Types Of Flours For Everyday Baking

How many different kinds of flour are there? We just opened a commercial flour catalog and counted 28. These were flours that
were available from one mill for the Western United States. At last count, we had 16 on hand for our test kitchen.

Matching the flour to the product that you are baking is one of the keys to successful baking. While the commercial baker has access to dozens of specialized flours, we can do quite well with just a few in our kitchens. With those few, you can match the flour to the product you are baking and create your own blends for the effect that you want.

The Role of Gluten

Before we begin to examine types of flour, let’s understand gluten. Gluten is made of the proteins found in wheat flour and gives bread its structure, strength, and texture. Without these marvelous little proteins, bread would not be bread. It also explains why it is so hard to make bread from rice, potato, rye, or oat flour and why wheat flour has to be added to these to make breadâ€"only wheat has enough protein to make bread. The gluten makes the bread.

Gluten is developed in the dough when the proteins absorb water and are pulled and stretched in the kneading process. When water is mixed with flour, the protein in the flour absorbs moisture. When dough is worked by mixing or kneading, two types of protein come together into strandsâ€"tiny ropes of gluten. As the yeast produces gases in the dough, mostly carbon dioxide, these strands trap the gas bubbles and the dough expands. When we put the bread in the oven, the gluten strands coagulate or solidify much as the protein in eggs solidifies as the egg cooks.

A high protein content is necessary for great bread and a low protein content is required for the tender crumb we love in cakes. During baking, this protein coagulates just as the proteins in an egg coagulate in the heat of a frying pan. It’s this coagulated protein that gives bread its chewiness. In a cake, we don’t want chewiness so we use a low protein content flour. Furthermore, we use a shortening (commercial shortening, butter, margarine, or oil) to lubricate and shorten the gluten strands. (Hence the descriptive name "shortening".)

You can see how much protein is in flour by comparing ingredient labels. Bread flours will have as much as 14% protein. All-purpose flour is usually in the eight to ten percent range and cake flour is less than that.

A typical bread flour (this one happens to be a General Mills flour) has 12% protein, 75% carbohydrates, one percent fat, less than one percent ash, and 14% moisture. (If exposed to air, the moisture content will change and affect the baker’s formulation.)

The White Flours

By far, the western world consumes more white flour than any other. We can buy bleached or unbleached, bread, all-purpose, self-rising, cake, and pastry. We can buy flour made with soft Southern wheat or hard winter wheat. They are all different, each with an intended purpose. The choice of flour will make a profound difference in most baked goods.

Bleached or Unbleached?

Should you use bleached or unbleached flour? Chlorine is the common bleaching agent used to whiten flour (though some millers use benzoyl peroxide). Many store breads use bleached flour to obtain the whiteness that we associate with commercial white bread. While the FDA has approved the use of chlorine in flour, you may prefer to avoid the additives and use flour that has not been bleached. Chlorine tends to damage the proteins in flour and therefore weaken the gluten structure in bread.

The natural tone of unbleached wheat flour is cream-colored. If you don’t mind the ivory or cream color of products made with unbleached flour, by all means use that. The only bleached flour that we use is bleached cake flour when we want to obtain the pure white texture we prefer in white cakes. In yellow cakes or chocolate cakes, we use unbleached pastry flour. If you switch from bleached to unbleached flour in your bread recipes, be aware that the two flours may exhibit different performance characteristics and you may need to make minor changes in the recipe.

Bromated or Unbromated?

In your grocery store, you may find either bromated flour or flour that has not been bromated. Bread flours have to age or oxidize before they perform well. The time and expense of natural oxidation is not practical in commercial operations and the results are not often uniform. So the industry has explored means of speeding the process along and using bromates is one of them. The FDA has ruled bromates to be safe and legal (though California outlawed bromates in 1991 as a possible carcinogen and most of Europe will not allow bromates). If you are not comfortable with bromates, look for flour that has been treated with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) or other chemicals instead of bromates.

Bread, All-Purpose, Self-Rising, Pastry, or Cake Flour?

Dominant on grocery store shelves are bread flours, all-purpose flours, and cake and pastry flours. Bread flours have a high protein content--10% to 14%--necessary to give bread the chewy texture and open "crumb" appearance that we cherish in our breads. (We’ll talk about how protein works in just a moment.) Cake and pastry flours have a low protein content to create the soft, crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture that we prefer in our desserts.

All-purpose flour is a compromise between the protein content in bread flours and the protein in pastry flours. All-purpose flours make acceptable bread and pastries but more specialized products are more reliable performers in either spectrum. That’s why you will rarely see all-purpose flour in a commercial bakery.
Self-rising flours have salt and leaveners added. Because we cannot control the amount or type of leavener used or the amount of salt in the flour, we rarely use self-rising flour. Some bakers use self-rising flour for their favorite biscuits.

Cake flour is almost always bleached; pastry flours are usually unbleached. Don’t hesitate to use unbleached pastry flour for cakes. Unbleached pastry flours make wonderful cakes but white cakes will be ivory, rather than white, in color. Of course, with a yellow or chocolate cake, it will not make a difference.
So what flour should I buy?

Buy flours for their intended usesâ€"bread flour for breads and pastry flours for pastries plus all-purpose flours for gravies and other general uses. Keep in mind that most recipesâ€"except bread recipes--were developed with all-purpose flour since that is what is common in nearly all kitchens. You may wish to use all-purpose flour for a new recipe and then switch to a specialty flour after you become familiar with the recipe.

We recommend that you try different brandsâ€"there is a surprising difference in performance between brands--and then stick with what works for you. In our experience, name brands tend to consistently hold to a specification where less expensive brands tend to vary from season to season and sometimes, even lot to lot. If you really want to broaden your selection, make friends with a baker since he or she has available a vast array of flours each with its own specification. Buy a bag or two of flour from your baker and try it. Flour is inexpensive and your baker will be able to supply you with a detailed specification so that you can see what you are getting.

Whole Wheat Flour

The wheat kernel is composed of three parts: the bran which forms the hard outer coating of the kernel, the smaller germ which is the embryonic portion of the kernel as the yolk is to an egg, and the starchy endosperm. In the milling of white flour, the bran is cracked from the kernel and discarded and most of the germ is removed leaving the endosperm.

In whole wheat flour, both the bran and the germ are left with the flour. Since the germ has a high fat content and fat can go rancid, whole wheat flours are much more likely to spoil. Also, since the flour is composed of the entire wheat kernel, whole wheat flour is not enriched with vitamin additives as white flour is. (The federal government specifies the addition of vitamins to white flour. See the nutritional comparison of enriched white flour to whole wheat flour in this lesson.) Whole wheat flour can be purchased in either a fine ground or coarse ground texture.

Most but not all of the "brown" breads produced commercially are made from a blend of white bread flour and fine ground whole wheat with about 40% of the flour content being whole wheat. The white flour tempers the whole wheat providing a slightly milder taste without the bitterness that whole wheat sometimes carries. The white flour also creates a stronger gluten structure since bread flour typically has a higher protein content than whole wheat alone. Additionally, the bran in whole wheat has sharp edges that cut gluten strands as it is kneaded.

Graham flour is whole wheat flour. One day in the office we had a stirring debate as to just what graham flour wasâ€"a whole wheat flour with extra bran, whole wheat flour from soft wheat, or a more coarsely ground whole wheat. We contacted Technical Services at General Mills. They quoted chapter and verse. FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations allows any whole wheat flour to be called graham flour. So it depends on the miller; read the package carefully to see just what you are getting.

Other Flours

Cornmeal, like wheat flour, can be purchased with or without the germ and in a fine or a coarse ground form. For cornmeal with the germ removed, look for the term "degerminated" on the label. Degerminated cornmeal keeps longer--since the fatty germ is removed--but is not as nutritionally complete as cornmeal with the germ.

The word "meal" refers to products that are not as finely ground as flour. Both cornmeal and corn flour are available. Polenta is usually coarsely ground.

Rye flour is used extensively in pumpernickel and rye breads. It can be purchased in light rye, medium rye, and dark rye flours. White rye is especially prized by the bakers of artisan loaves and creates a mild, uniquely-flavored bread with a taste that is described as being sourdough-like.

Because rye proteins do not form the gluten strands necessary to create structure, bread made with rye flour alone is heavy and dense. Accordingly, when making breads with rye flour, add two to three times as much high protein content bread flour as rye flour. Often extra wheat gluten is added.

The flavor most of us associate with rye bread comes from the caraway seeds in the bread. If your family says they don’t like rye bread, make it without the caraway seeds. They will probably find this bread very good. At the end of this lesson, you will find a recipe calling for rye flour and no caraway seeds.

Oats are used in baking in various forms: rolled, quick, steel cut, and flour. (Steel cut oats are quick oats that are not flattened.) Oat bran can also be purchased. Oat products are most generally used with chemically leavened products like scones and muffins. Rolled oats added to yeasted bread make for a wonderful chewy texture and moistness.

Buckwheat flour is often used in pancakes and sometimes in breads. Buckwheat is not really a grain but a seed. Because there are no proteins to form gluten, buckwheat adds little structure to the baked product. It is most commonly used in pancakes but is sometimes added to breads.

Potato flour is an important component in the baker’s arsenal. Unlike wheat flour, it is hygroscopicâ€"that is, it attracts water instead of dries outâ€"so that the staling process in breads is retarded or slowed. One tablespoon of potato flour to two cups of wheat flour will extend the life of your bread and keep it moist. We use potato flours extensively in our breads.

Copyright 2007, The Prepared Pantry (http://www.prepraredpantry.com ). Published by permission

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About The Author, Dennis Weaver -
Dennis Weaver is a baker, a recipe designer, and a writer. He has written many baking guides and How to Bake, a comprehensive baking and reference e-book--available free at The Prepared Pantry which sells baking and cooking supplies and has a free online baking library.