tell me that a recipe didn't turn out as they had hoped, and after telling them to dip & sweep or weigh their flour out, the recipe turned out GREAT! Some websites and cook books will even give you a ‘bakers guide' to weights and measurements as used by that specific baker or chef. In these cases it is best to go by that guide for those recipes. (Keep reading to see the ratios that I use)

Measuring By Weight (w/a scale)

Weighing your flour is another GREAT reliable option, especially sense most original recipes are created by weighing the flour in the first palce. Digital scales are widely available and affordable. Many people are intimidated by the idea of weighing their ingredients, but in reality it is SUPER easy and rewarding! 

So here's my standard*: 1 cup of almond flour weighs about 3.40 ounces.
So if you have a digital food scale and your recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups of almond flour, all you have to do is weigh out about 8.50 ounces of almond flour. No measuring cups required, no losing track of which cup you are on. Just the guaranteed correct amount of flour that the recipe requires. Consistent results, every time.

*If you do a Google search on the conversion of cups to ounces for almond flour, You will get differing amounts ranging from 3.40-5 ounces per cup. I  consistently weigh my almond flour at 3.40 ounces per cup using the dip and sweep method, in which I dip the cup into the loose NOT packed AF and sweep my finger or a flat edge over the top.


Where to buy Affordable, Quality Almond Flour?

There are many places to get great nuts and nut flours. These are just a few of my favorites...

Honeyville: Best Price Value, Certified gluten free, no chemicals used in the blanching process, Kosher. You can get this flour for as low as $5 a pound. Shipping is always $4.95 per order...no matter how big the order. I have ordered up to 100 pounds before for a co-op and it was still $4.95 for shipping!

Nuts.com: Certified gluten free. They carry regular and organic almond flours and nuts.

Digestive Wellness: Gluten free, offering a "super" fine almond flour as well as other nut flours. Love, love, love this stuff!
Benefit Your Life: Benefit Your Life pure almond flour is not subjected to any chemical treatments or additives. The almonds are steam pasteurized, then blanched in a hot water bath to remove the skins before being milled into a fine flour perfect for all your gluten free and low carb baking needs. 

JK Gourmet: Blanched almond flour is super-finely ground and makes gluten-free baking quick and easy. It is guaranteed gluten-free and its powder-fine texture makes your pie crusts, cakes, cookies, brownies, and muffins taste delicious and authentic, just like they're supposed to taste.  


As I said before, this is only an introduction (just think how long an exhaustive post would be). To truly grasp baking with almond flour, there's no "substitute" for experience. But once you get the hang of it, I think that you'll absolutely love the things that you can create. I just know that you're going to enjoy it as much as I do so good luck and happy baking!

Here are some GREAT sources for tasty, reliable almond flour recipes:

Spunky Coconut (not all recipes are grain free)
...and of course ME (right?)

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