Millet flour is a powdery substance used in baking that is made from ground millet, a grain in the grass family that is grown as a crop in many parts of the world. Bakers often appreciate the flour’s light texture, and most find that it lends a certain sweet and nutty flavor to breads and other foods. Millet resembles wheat in both appearance and texture, but it is entirely gluten-free, which makes it popular with people who are avoiding gluten for medical or other reasons. Not very many recipes can be made exclusively with ground millet, but it is often used in combination with other flours, glutinous or otherwise, in order to make a range of different baked goods. It is a good source of many vitamins and minerals, and is also a so-called “natural protein”; many bakers like to add it to their foods for no other reason than to add a nutritional boost.
How It’s Used
The most popular use for millet flour is as an addition to or replacement for more traditional wheat flour. Baking generally requires a combination of “wet” ingredients like water, milk, and eggs with “dry” components such as flour, sugar, and various starches. Cooks typically use ground millet in much the same way that they would use any other flour. Millet has a distinctive flavor and can lend a good “crumb” to cakes and cookies, but baked goods made only with millet often turn out too crumbly, often to the point of falling apart and disintegrating. Cooks often need to experiment a little bit to get the right proportions for a given recipe.
Popular Recipes and Dishes
Millet flours are most commonly used in desserts and sweet breads largely because of the grain’s naturally sweet flavor. It tends to lend itself well to cakes, cookies, and muffins, and pairs well with things like honey and chocolate, and some bakers find that they can actually reduce the sugar in recipes when they use ground millet. Many people use it to balance more savory flavors, too, though. It can be used to add bulk to things like meatloaf, or can form a unique batter for fried fish or chicken.
Cooking experts usually say that millet flour can be used in the same ways that regular wheat flour can be, but they don’t normally advise complete substitutions in recipes. In most cases it’s usually best to start with about a 3-to-1 ratio of wheat to millet, then adjust according to taste and dough consistency. The flours may look about the same on the outside, but they are made up of really different things, and they tend to react pretty differently when cooked. The gluten in wheat acts as a binding agent that helps all of the ingredients hold together. Since millet is gluten-free, foods made with this flour tend to crumble much more easily.
As a Substitute for Wheat Flour
This flour is very popular with people who are on gluten-free diets. Some people are allergic to the gluten protein, while others have medical conditions, like Celiac disease, that make it hard or impossible for them to process the protein. Some people also choose to live gluten-free lifestyles as a means of embracing better health or regaining more control and awareness of the food they eat. Millet flour can be a good choice for people in any of these categories who want to enjoy foods that normally contain wheat flour, but again straight substitutions rarely work out. Gluten-free baking usually turns out best when people combine different flours, adding in wheat-free binding agents like xanthan gum to help the dough stay elastic. This is especially important for things like cookies or cakes that need to retain a chewy, somewhat consistent texture; things like crackers or flatbreads may still turn out if they’re somewhat crumbly.
Most yeasted breads also require the addition of some sort of gluten-like substance in order to rise. Yeast feeds on sugars and starches in order to activate, and bread made only with millet might not rise very much.
Milling and Refinement Process
Millet is grown as a food crop in many parts of Asia and Africa, usually in dedicated fields or plantations. It tends to grow in a conical shape, in some sense resembling an ear of corn. The cones are picked during harvesting, either by hand or machine, then are stripped of their grains and processed. When making flour, manufacturers typically compress the grains, then pulverize and grind them into an even consistency.
There are a couple of different ways of refining the flour. The most traditional is known as “stone grinding,” and usually involves pressing the millet with slabs of hard stone. This can be done by hand, and for centuries it was; more modern milling technology means that machines more often do the work, but the idea is the same. The grains can also be passed through industrial grinders, a process that is faster but tends to be somewhat less precise than stone grinding. More of each grain can be lost this way, and the risk is that the end result will be slightly less nutritious as a result.
Grades and Types of Flour Available
Different regions of the world tend to grow slightly different variations or species of millet. Pearl millet is usually the most common for flour, but other related varieties, like proso or kodo, may be used as well. A lot depends on location, availability, and demand.
Some millet flours are also sourced only with organic grains. Different countries tend to have slightly different definitions of “organic,” but in most cases it means that the plants were grown without pesticides or chemicals of any kind.
Basic Nutritional Data
Millet is a whole grain, and many health experts claim that eating a diet rich in whole grains can help improve heart health and can contribute to a healthy weight. The grain is also a very good source of protein and iron, and is high in dietary fiber. People who suffer from hypothyroidism should generally avoid eating millet, though, as a number of studies have shown a connection between millet consumption and impaired thyroid production. Anyone with this or other medical conditions should talk to a medical professional before dramatically modifying their diets, whether with millet or anything else.
Why Does Gluten Exist?
We mentioned earlier that gluten is a binding agent found in many types of grains. In fact, the term "gluten" was once specific to only wheat proteins. Nowadays, it usually refers to a combination of the proteins prolamin and glutelin in wheat plus similar seed storage proteins in barley, rye, and oat grains. These proteins help store nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur for later usage when a young seedling is growing.
Gluten comprises about 75% of the proteins found in most bread. Within each grain, these proteins form a "mesh" that gives dough its plasticity. Gluten also gives it a chewy texture, which makes the final product pleasant to eat. Rice and maize have seed storage proteins as well, but they do not trigger the effects that gluten does in people with allergies or celiac disease.
Why Can't Some People Eat Gluten?
Most individuals who can't eat gluten either have celiac disease. Gluten contains peptides, which are short amino acid chains connected by peptide bonds. Each of these bonds links a carbon-oxygen pair from one molecule to a second molecule's nitrogen-hydrogen pair. In people with celiac disease, the immune system treats these peptides as dangerous foreign bodies. This immune response leads to intestinal inflammation, a key complication of celiac disease. Current research suggests that a genetic mutation on chromosome 6 may be a key to this immune system response.
Gluten sensitivity can have other causes. While it's still not well understood, non-celiac gluten sensitivity may result from other kinds of proteins and short-chain carbons found in grains that contain gluten. Those short-chain carbons, also known as FODMAPs, include some types of sugars that can absorb water and ferment inside one's colon. While most people can handle ingesting FODMAPs without incident, others experience discomfort such as gas, diarrhea, and bloating when they ferment in the small intestine.
What Does Millet Flour Taste Like?
The term "millet" can refer to a wide range of cereal grains. These can include sorghum plus finger, foxtail, little, pearl, and proso millet grains plus dozens of lesser-known species in the Panicoideae and Chroloridoideae grass subfamilies. Nearly all millet species are annuals, meaning that they complete their life cycles in one year or less and don't regrow the next year. These different species grow in East Asia, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, but they share some notable characteristics:
- Producing smaller grains
- Thriving in warm-weather climates
- Drought resistance
- Pest resistance
Many people describe millet as having a mild corn-like flavor. To others, it has a subtly sweet and nutty taste. Thanks to this mild flavor and lightweight texture, bakers find that it's a versatile medium. It's best for delicate items like muffins and cakes, but combining it with other flours is best if you intend to make bread. One helpful approach is mixing millet flour with gluten-free starches like tapioca or potato starch. You may need to research and experiment to find combinations that work well in your kitchen.
Is Millet Flour Gluten-Free?
Millet flour is absolutely gluten-free. Millet grains have their own seed storage proteins, but they're different than those in wheat, oats, barley, and rye that comprise gluten. As a distant cousin of maize, millet only contains alpha-type prolamin seed storage proteins. They're wrapped in starch granules and housed in the endosperm, the part of the seed that handles food storage for growing plants.
Millet, maize, and other related gluten-free cereals lack glutelin. Without this component, there is no gluten inside a millet grain. That's why millet doesn't trigger intestinal inflammation in people with celiac design. Millet is also low in FODMAPs, so it's far less likely to trigger digestive distress.
Besides being gluten-free, millet is also packed with nutrients. It's an excellent source of antioxidants, protein, and fiber. Incorporating millet flour increases the antioxidant content of baked goods. Millet works well in a balanced diet for people who can't tolerate gluten — or anyone else who wants to eat healthily.
Is There a Substitute for Millet Flour?
If you can't use millet flour or happen to run out, take heart. There are substitutes available for your gluten-free baking. Top suggestions include rice, sorghum, and buckwheat flours, all of which are gluten-free. White rice flour has a delicate flavor, while brown rice flour's flavor has an earthier and nuttier edge. Buckwheat flour also has a nutty taste with some earthy, grassy, and slightly bitter undertones. It comes in two versions: light hulled flour and dark unhulled flour. Sorghum flour has a light and mildly sweet flavor, making it a versatile choice for many baking projects.