Flour is flour…or is it?

Or… do you really care anyway.

I mean, most people’s hearts do not go pitter-pat when their favorite brand of flour goes on sale.

Most people do not get an adrenaline rush seeing a back stock of assorted flours lining their shelves.

But you don’t have to get all that excited about it to want to know a little more about the mainstay of your baking repertoire. Anyone who bakes at all for their families has to eventually deal with what kind of flour to use  and whats the difference between this and that. I did do a post a while back, intending it to be a series on baking bread. It did mention flours. But it petered out. Okay, techniquely, I petered out. So here I am again.

And yes, my favorite brand of flour was on sale and I bought them out.

Keep in mind this is just a brief nod to flour power. You can find entire chapters in baking books going on an on about flours. But I figure you probably don’t really want to know that much. Just the facts ma’am.

So, what brought this whole flour thing on? How about  watching several loaves of my cinnamon raisin swirl bread bake up beautifully, then sink or collapse sideways after getting it out of the pan unable to sustain its own structure. And that was using bread flour! it looked like a mighty zeppelin running out of gas and listing to port.

And my white bread: soft, velvety texture, but so soft it too leans over and mushes down from its own weight.

remember sad sack?

What is going on?

The flour. unfortunately, the old adage “you get what you pay for” especially applies to food stuffs. I thought I was getting a deal from a restaurant supply house. Finally, a flour that I could buy in bulk that was unbleached and unbromated! A name brand, Gold Medal had put this on the market, Harvest King bread flour, which is always unbleached. So I, in my economic frenzy, bought two 50 lb. sacks of it. It made beautiful pastries and cookies. (I generally use bread flours like this for everything, unless its King Arthur bread flour, which is a higher protein).

But that’s right about the time when my breads started failing me. I noticed two things right off. The feel of the flour was much softer than I was used to. And I found myself using more of it for everything from cookies to monkey bread. I needed from 1/2 to a full cup more of it per recipe! Many times I did not even measure, but just kept adding fingers full of flour to get the right texture. I kept wondering why I was having to add so much!

Wheat flour is made from soft and hard wheat, usually a mixture of the two. Which is also a spring and a winter wheat. Different wheats have different protein levels. The higher the level, the stronger the structure capabilities. Kind of like building a tower with aluminum or steel. Pastry and cake flours would be the aluminum towers. They have a low protein and are good for things that do not need a lot of structure, like cookies and cakes and pies and biscuits.

All purpose flour has a nice amount of protein and can be used for those cookies and also for breads.

The higher protein flours, like bread flour and artesan flours are like  the steel towers, and can hold up all kinds of bread, even bagels and pizza and have a nice chew. The range of proteins in different flours is from about a 5 to a 13. While most of the all-purpose flours range from approx. 9-12. The mix of different flours is what gives each brand its own distinctive qualities.

Protein levels though are usually  not what you are looking for when you shop, is it? It is not like it’s posted on the label.

First off I am assuming you know the difference between whole wheat flour and general white flour.  How about white whole wheat vs. traditional whole wheat?

(crickets)

You may be familiar with the fact that a few years ago a new whole wheat, white whole wheat, showed up in the market. I first saw it in the King Arthur bakers catalog. I do not know if they were the first to sell it. The white whole wheat has just as much fiber as regular whole wheat, using the whole wheat berry and all, just the strain of wheat had a lighter look and taste. You can sneak some of it into your baking easier without drawing attention to itself.

Traditional whole wheat is darker, with a stronger flavor and denser results. (which, did you know, comes from the fact that the bran fibers in the wheat kernel act like little bitty razors, cutting the gluten as it tried to form strands to hold up the bread.)

Besides whole wheat and white there is of course, cake flour, pastry flour, all-purpose, bread and even high gluten flour.

But lets  say you just want to have some flour on hand for your everyday baking needs. Maybe you want to make some muffins some time. Or pizza crust. A good brand of all-purpose flour would fulfill all your general baking needs adequately.  Lets look at some other differences first.

One thing to avoid.

Bleached flour.

Stay away from bleached flours which perform poorly and use chemicals to get them white. Unbleached flours are aged naturally to get their off white coloring. Stores do not sell “green” flour, only aged  or bleached. Green flour would be like if you ground the kernels yourself. That  fresh stuff would be green. Not literally though, just figuratively. So stay away from bleached flours. I mean…bleach?

Gold Medal and King Arthur both have an unbleached all-purpose flour on the shelves. If you are lucky you may have Bobs Red Mill also to choose from. I will talk about them in a minute. Of those on your shelves, King Arthur has the highest protein for all-purpose and would be the most versatile. Good for cookies as well as breads. Gold Medal is fine, but has a slightly lower protein level. It would make, as I am discovering, a softer bread. But if you make mostly cookies and such, this would work fine.

Just no bleached flour please. For mercy sake.

Most store brands are bleached.

Bobs Red Mill is based in Oregon. I have toured the place. Very fun, for nerdy baking types like me. Plus there is a nice cafe for breakfasts and lunches too.

Bob used to go around the world collecting old stone flour mills, taking them apart and rebuilding them after transporting them to his hometown. After rescuing many mills, he was soon milling flour the old-fashioned way, slowly. The idea is that new steel rollers that grind your wheat up into flour are so fast that you would probably explode just by walking by one. Okay, maybe just pass out from the heat. All that heat kills many of the vitamins and enzymes in the wheat. By stone grinding it the slow way, he was preserving the nutritional factors of the wheat.Good ol’ Bob. Now he has little specially made electic stone mills so he can make lots more the slow way and it can be offered in many more stores. That is good for you and me. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get up to Oregon very often. Bobs Red Mill would not dream of selling bleached or cheap flours. You can get whole wheat, organic whole wheat, whole wheat pastry,  organic WW pastry, white whole wheat, all purpose, bread , gluten-free, corn etc.

We like Bob.

Also Arrowhead Mills has an assortment of whole wheat and white flours, mostly if not all organic. I don’t use it much though. No reason really. Just not available in most of my stores.

King Arthur has so many kinds of flours they needed their own catalog. My baking was boosted up a whole level when I discovered the Bakers Catalog from them. Not just flours you can’t get in your stores, but every kind of flavoring, mix, pan, gadget, special ingredient, as well as recipes and advice are all in this free catalog. I suggest you all sign up for them to send you one, right now! Their all-purpose is a tad higher in protein and is good for both biscuits and bread, cookies and cakes. The bread flour is at least a whole point higher (I think I read somewhere its 12.7%) than other brands and excellent for bread baking of all kinds.

I also have their 3 main books; the KA Baking Companion, the Whole Wheat baking book and the Cookies Book. (Bobs Red Mill also has a baking book, but I loaned it out and never have seen it again.)

We  like the King.

Both of Bob and the King are best for bread baking. I have learned the hard way, so I know.

So lets see. Store whole wheat in the freezer, especially since you don’t use it much. Regular flour can be stored in your cupboards for about 6-8 months. Refrigerate or freeze if you don’t use it much. You can use flour right out of the freezer, no need to thaw.

Yeast too, by the way, can be stored in the freezer to keep fresher. I keep mine in a jar in fridge, with the excess from the 1 lb bag stored in the freezer.Again, no need to thaw.

Oh, Gold Medal just came out with an organic flour that I found, at Target! Of all places. I haven’t baked with it yet.

But to sum up: Stay away from bleached flour. Since you don’t bake that often (I am making assumptions here) you may as well use good flour when you actually do bake. If you are going to go through the trouble to bake at home from scratch, why not spend a buck more for a 5 lb. bag and get quality (or find it on sale, like I just did!) Stater Bros. and Albertsons has King Arthur, but it costs. Target had it for a great price.  Sprouts and Mothers and Whole Foods all carry an assortment of good brands so see what strikes your fancy. Even Smart and Final had King Arthur in 10 lb. bags, surprisingly. Sometimes you will find Bobs on sale for great bargains. Stock up, wrap well and store in the freezer.

And let me know if you have any questions.

Now thats what I'm talkin' about!
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