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Gluten-free and high-protein: Chickpea flour's time has finally come

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix th...

Why chickpea flour needs to be on your list of pantry staples

I've been kind of obsessed with chickpeas lately. They reel you in with hummus, but these seemingly plebeian little legumes are quietly hiding a big secret: They're more versatile than a bag of Doritos in the hands of a Taco Bell recipe developer. Even the water they're packed in is invaluable. The peas themselves can also be turned into wonder flour.

Also called besan or gram flour, chickpea flour is made from dried and ground raw or roasted chickpeas. It's naturally gluten-free, meaning there's no weird science going into making it suitable for those with wheat allergies in its au naturel state. Even if you're not gluten-free, chickpea flour is packed with protein, iron and fiber and (spoiler alert!) may actually be better than wheat flour for certain applications.

More: You can eat bread if you're gluten-intolerant with this work-around

How to make chickpea flour

You can, of course, purchase chickpea flour at the store. But making it isn't hard either. If you have dried chickpeas in the pantry, you're halfway home. But if you don't, you can just rinse off the canned beans and drain them well. If you like, you can roast them first. Otherwise, just spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and bake them in a preheated, 150-degree F oven for 18 to 24 hours, stirring them every few hours so they dry evenly. They're dry when you can squeeze them between your fingers and they feel like a large popcorn kernel. Then just let them cool, and use a coffee grinder (in batches) or a blender on high speed to grind them until they look and feel like flour.

More: 17 foods you didn’t know contain gluten

Chickpea flour in baking

Chickpea flour can be used when baking without sacrificing much. Chickpea flour may have a small (and, for most people, completely acceptable) impact on color and texture. Cookies, for example, will be more golden, and the texture may not be quite as smooth. For yeast breads and the like, the lack of starch may inhibit the rise, since it won't retain as much of the gasses created by leaveners. To combat this, add xanthan or guar gum to replace the gluten the yeast would usually gobble up to create the rise. You'll have to experiment to get the right amount.

You'll usually use the same amount of flour for gluten-free baking as you would in a wheat flour recipe, though it's recommended that at least 25 percent of that be another gluten-free flour. If you're not gluten-free, use it like whole-wheat flour — substituting up to half of the regular flour for chickpea — for even better texture.

A word of caution, though. If you're one of those people who likes to taste their cookie dough, it's best if you skip that step. It tastes terrible until it's cooked.

Chickpea flour in dredges and batters

You may already know you can easily use chickpea flour in place of wheat flour in a dredge or batter for fried foods. What you may not know is that it's better than wheat flour. The density of chickpea flour gives your fried foods a perfect crust with a more intense, slightly sweet flavor.

More: 10 simple food swaps that make gluten-free eating a cinch

Other uses for chickpea flour

Chickpea flour can be used for just about anything wheat flour does. It's an excellent thickener for sauces (it even prevents curdling in yogurt-based sauces). It's a natural binder, making it great for burgers and meatballs (meat or vegan). And if you're also avoiding soy, you can even make homemade chickpea tofu.

More: Aquafaba: 15 things you need to know about the vegan egg replacement

So you might as well start experimenting with chickpea flour. It could become your new favorite secret ingredient.

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