Wheat-free baking can work, and still be relatively inexpensive. Here's a review of some inexpensive alternatives to wheat flour, plus ideas for baking.

Gluten-free Baking, or Just Baking Without Wheat, on a Budget

Gluten-free Baking, or Just Baking Without Wheat, on a Budget - NASA (cornbread), U.S. Department of Agriculture (sourdough) / Creative Commons - Public Domain (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/Cornbread.jpg)
NASA (cornbread), U.S. Department of Agriculture (sourdough) / Creative Commons - Public Domain

Wheat, with gluten, is a major part of the U.S. diet. This was not always so. Prior to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century improvements cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including cast iron cook stoves for baking bread, new hard wheat varieties, and changes in reaping and milling which allowed for more complete removal of germ and bran (the last allowed for longer shelf lives; germ and bran spoil rapidly), and perhaps also as a result of Native American influence, corn not wheat was the staple. Early seventeenth century Carolina missionary Frances Le Jau writes about surviving largely off "corn bread" (cited in Gallay's Indian Slave Trade, 2002).

With today's fads, including low-carb diets and the "gluten-free" rage, wheat consumption is slowing down again. In the U.S., slightly fewer acres are devoted to wheat than to corn. However, most wheat is grown as food crop. Corn is grown primarily for livestock feed. The abundance of both wheat and corn makes these grains cheap; others are more expensive.

Gluten-Free Fad, or Needed Variety?

For those who have not developed celiac disease, going gluten-free may seem "faddish." Nevertheless, reducing wheat and using other grains may help those with gluten sensitivities who do not actually have celiac disease, plus introduce more variety into the diet. According to Food Renegade, today's wheat, so different from ancestral varieties, and today's preparation methods (the cowboys after all ate sourdough), may contribute to rising rates of gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Gluten: Not Just In Wheat

Gluten is the protein that makes yeast breads stretchy and elastic, and helps them rise. Without gluten, dough is not so elastic, but gluten-free baking is possible.

Wheat (including spelt), rye, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), and barley are sources of gluten. Of these, wheat has the most. Corn, rice, buckwheat, and yes oats do not contain gluten. Neither do some grains less common in the diet.

From Cornbread to Sourdough: Inexpensive Baking, Less or No Gluten

I've tried to index some alternatives to wheat (without gluten or with less gluten) by price, but the price depends partly on the maker. Bulk prices at several health food stores and Wal Mart prices have been checked. Prices are given in U.S. dollars.

Under Two Dollars Per Pound: Rye, Corn

Rye flour has some gluten, but less than wheat. Because rye flour is heavier than wheat, it requires more leavening. The French use rye in "pain d'epices" ("spice bread" or "spice cake"), akin to gingerbread. The Swiss and Danes consume lots of rye. A 2003 study cited by Livestrong's Tara Carson suggests that eating rye flour rather than whole wheat may lower blood insulin, perhaps because of rye's increased fiber content, says Carson.

Corn meal is gluten-free, but alas does not hold together well in baking without the addition of other flours or eggs. Skillet cornbread uses eggs to hold it together, plus usually some wheat flour. It's delicious hot for breakfast or a winter snack, and easy to make. Some cornbread recipes only call for a bit of wheat flour, which you can replace with sorghum or tapioca flour. If you are adverse to using bacon drippings or melted butter, try using sunflower or grapeseed oil as the fat. Buttermilk is the other major ingredient in skillet cornbread.

Other Wheat Varieties

Both corn meal and rye flour are less expensive generally than whole wheat flour, although some varieties of corn meal rich in bran and germ may be pricier. Spelt flour is priced at just slightly more than whole wheat. Spelt is related to wheat and may have been part of human diets prior to the "Neolithic" period. Spelt has not been bred the way wheat has. Its gluten is more digestible (it's water soluble). However, neither spelt nor rye can be tolerated by persons with full-blown celiac disease.

Another wheat variety is Einkhorn wheat, an ancestor of modern wheat first domesticated in the Mideast by 10,000 B.C. Einkhorn wheat is richer in vitamins than today's wheat varieties, but it does not seem to be readily available.

Two Dollars Per Pound: Oat Flour, Oat Bran

Oat flour, available at many health food stores, is cheap if purchased from "in bulk." Oats however have a protein called avenin which some people with celiac disease also react to. Livestrong.com says that in the United States oats are often processed where wheat is processed, and therefore may be contaminated with traces of gluten.

Oat bran costs about what oat flour costs. Oat bran is rich in soluble fiber, and actually heals the stomach. Oat bran is a great replacement for the wheat germ or wheat bran in a recipe.

Three to Four Dollars Per Pound: Sorghum, Millet, Rice, Soy, Tapioca

Sorghum flour may come next in price. Sorghum is slightly sweet to taste and works well in sweet goods (cookies and cakes). It's an ancient grain, important in African farming and diet even today. It's rich in protein and supposedly good for both hypoglycemia and diabetes. Because it's high in protein, it holds together well in quick breads.

Millet flour is close to sorghum in price. It's not quite so sweet however. Millet has a more complete spectrum of amino acids than most grains, is fiber rich, and is considered digestible and well-tolerated.

Rice flour is used in many gluten-free baking mixes, but rarely available in general stores otherwise. It's often used to make gluten-free pasta. Rice flour can be purchased at health food stores.

Soy flour is similar in price to rice. Adding some to cakes or cookies or breads can help prevent their going stale according to the information on one package of soy flour. Unlike rice flour, soy flour is found in many grocery stores. It's recommended that only a sixth of the flour be soy in yeast breads and a quarter in quick breads.

Tapioca flour comes from cassava root. Considered quite digestible, it can be used much like cornstarch, to dust baking pans, but it's higher in protein and tastier. It helps quick breads stick together. Because it's light, cakes made with tapioca rise easily. Tapioca flour can be substituted for up to perhaps half but never all of the flour in a recipe.

Four to Five Dollars per Pound: Potato Starch, Buckwheat

There's no reason to use potato starch when real mashed potatoes can be made easily. Buckwheat is another matter. Used to make pancakes "Midwestern" style, buckwheat flour is rich in the amino acid methionine, and contains all essential amino acids, including arginine, important for children. Alas, unlike buckwheat flour, buckwheat pasta (sobu) can be quite pricey.

Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes

Mashed potatoes are gluten-free, inexpensive, and delicious in chocolate cake, yeast breads, and potato biscuits. Because potatoes hold together well, these can help to replace the gluten in a yeast bread. Potatoes add moisture too. No more than a quarter of the flour in a recipe should be replaced with mashed potatoes, especially as baked goods made with potatoes or potato flour spoil faster.

Mashed sweet potatoes also work well in many recipes. Southern treats such as Louisiana yam cake feature sweet potatoes. Baked goods made with sweet potatoes keep a bit better than those made with potatoes.

Potato flakes (without added flavorings of course; check ingredient lists), alas nowhere near as tasty as real potatoes, can replace flour one-for-one. When mixed up, according to some online "chefs," potato flakes increase in volume by two-and-a-half times. Thus real mashed potatoes can replace about two-fifths their volume in flour. The same is true for mashed sweet potatoes. When using either, be careful to decrease the liquid by four or five times the amount of flour you replace (two times the volume of the potatoes or sweet potatoes).

Binding,Thickening: Flax, Psyllium

Dough also becomes "stretchier" when ground flax seed is added. Alternately, if a bit of water is added to ground flax seeds before these are mixed into dough, they can replace the egg in a recipe. This can hold cornbread together. Flax seeds are rich in omega 3 fatty acids plus soluble fiber, so heart-healthy.

Tapioca, as noted above, also helps to bind quick breads together. More tips are provided by the Celiac Disease Foundation.

Psyllium seed husk, around $18.00 per pound, is an excellent gluten-free thickener for sauces and soups (the cost is high per pound but somewhat less psyllium seed husk than wheat flour is needed for thickening). Psyllium seed husk contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, and helps heal the stomach. Gluten-Free Day provides a recipe for flatbread made with quinoa plus psyllium seed husk.

Pricier Alternatives

Quinoa, garbanzo flour, actual potato flour, and coconut flour, are generally more "pricey." Another pricey (and very hard-to-find) flour is Jerusalem artichoke flour, gluten-free and great for diabetics, but heavy. Many pastas that use some Jerusalem artichoke flour are not so pricey, but these also contain wheat. There's also almond meal (you can even grind it up yourself), which can be used in wheat-free carrot or chocolate cake. Leavened with egg whites, these treats are generally kosher for Passover, but hardly inexpensive.

Sourdough and Gluten

Buckwheat pancakes are Midwestern fare. Sourdough bread is traditional "Western fare." Sourdough rye bread (ten to fifty percent rye) is also popular in Europe. It's made by fermenting yeast and flour plus sugar or honey for several days or more and then using this to leaven bread.

According to Food Renegade, fermentation allows bacteria to "break down" some gluten plus phytic acids. In the gut, phytic acids may prevent absorption of some vitamins (note: many vitamins are needed for digestion of gluten). Food Renegade cites Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology (January, 2011): "fermentation of bread" with "specific strains of bacteria and yeast," including "sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases," decreases gluten levels. Some people with celiac disease may find some sourdough bread tolerable.

Sourdough: Recent Research

According to recent research on celiac disease: "the primary culprit in celiac disease and gluten-intolerance is a particular peptide strand in the gluten molecule, not gluten itself." Food Renegade explains, "long, slow ferments necessary for making traditional sourdough breads" sever "the bonds of this particular peptide strand," but leave enough "remaining gluten proteins intact" for dough to rise easily. Some sourdough bread can thus be digested even apparently by people with full-blown celiac disease. However, such sourdough bread is not commonly available.

Ordinary sourdough bread may not be tolerated by people with full-blown celiac disease unless indicated on the label that gluten levels are in the "safe range." Fermenting for a month or more may be needed to make homemade sourdough bread safe. However, sourdough bread may of course be made with flours like spelt and rye, as well as mashed potatoes, The last are absolutely gluten-free.