Food & Drink

World Eats: Cookbook author explores flours beyond wheat

Alice Medrich has a new cookbook, “Flavor Flours.”
Alice Medrich has a new cookbook, “Flavor Flours.” Artisan Books

‘Don’t you think it’s got kind of a butterscotch taste?” asks Alice Medrich. She’s in her Berkeley kitchen nibbling a crisp buttery cookie she perfected using oat flour.

Medrich’s palate is honed, as are her baking and pastry skills, and she has an ability to transform a scientific approach to ingredients and techniques into award-winning cookbooks. The beige cookie at hand, called Oat Sablés, also contains cream cheese and butter, so this recipe is not exactly trekking on the deprivation trail.

To get to this level of structure and deliciousness, Oat Sablés went through the same paces as just about every recipe in Medrich’s 10th book, “Flavor Flours,” due in stores this week (Artisan, $35, 368 pages).

The book’s highlighted flours come from all over the world – rice flour, oat flour, corn flour (not cornstarch) and cornmeal, buckwheat flour, chestnut flour, teff, sorghum flour and assorted nuts and coconut flour. The chapter on nuts is a catchall for recipes that focus on the hazelnut and almond flours used extensively in European baking. In working with teff, perhaps the world’s oldest grain and the essential flour in the Ethiopian bread injera, Medrich discovered it has flavor affinities with chocolate, dark fruit, nuts and aromatic seeds.

“We tried most all the flours for everything,” she says of the tedious testing she went through with the help of a trusted assistant. She was surprised by the range of results produced by each non-wheat flour. “Buckwheat flour can do all kinds of things we’ve never expected it to do, like cake,” Medrich says. “Almost every one of these flours makes a genoise. Some make chiffon cake.”

Exactly what is a “flavor flour?” When Medrich was nearing completion of a previous book called “Pure Dessert,” she says she found herself wandering down an aisle in the store to examine flours other than her career’s lifetime standby, all-purpose wheat flour.

“I called them the ‘interesting flours,’” she says.

When her editor at Artisan Books asked why she’d chosen the specific flours to head each chapter, Medrich paused. “Because they have flavor!” she says she blurted. Then she added for emphasis, “They’re flavor flours!” And that’s how the book got its name.

Gluten was not on her mind when Medrich wrote the proposal for “Flavor Flours.” It can take nearly two years to produce a 368-page book of this magnitude: the proposal, the agent, the editor, the advance, the agreed-upon time to write the book, the stall between turning in the manuscript and finally holding a book with color photography in your hands.

“I was focused on these flours as individual heroes, for what they bring to the process. The recipes are ingredient-driven rather than being gluten-free for its own sake.” Medrich dislikes naming a recipe for something that’s not in it – the flourless chocolate cake, for example. “This is about what is in the recipe.”

As she worked on the book, the gluten gong was beating louder and often, making gluten-free one trend in recent history that hasn’t flamed out. Medrich realized she didn’t want a limited, gluten-obsessed audience. Mostly, she wasn’t impressed with the usual path to gluten-free, which is simply to replace wheat flour with non-wheat flours and to put back structure with lots of tapioca starch or potato starch.

“All you get is a starch bomb,” Medrich says.

Medrich has a good list in the back of the book for buying flavor flours online. Otherwise, she suggests a health food-type store or any mainstream grocery store that stocks Bob’s Red Mill flours. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and Whole Foods Market carry most of these hero flours either on the aisles or in bulk. Corti Brothers has chestnut flour.

Don’t overlook Sacramento’s widespread ethnic markets. Indian markets always have rice flour, buckwheat flour and several types of corn flour. If picking up corn flour in an Indian market, select the bag with the word “cold,” indicating that this flour, fine as dusting powder, functions in cold liquids. Mediterranean markets also carry rice flour.

The best rice flour Medrich worked with was the Erawan brand from Thailand, available at many Asian markets. Medrich’s ingredient lists specify Thai rice flour. Take her at her word. She’s tried them all.

Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author and former newspaper food editor.