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I’ll be the first to confess that elaborate mushrooms scare me a bit. The otherworldliness of enokis, the meatiness of King Trumpet stalks, the sponge-like texture of Lion’s Manes.
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Kinda Obsessed with Coconut Flour

Submitted by on October 11, 2010 – 4:11 pmOne Comment

So it’s been awhile since I’ve experimented with a new gluten-free flour, perhaps having grown overly comfortable being surrounded  by the powdery likes of chestnut, chickpea, buckwheat, quinoa and teff flours, one of whom always seems to fit the bill for my flour needs.

But recently–and repeatedly– the universe has been sending coconut flour across my path.  And since the fall baking season is upon us, I decided to pick some up and see what the hype was all about.

Deconstructing Coconuts

Coconuts–thought of as a fruit by most, but technically a tree nut– have a bit of a conflicted relationship with the health community.

Coconut water–the clear, fat-free, gel-like juice from a young coconut– is an electrolyte-rich, lower-sugar alternative to juices and sports drinks, and one which I often recommend to people with high blood pressure, athletes or anyone who needs to replenish fluids and lytes  when they’ve got a stomach bug.

Coconut flour, which is made from de-fatted coconut “meat” (fruit) that’s been ground up into a fine powder, is a similarly healthy product of the coconut.  It’s very high in fiber (5 huge grams per mere 2 TBSPs), very low in carbohydrate (after you subtract the fiber, there are only 3g of net carbs left in that same serving), has a decent amount of protein (2g) and a reasonably low amount of fat (also 2g, albeit the saturated kind), considering its origins.  A little goes a long way with coconut flour: it soaks up liquid more thirstily than a Sham-Wow, and most recipes that use it only call for a small amount as a result.  Due to its unique textural properties, it generally appears in baking recipes as one of a medley of flours rather than as the main flour event.

Coconut Milk is where things start to get dicey.  Unlike coconut water which is naturally fat-free, coconut milk comes from squeezing the coconut meat (pulp) and therefore contains a significant amount of the naturally-occurring fat in that meat.  Unfortunately, since the vast majority (~90%) of fat in coconuts is of the saturated variety, coconut milk is quite high in both calories as well as the unhealthy type of fat.  1/4 cup coconut milk contains about 120 calories and 10g of fat (7g of which is saturated).  However, LITE coconut milk is widely available and is a seamless substitute for full-fat coconut milk in most recipes.  That same serving contains a much more palatable 40 calories and 4g of fat (3 of which is saturated).  Personally, I love the functionality and flavor of LITE coconut milk as a super low-sugar/low carb, non-dairy substitute for milk in a variety of cooking and baking recipes, and think its a nutritionally sound ingredient.

Lastly, the controversy surrounding Coconut Oil is positively incendiary within the natural foods community.  I’ve seen it touted by its fans as a miracle remedy for everything from heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes to HIV, cancer and obesity.  These alleged (and as yet scientifically unsubstantiated) claims are based on coconut oil’s content of a type of saturated fatty acid called “Lauric acid,” which is metabolized slightly differently than longer-chain saturated fats, and devotees believe is somehow beneficial rather than harmful.  At this time, there is insufficient (almost non-existent) reasonable-quality data from human studies to support any of these health claims, so I am inclined to steer clear of super-saturated coconut oil as I do other sources of saturated fat (with the exception of stearic acid in chocolate) until mainstream science gives me reason to reconsider my position.

Baking with Coconut Flour

For me, nutritional merits aside, the most compelling draw for baking with coconut flour is the sheer pleasure of sniffing it as I open up a fresh bag.  It smells unexpectedly wonderful (I dare you to try inhaling only once), and it imparts a subtly sweet, coconutty flavor to its final products.

My first coconut flour baking experiment was in making these delicious, moist and spongy Pumpkin Muffins, recipe courtesy of my favorite GF baking expert, Karina Allrich.  They’re a classic pumpkin muffin like any other, and when I brought them to work to share with the ladies, no one seemed to mind (or notice, really) that they were even gluten-free.  Of course, with the strong flavors of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and pumpkin, the subtle coconut flavor is obscured.  So I set off on finding a recipe that would really showcase the coconut.

My next idea was to make coconut pancakes for breakfast.  While an initial google search unearthed no shortage of such recipes, I was a bit aghast that virtually all of them used so much butter in the batter that each pancake would contain at least 1 TABLESPOON of butter (that’s 11g of fat–mostly saturated–for those of you who don’t share my righteous indignation).  Given that most of us would not be content to stop eating at just one pancake, I figured I should keep searching.

I found this winning recipe for Fluffy Coconut Flour Pancakes courtesy of Shannon of the Nourishing Days blog.  The only added fat is that you use to grease the griddle (and for us, a modest spritz of canola cooking spray did the trick just fine), though the eggs and milk/coconut milk it calls for will contribute some additional fat–but also some protein– to the final product.  (More of a reason not to use additional butter in the batter).  The one recipe tweak I would respectfully suggest is to cut back on the sea salt it calls for to 1/8- 1/4 tsp; the teaspoon of baking soda naturally contains enough sodium, in my opinion, to balance the natural sweetness on its own with minimal help needed from additional salt.  As far as the milk goes, we settled on 1/2 cup low-fat lactose-free milk + 1/2 cup LITE coconut milk; if you decide to use any coconut milk (and especially a full cup of it!), I’d suggest the LITE version as well to keep these pancakes in line nutritionally. Flavor and texturewise, these pancakes reminded me of a coconut-tinged brioche or popovers— they were airy and slightly eggy and subtly coconutty.  I paired mine with a smear of Fauchon’s Banana-Passionfruit jam that I picked up on my summer vacation to France and they were heavenly.  I might also mention that these pancakes would technically be Kosher for Passover, in case that’s something you want to file away in your mental holiday Rolodex for the future.

Nutritional info per pancake (assumes recipe makes 14 pancakes as it did for me, and assuming you use 1/2 cup lite coconut milk and 1/2 cup lowfat cow’s milk as I did): 50 calories, 4g of carbohydrate (of which about 1.5g is fiber), 2.5g of protein and 2g of fat (one gram of which is saturated). Nutrition info does not include calories from cooking oil spray used to coat the pan or whatever you choose to top your pancakes with.  Note that four such plain pancakes would constitute one diabetic carbohydrate exchange (16g of carbohydrate).

For additional gluten-free, indulgent coconut flour baking inspiration, I’d recommend visiting Elana Amsterdam’s site, Elana’s Pantry.

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One Comment »

  • J9 says:

    I recently read “The Coconut Oil Miracle” by Bruce Fife, CN, ND and he is of the opinion that even though the fat in coconut oil is saturated, it’s medium chain fatty acids are good for us; they’re converted to energy in the liver rather than being stored in the body as fat. He also states a number of studies that show the positive benefits of including coconut and coconut products, including the oil, in our daily diets. What’s your take on these ideas? Can you direct me to research that refutes them? I’ve also recently had coconut jump in front of me asking for more attention, so I was intrigued by your post ‘Kinda Obsessed with Coconut Flour’. I appreciate your time and look forward to a response as I try to navigate the murky waters of healthy eating.