Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Flour is flour, right?
All flour is definitely not made equal. Not only do we need to differentiate between cake flour, bread flour and all purpose flour - we also have to consider the differences between commercial and artisanal flour i.e. bleached/unbleached and roller milled or stone ground flour. Not to mention organic flour, enriched flour, whole wheat and rye. Gluten free and alternative flours are also worth discussing but will form the subject of a different article.
If we were to take a look inside most pantries around the world, we would in all likelihood find a bag of cake or all purpose flour. These flours are perfectly suited for the occasional weekend or holiday bake. In the last 12 months however, another flour has become prevalent in our kitchens... I am of course referring to bread flour. As a result of the lockdowns imposed by governments across the globe in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world watched a bread baking revolution unfold on social media. When our survival instincts kicked in, flour became a hot and very scarce commodity. Bread after all is and has always been the staff of life. Suddenly GLUTEN was the least of our problems and everyone scrambled to get their hands on the last available bags of flour. Even the folks who had never baked a single thing in their lives prior to the pandemic, now boasted well stocked baking cupboards but had no idea where to start. I am guessing that many have eventually taken the leap and at least baked a handful of times - but for those of you who are still sitting on the baker's fence, hop on over and let me guide you the first steps of the way.
First off, we have cake flour. As the wheat flour with the lowest protein content (5% - 8%), cake flour is perfect for making soft, light and airy baked goods such as cakes, cookies or pancakes. Cake flour is made from soft spring wheat and due to the low protein content, this flour is not suitable for bread baking as it is impossible to achieve a strong gluten structure which consequently results in a dough which cannot retain its shape (unless it is baked in a bread tin). Cake flour is able to absorb more liquid and sugar than all purpose or bread flour and thus your baked goods will stay moist for longer. Yum!
Pastry flour has an 8% - 9% protein content, which results in a slightly more developed gluten structure, which in turn allows for easier shaping and handling of the dough. Pastry flour is best suited for flaky pastries, sweet or savoury pies, tarts and quiches. Not as common as cake, bread and all purpose flour, you will probably struggle to find pastry flour at your local grocery store. You may have better luck sourcing it from a speciality bake shop or online.
Next up, we have all purpose flour. This flour is pretty versatile, as it is a perfect mix of soft and hard wheat flour. With a protein content of 10% - 12%, this flour is well suited for bread baking as it is capable of forming a decent gluten structure. All purpose flour is most commonly found in North America, where it is the go-to flour for most types of baking. You can easily make your own all purpose flour by mixing together equal amounts of cake and white bread flour. If a bread recipe calls for all purpose flour, but you only have bread flour on hand, don't stress - you will still be able to bake a decent loaf of bread. There really is no reason to over think it.
Bread flour usually has a protein content of 12% - 14%. Due to the high protein content, this flour is able to produce a strong gluten structure, which will allow the dough to easily retain its shape. The final loaf will also boast good volume and yield a wonderfully chewy crumb.
The terms wholemeal ,whole grain and whole wheat are often used interchangeably and simply refer to bread flours containing varying degrees of the entire wheat kernel. If you are looking to incorporate more whole grains into your diet, you can easily replace half of the amount of white flour required in a recipe with the same amount of whole grain flour. Whole grain flour boasts a slightly darker colour (think brownish/tan) and coarser texture as a result of the presence of the wheat bran. Unlike pure white wheat flour, baked goods made with whole grain flours will be a little more dense, heavy and compact. This is due to the fact that the bran is razor sharp and easily severs the delicate gluten strands, which severely weakens the dough structure and thereby inhibits the size of the final loaf. However, rest assured that while you may be sacrificing volume, the final loaf is guaranteed to offer a tastier and more wholesome loaf than a standard white loaf.
Next we have rye flour. Rye falls within the wheat family but has a low glutenin content, which consequently results in a lower gluten content in the dough and the final loaf. (Note: Gluten = a full/complete protein and is formed out of the two partial proteins 'glutenin' and 'gliadin'.) People who suffer from slight gluten or digestive issues, may find it beneficial to favour rye bread over pure wheat breads. It is important to note however that some folks incorrectly assume that rye is gluten free. Although lower in gluten, it is definitely not gluten free. It is also worth mentioning that the three types of commercially available rye flours (light, medium and dark) actually do not refer to different varieties of rye, but rather to the amount of bran left in the flour. Thus, the darker the rye, the more whole grain the flour. The lighter the rye, the more refined the flour. When it comes to baking, the texture of rye can be a bit intimidating if you are new to rye - it is sticky and tacky and a little tricky to control. So you may want to consider using a mix of 50% white flour and 50% rye instead of immediately tackling a 100% rye recipe. Although rye is considered by some to be an acquired taste, I believe the only reason people think they do not enjoy rye is due to the common addition of caraway, cumin and sometimes fennel seeds. You can easily omit these fragrant seeds and enjoy the natural taste of the rye instead.
When you are just starting to bake bread at home you, you have the wonderful opportunity to make informed decisions about the type of flour you will be using. Thus it is important to understand the manner in which the wheat was grown, harvested, milled, and which (if any) additives are present in the final product. However, before I delve into the finer details, I would like to mention that no matter what flour you do decide to use when baking at home, your final loaf will be a million times better and healthier for you (and your family) than the commercial sandwich loaves from your local super market. So if after reading this article and weighing all your options, you still decide to rather buy bread than bake your own, I urge you to seek out your closest artisan baker - who (if worthy of that title), will take the necessary care on your behalf.
Stone ground, unbleached flour is the flour of choice for most artisan bakers. Sometimes referred to as artisanal flour, this flour (if true to its name) should be free of pesticides, preservatives and any other additives. When flour is milled using millstones as opposed to high-speed roller mills, more of the natural goodness of the grain remains in tact. This is due to the fact that stone milling doesn't reach the same high speeds or searing temperatures, which ensures that most of the nutrients remain undamaged and are not burned off. Furthermore, stone ground flour is also more likely to be composed of the entire wheat kernel. I.e. It still has the wheat bran, endosperm, and wheat germ in tact. (Having said that, I would still recommend checking with the miller, as this may vary from brand to brand.) The advantage of having all three components in the final flour, is that you are getting all the natural goodness (vitamins and minerals) as well as the added benefit of the fibre which is provided by the wheat bran.
Commercial flour on the other hand, has the wheat germ and bran removed in order to extend the shelf life and to produce a whiter, more refined flour. This flour is often bleached using chemicals such as chlorine, bromic acid and peroxide. (On a side note, there does however appear to be some movement away from bleaching and a focus towards the optimisation of the shape of the wheat kernel - to achieve a higher yield of the white starch). Wheat germ, which is oily by nature and consequently has the tendency to go rancid, is removed from the flour. This extraction, in addition to the nutrients which were already lost during the milling process results in a flour with very little nutritional value. The solution? Commercial flour producers add artificial vitamins back in to make the flour more nutritious. This is referred to as 'fortification' or 'enrichment'. Take a closer look next time you buy a bag of flour and scan for the words 'fortified' or 'enriched'. In some countries, the enrichment of flour is enforced by law. (In countries where bread is an important staple food, fortification is often used as a means of improving what may otherwise be limited access to essential micronutrients. Fortification has however not always proven to be successful. This is due to the difficulty of successfully spreading a concentrated amount of micronutrients into an industrial bread batch - some loaves end up with too much and others not any. It is also questionable whether those micronutrients are bioavailable.)
At this point the flour has already undergone quite significant changes, but is then subjected to further preservatives, dough conditioners, dough enhancers and other chemicals in the commercial bakery setting (which speed up or entirely eliminate the bulk fermentation time). This is good for business, but not so good for our digestion. What makes matters worse, is the fact that many of the additives and processes are conveniently omitted from the list of ingredients on the final loaf. Some commercial bakeries also request that the additives be added at the milling and flour production stage, which allows them to circumvent providing a full disclosure of all the additives. Hungry yet?
When it comes to organic flour, it is required (at least in theory) that the flour be made from top quality natural and GMO free grain, which was grown in soil containing only natural substances/fertilisers. In addition to this, no pesticides or other chemicals should be used in the growing or harvesting of organic wheat. True organic flour is also not subjected to fumigation or irradiation - measures which facilitate pest control and prevent food poisoning from harmful bacteria. The problem with organic flour however is two-fold. One - it is considerably more expensive than the rest of the flour on the market. Two - not all products sold under the organic label are in fact organic. Business is business after all. Even more reason for the concerned and responsible consumer to start asking pertinent questions.
However, judging from the growing popularity of home mills (small counter top grain mills), and an increasing community of small, independent millers, the importance of good quality natural flour and the need for clear/honest labeling are slowly but surely becoming topics of global discussion. Knowledge is power and an informed consumer can be the catalyst for positive (and healthy) change. So don't be fooled by natural looking packaging and words such as natural, organic, 'bio', artisanal, etc... Ask the relevant questions. Take an interest in the way your flour and other foods are produced. Have discussions and share your findings. If we are what we eat, shouldn't we be paying closer attention to what we are really consuming?
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. What flour are you currently baking with? Have you made any interesting discoveries? You can reach me at email@example.com