The Burden of Gluten-Free Flour

Baking is expensive, inconvenient, and time-consuming for gluten-free bakers, but it has little to do with modified recipes or learning new techniques.

Bob's Red Mill Storefront in Oregon

Bob's Red Mill Storefront in Oregon

I made my third trip of the holiday baking season to Bob's Red Mill this weekend. Shopping in a baker's paradise, where all sorts of magical baking gadgetry and ingredients exists, is not in itself a terrible experience. Hard to resist? At times, yes. What makes it an issue, though, is that this is the only place in my area where bulk bin pricing for moderate quantities of gluten-free flours are substantially less, and more convenient, than the tiny packages found in grocery stores.

As a home baker, I make a lot more than the occasional batch of cookies or dinner rolls, and during the holidays? My output rivals a small bakery.

Expensive

Conventional wheat flour is dirt cheap compared to a gluten-free pre-mixed equivalent, even looking at the highest-priced options. Cross-checking the (non-sale) prices at my local grocery store*, I found the following:

  • Kroger All Purpose - 5lb - $2.19 = $.44/lb

  • Gold Medal All Purpose - 5lb - $2.99 = $.60/lb

  • King Arthur All Purpose - 5lb - $4.99 = $1.00/lb

  • King Arthur Gluten Free Multi-Purpose - 24oz (1.5lb) - $6.79 = $4.53/lb

  • Pamela's Artisan Flour Blend - 24oz (1.5lb) - $6.19 = $4.13/lb

  • Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour - 22oz (1.375lb) - $4.39 = $3.19/lb

  • Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour - 44oz (2.75lb) - $9.49 = $3.45/lb

bulk bags of flour with a kitchen scale and bucket

bulk bags of flour with a kitchen scale and bucket

The difference is not insignificant. At best, I can expect to pay at least $3/lb for gluten-free flour at the grocery store while conventional bakers pay less than a dollar on average. I'll cover the reasons for the price gap in a later post, but for now, the point is that the cost of a gluten-free staple is disproportionate.

To cut costs, I have to buy in bulk, but due to the problem of cross-contamination, my options are further limited. The only place to get bulk gluten-free flours from a dedicated gluten-free facility is a 20 minute drive across town. I'm incredibly thankful, and fortunate, to have a local mill that has gone the extra step and built a gluten-free area for processing. However, this is not available to everyone, and that's a major problem.*Portland, OR metro area Fred Meyer, Kroger

Inconvenient

I love that more and more stores are carrying gluten-free flour options. What I don't love is that most stores don't carry a wide enough variety to mix up a blend*, and the pre-mixed options only come in two sizes: inadequate and grossly inadequate.

I have never experienced a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up a bag of flour big enough to accommodate the volume of baking I do around the holidays. Never mind that I bake one to two loaves of bread per week during the off season now that I've figured out gluten-free bread baking--more on that amazing business in an upcoming post.

The standard sizes for conventional flour found in every grocery store are 2lb and 5lb bags, with 10lb and 25lb available in the bigger chain locations. For gluten-free, 22-24oz is the standard. A loaf of yeast bread uses 16oz+ of flour--that single 24oz package doesn't go far at all.

*Gluten-free flours require additional starches to simulate texture and baking properties of wheat flour.

Time-Consuming

Two small buckets filled with all-purpose gluten-free flour blend

Two small buckets filled with all-purpose gluten-free flour blend

Everyone is short on time these days, but when you not only have to drive across town at pre-dawn hours to avoid the Saturday morning crush at the single-most popular mill in the region, and then spend the next hour or so weighing and blending large quantities of flours for a gluten-free mix that suits your needs, rolling five gallon buckets back and forth through the kitchen, terrified the lid might pop off and scatter your precious, ridiculously expensive, flour all over the floor...

*breathe*

This is how I spent my Saturday morning. All this just to get enough flour so that I can make a loaf of bread each week, continue experimenting and improving my baked goods, and bake like a beast through the holidays.

Frankly, it's all a bit exhausting and time consuming.

Order online then, silly! 

Well yes, ordinarily that'd be my first stop as I'm not big on wasting the time and energy of shopping when I know exactly what I want or need. The bigger issue, though, is that not everyone has the luxury of shopping online.

Plus, for all the wonderful benefits of my local mill, you can't order bulk in quantities less than 25lb, even online. The pre-mixed gluten-free flour options on the market right now don't suit my needs so I have to make my own blend. I can't properly store 75lb+ of whole grain flour. In fact, most people can't, nor should they have to, and if we're honest, buying in that quantity is an unreasonable solution for the average home baker.

Takeaway

Whether we choose to bake as a hobby or to provide quality food for our families, the burden of finding and paying for gluten-free flour is unfairly placed on the home baker. We shouldn't be expected to settle for whatever is available. I'm not the first baker in my family, but I am the first one who has to perform an absurd contortion with both wallet and time for a 5lb bag of flour.