The almond, encased in a shell hidden within a green, velvety fruit, is botanically related to the peach and plum and, in literature and art, romanticized at least as much. When finely ground, it produces a powder that’s similar in texture to, and often labeled as, flour. But almond flour isn’t flour, which is, by definition, milled from grain. This is important to remember when cooking or baking with almond flour. It may be tempting to reach for it in place of all-purpose flour, especially if you’d like to go gluten-free, paleo or simply prefer the subtly sweet flavor of almonds. Unfortunately, in most cases, you cannot replace wheat flour with all almond flour; the two have very different properties.
Shoppers will note that almond flour is far more expensive than all-purpose, and indeed almonds are more expensive to grow than wheat or other grains, requiring more water and more careful tending, so it’s best to use it judiciously. That said, almond flour is very versatile, and employed creatively, it can add flavor, texture and nutrition to your cooking, whether sweet or savory.
Almond flour or almond meal? The two types of almond flour you are most likely to find at the grocery store are almond flour, which is finely ground blanched (peeled) almonds, and almond meal, which is finely ground whole, unpeeled, almonds. The only difference is that almond flour is pale in color and almond meal has a speckled brown tint. They can be used interchangeably in most cases, though almond flour is often preferred.
Don’t think of it as a replacement. No nut flour, including almond flour, can replace an equal quantity of all-purpose or wheat flour. Because almond flour is finely ground nuts, it does not contain the same nutritional or chemical makeup as flour milled from grains. Wheat flour contains gluten, a set of proteins found in wheat that are responsible for springy bread dough and the spongelike texture of baked bread. Gluten, working in concert with liquids and leavening agents, provides structure to baked goods. Almond flour contains no gluten, so it’s not possible, for example, to make a loaf of bread with just almond flour.
It’s perfect for pastry. On the other hand, not every baked good should be as tough, crisp or dense as bread. Sometimes tenderness is what you’re after, especially in cakes or muffins, and that’s where almond flour shines. Used alongside all-purpose or whole grain flours, it can lighten a batter or dough, adding depth and softness without heft.
“I tend to add almond flour to all-purpose at a low ratio,” says Michelle Lopez of the blog Hummingbird High and author of the book “Weeknight Baking: Recipes to Fit Your Schedule.” She says the finely ground nuts, whether flour or meal, give baked goods a “texture and flavor you wouldn’t get if you just use AP. … It helps give a domed top to my muffin recipes, without making the batter too dense.”
It’s highly nutritious. “From a nutritional point of view, it’s great to swap some all-purpose or whole-grain flour with almond flour,” says nutritionist and Nourish columnist Ellie Krieger. “Almond flour complements wheat flour, because it contains more protein, more healthy fat, more fiber, vitamin E, a substantial amount of magnesium, calcium and iron.”
Krieger explains that wheat and other grain flours are mostly composed of carbohydrates and don’t contain nearly as much protein, though they do contain a lot of B vitamins, whether because they’re enriched like all-purpose or milled from whole grains.
“Using whole grain flour and almond meal together will give you a nearly full spectrum nutritional profile,” Krieger says, “and that means more energy, especially for people looking to add more healthy fat and protein to their diets.”
Baker Roxana Jullapat, of Friends & Family bakery in Los Angeles, adds almond meal to her granola to keep it “crisp and prevent it from getting soggy.” The added ground nuts also give the granola a boost of protein and flavor. Jullapat often makes her own almond meal, and it’s easy to do: Simply grind almonds (blanched or unblanched) in a food processor until fine, stopping before they turn to into a paste. Jullapat uses the freshly made almond meal in shortbread and buttery financiers.
It’s full of flavor. Jessica Craig, the pastry chef at the appropriately named Almond Restaurant Group in Long Island, N.Y., also uses almond flour in cakes, muffins and cookies, but makes sure to toast it first. “People think to toast nuts but don’t always think to toast nut flours,” she says, noting that toasting deepens the nutty notes and richness so she doesn’t have to use as much of the expensive ingredient to get its full flavor.
It’s a clever thickener or coating. Shilpa Uskokovic, a New York-based pastry chef and co-founder of the microbakery Extra Helpings, uses almond flour in her cooking just as much as in her baking. “I’ll pull it out to thicken sauces, which is a trick we use a lot in India,” she says, noting that ground cashews are often added to sauces and curries to thicken them and add protein and nutrition. The ground nuts melt into boiling or simmering stews, adding richness and body. “I also use almond flour as a breading for chicken or fish. Usually I’ll mix it with ground oats, so it’s a little nubby, and pan fry it until crisp.”
Smart storage. One thing all of the chefs and bakers I spoke with noted was that almond flour, because of its relatively high fat content, can spoil fairly quickly. Keep it fresh by storing it in a cool, dry place in an airtight container, minding the expiration date on the package you purchased. For longer storage, freeze it in an airtight container, defrosting as much as you need when you need it.
Here are a few recipe ideas to help you use up that bag of almond flour. For more, search the Recipe Finder.
More from Voraciously: