What is the difference in flours?

One of the most important choices in your baking decisions is what kind of flour to use. I have had a few baking disasters using what I thought was the right flour, but left me with a sagging, lumpy loaf of bread, which I named Mr. Sadsack. (I thought I was getting a good deal at a restaurant supply store, getting a big bag of Gold Medal Better for Bread flour for only $15 a 50# bag! Apparently it was a lower protein than I was used to and it took 3 terrible loaves to figure out it was the flour. I changed the flour, problem solved.) Let me share with you what I have learned.

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Wheat flours

There are a variety of wheat flours to choose from. Some are made from a soft (lower protein) wheat berry. Some from a hard (higher protein) wheat berry. Some are made from winter wheat, some from spring. Some are red, some are white.

Without getting into too much detail about when it is grown or how, it is the protein in the wheat that ultimately makes the difference for you. Lower protein wheat makes flour with less gluten and is good for tender baked goods that do not need to raise much such as cookies, pie crust, biscuits and cakes.

Higher protein wheat makes flour with a higher amount of gluten and is good for breads, pizzas, bagels and pretzels.

There are hundreds of kinds of wheat grown around the world. Mills mix a variety of wheat to achieve the protein level they are looking for. King Arthur flour, one of the gold standards of wheat, use an old type of wheat called “Turkey Red” in their all-purpose flour. Theirs was the first brand of flour that actually caught my attention. Back when it was sold at Trader Joes, I purchased a bag and for some reason, instead of throwing out the bag, I took a closer look at it.  They had a catalog! What? I sent for it and have been a happy camper ever since. I had no idea until then, that all these tools, tips, and tricks were available to the general baking public. Getting one of their catalogs in the mail is usually the highlight of that day. And they all have recipes in them to boot.

One of the things that make King Arthur flour special is that the flours, with the exception of their cake flour, is unbleached and unbromated. I will explain this in a minute.

Another of my favorite brands is Bobs Red Mill. They are based in Oregon and I got to meet Bob and take a tour of their facilities. They have a store down the street from the mill with a café. You can buy the ingredients to make great bread, buy great breads already made, or buy a sandwich right there at their café made from their great breads. Their big claim to fame is using stone mills to grind the wheat, thereby not overheating the grains of wheat and destroying nutrients. You can read more about them here.

Yet another Mill I have been just recently enamored with is called “Wheat Montana” and is grown, you guessed it, in Montana. They are in competition, I think, with King Arthur. They grow it, mill it, bag it and sell it. Their milling process is unique and does not over heat the grains. Their all-purpose flour is a higher protein than some and is unbleached and unbromated like KA’s so you can use it for breads or biscuits. Their whole wheat is chemical free, and I can find the all-purpose, white whole wheat and traditional (red) whole wheat here at Wal-Mart. I know, I don’t like shopping in, what my son calls, lord Wal-demort. But it is the only store that sells this and it costs less than my other favorites. I can get a 10# bag for under $6. For a while Target was selling KA flour for $3.50 a 5# bag which was the best price anywhere, but I do believe it recently went up. I have seen KA flour (and Bobs Red Mill ) go for over a dollar a pound at most stores.

There is also Arrowhead Mills and Gold Medal (which now boasts organic flour as well as unbleached, whole wheat varieties, etc.) The south wouldn’t have its biscuits if it were not for White Lily brand flour. Pillbury, Great River Organics, Hodgsons Mill organics and lots more I just don’t know about yet. All this is not counting the large bulk flours you can get from the big stores, like Costco, or restaurant supply houses. I even went to Sprout store once and, after talking with the bulk manager, ordered a bulk bag of bread flour, unbleached and unbromated. I can’t remember the brand name though.

What you really need to know is what flour is the one you need to make what you want to make.

Cake flour is the lowest protein, bleached flour. (More on bleaching later in this post). It is about 8-9% protein. Used for cakes primarily, although some recipes call for it in cookies or you can blend this with other flours for biscuits. (I have been known to do this). Which brings us to:

Pastry flour: Bobs sells whole wheat pastry flour, made of softer wheat with a lower protein. I like to stick some of this in most cookies and pastries. KA sells unbleached pastry flour blend at about 9% protein.  You cannot find this in stores, only the catalog. You can mix it with all-purpose flour to make your own French bread blend (says the KA book).

All-purpose flour: Considering this is to be used all around for general purpose baking, you would think the various brands would be pretty much the same. Not so. While Pillbury and Gold Medal AP flour is around 10.5%, KA is 11.7%. Eagle Mills AP is a whopping 13.3%! (For a while I could get this at Costco, but not anymore.) I cannot find the percent for Bobs AP flour, but I imagine since it is from a hard winter wheat, it is pretty high up there. Basically you can use anything labeled ‘all-purpose’ for most of your baking needs. But if it is a store brand flour, or a more common Gold Medal or Pillsbury, stick to using these for cookies, scones, biscuits, etc. Use their Bread flours for breads. Where AP flour from KA and Wheat Montana and probably Bobs can be used for those and breads too.

Bread flour: Pillsbury bread flour is about 11.5%. Gold Medal bread flour is 12.1-12.6. Not bad. King Arthur is about 12.7%.  These are the only ones I can find at the moment and they would all work great in bread machines as well as by hand.

Whole Wheat flour: KA white whole wheat flour is about 13% and their traditional whole wheat is closer to 15%! Montana Wheat Prairie Gold whole wheat (white) is 13.9% and their traditional Bronze Chief is 13.4%. Respectable.

Kamut is the Egyptian ancestor of todays durum wheat, not as bitter. You can use in place of whole wheat flour. People seem to love Kamut. I have never tried it. It is easier to digest, has more protein and amino acids and less starch. From what I understand the only reason it is not used more frequently is its higher cost and lack of availability.

Spelt flour is also an ancient grain related to wheat. It has a high protein content, but it is a fragile protein and can only be partially substituted for whole wheat in bread. But it does work well in pancakes. I tried it once in lieu of whole wheat and it tasted fine, the pancakes were tender and they were eaten up. What more could you ask for in a pancake? It has fewer calories than whole wheat and is easier to digest. Good for cookies, pancakes, scones maybe?

The highest gluten I can find for just baking (not counting buying gluten to add to flours and not whole wheat) is KA’s Sir Lancelot High-Gluten flour at 14.2%. It is good for things like bagels and pizza, things you want to develop a good chewiness to. It is also only available through their catalog.

You can buy bags of gluten or gluten flour to use as an additive, to boost the gluten content. I have done this with whole wheat before, under the impression that whole wheat needs a protein boost. After my research I would say maybe not.

But whole wheat does have its problems. Let’s face it, we have all heard of the legendary whole wheat bricks instead of loaves. Sometimes people grind their own wheat and it may not ground find enough. Or when someone adds too many other low protein grains to a loaf it can end up gummy, heavy and unattractive.

Here is the problem with whole wheat. Since it is made from the whole wheat berry, not just the inner endosperm that white flour comes from, it has the bran and the germ. The bran is rough, and when ground up, is like millions of little razor blades. These blades cut at the strands of gluten that are trying to grow and stretch. So here is the yeast, multiplying, giving off carbon dioxide and this gas is making nice bubbles in the bread that stretch the dough. If the gluten was developed properly through kneading, the gluten in the dough would help the bread to stretch with the bubbles, and not collapse on itself. During baking, the gluten sets up, holding up the bread. The gas from the yeast dissipates. But with the whole wheat, the bran slices up some of the gluten. It’s like trying to walk barefoot on finely ground glass. So you might want that extra gluten just to help counteract the bran. But I have made many wonderful loaves of whole wheat bread, so there are ways around this problem. I will share recipes with you later.

Now I promised you I would explain the thing about bleaching and bromating.

Bleaching is all about lightening up the flour. By removing the bran and the germ, the millers are on their way to making ‘white’ flour. If is left alone for a few weeks, the air will oxidize and whiten up the wheat naturally.  This aging also helps the dough made from this flour more elastic. “Green” or aged flour generally has less elasticity.

Most of the common flour mills use chemicals to bleach their wheat flour. They do not have time to wait for natural aging. They use chlorine dioxide, benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas. When you get a bag of flour that says ‘bleached’ this is what they used to bleach it. It can leave a chemical aftertaste in your foods and can be an irritant to sensitive people. Baked goods will not be at their best with this kind of flour. It will not rise as well. It is inferior, in my opinion.

Having said this, even KA flour bleaches its cake flour (and is the only one they do this too). This allows the wheat starch to absorb more liquid, so cakes can support larger amounts of sugar and fats. It makes the flour more acidic, which helps the starches ‘set’ in the oven more quickly. You will get a lighter cake than with unbleached flour. I recently purchased bleached cake flour again. It has been ages since I have used it and now I want to see how different my cakes turn out. (Truth to tell, I rarely make cakes, being more a bread and pastry girl.)

Bromating: Potassium bromate is banned in Canada, the EU and Japan. Here in California flours having this additive are supposed to have a warning label. It is used as an oxidizer and a conditioner in many flours. (Not your better brands). Check your labels. Potassium Bromate is carcinogenic in animals. And it is unnecessary in flours. King Arthur doesn’t use it, Wheat Montana and Bobs Red Mill do not use it. Any organic flour, I would think, would not use it.

Before I am done with the whole flour thing, let me mention Durum wheat. It is a very high protein wheat but does not form gluten as well as other hard wheat. It is used in pastas primarily. I have some I will add to pizza dough to give it a better chew, mixing a little in with the bread flour. Semolina flour is made with durum wheat, but is a coarser grind.

Other flour blends, these by King Arthur, are;  Artisan bread flour (11.7%), Italian-style flour (9.2%) which you can generally find I Italian stores labeled 00, French-style flour (11.5%). They sell Pasta flour, pizza flour and a Mellow Pastry blend, which is a blend of all-purpose and pastry flour giving it a 10.3% protein. I used to use this for muffins and scones.

Something else I just thought of. Storing your flour. Two things are your enemies. Age and moths. Whole wheat flours have more oils in them and can go rancid faster but all flours get old. Even if you cant smell anything wrong, the older the flour gets, the less will be the elasticity. If you do not plan to use the flour in about 3 months, freeze it. I buy big bags of flour and pour part of the bag into canisters, then bag up and freeze the rest. Or I store it in the garage pantry if it is all purpose because I go through it so fast. These canisters I use are not bug proof so I put some plastic wrap under the lid. It is the only thing that has worked for me. (Although I remember old Tupperware flour canisters with locking lids. Wonder if you can still get those? Wonder if I can get BIG ones?)  I tend to freeze the whole wheat flours, especially in summer. And that’s with me using them pretty consistently.

I hope this has helped inspire you to explore different flour choices. I tried to keep it short actually. I could go on all day. If you have any questions, just ask them here and I will try to help you.

Happy baking!

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