Flour Power

Bread, pastries, cakes and cookies = all the things I love to make and eat. If I had not been blessed with such a sweet tooth, I would be a lot thinner. My only saving grace is that I am pretty good at not sampling everything I bake. I lose my appetite after spending hours on my feet trying to create. Let’s talk about the main ingredient to all of these wonderful things: flour.

I’m sure everyone has regular flour in his or her pantry but if you are going to bake a flaky scone or a crusty baguette, or simple al dente pasta, it will depend a great deal on the type of flour you use. Believe it or not, simple All Purpose flour may not be enough. You need a lot of highly developed gluten in dough to produce sturdy bread. A dough or batter with little gluten makes tender baked goods. Unfortunately you cannot judge flour by its appearance, knowing its protein content is the key to how it will perform in baking. Baking, unlike cooking, is more of a science and there are many factors that affect the outcome of your baking endeavor. Choosing the correct flour can be a task in itself.

We can thank the Spanish for bringing wheat to the Americas in 1519. And from wheat comes the kernels that are separated from the hulls. Then the hulls are milled. The wheat kernel is made up of 83% endosperm, 14% bran and 3% germ. It is crushed and sifted, removing the germ and the end result is flour. Many types of flour can be bleached. Freshly milled flour makes sticky dough and poor quality baked goods. As flour is exposed to the air, oxygen combines with yellowish pigments and bleaches the flour. Unbleached flour hasn’t been treated to remove color, but may contain oxidizers. It is usually higher in protein than bleached flour. Typically there is no real nutritional difference between bleached and unbleached flour. Unbleached flour is more expensive because it takes longer (about 2 weeks) to mature. U.S. law requires that all flours not containing wheat germ must have niacin, riboflavin, thiamin and iron added, and then the flour is labeled enriched.

The big question now is, what flour to use? High protein flour that makes a lot of gluten can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on what you are making. You want gluten in yeast breads and any dough that needs strength, like pasta. You don’t want gluten when your dough is leavened with baking powder or baking soda, or you want a tender piecrust. As yeast in dough ferments, it releases carbon-dioxide gas into the bubbles and gently inflates them. Gluten holds these bubbles in, so without enough gluten, these bubbles would pop and your bread would be dense and heavy.

Chemical leavens need just the opposite kind of dough. Heavy elastic networks of gluten hold down chemical leavens and make them less effective.

Steam leavened products like puff pastry are solely dependent on hundreds of paper thin layers of dough that will puff and separate when steam is created during baking. These layers must be strong enough to hold the steam. Strudel dough is also extremely thin and delicate when baked, but that is only because it has enough elastic gluten so the dough can be stretched until it’s as thin as tissue.

There are many choices of flours on the market, millers blend flours from different streams of wheat to make flour for specific uses.

Whole Wheat flour contains germ and bran and it makes heavier bread. Often it is combined with high protein white flour for a lighter loaf.

Durum wheat flour, which is also called semolina, is moderately high protein. It has a very hard kernel that has its starch encased in protein. This keeps product like pasta from becoming a starchy mess when overcooked.

Cake flour is low in protein and high in starch and very finely ground to make tender fine textured cakes. Like all white flours, it is bleached with chlorine gas to make it white and also makes it slightly acidic. The acidity makes cakes set faster and have a finer texture. The flour is much whiter because it contains less of the gluten producing proteins. Pastry flour is also low protein flour, but it is not chlorinated.

All-purpose flour can be almost anything; the millers can blend flour with any protein content they want and call it all-purpose. Southern mills traditionally process low-protein, soft, winter wheat. Northern mills process high-protein, hard, spring wheat. Self-rising is a moderate-to-low-protein flour that includes chemical leavens such as baking powder.

Bread flour is high-protein flour and, of course, is ideal for yeast dough. You can also select Artisan bread flour, in which the protein can be even higher, so you will most likely need to add more liquid. Otherwise, the flour will absorb more water due to the higher protein.

That should get you started on the right path of what type of flour you should consider using to make your next creation. Experiment a bit to arrive at a taste that you enjoy the most and remember most of all to have fun!

By Chef K. Marie Paulk