So, I got an online message thanking me for the Wondra post, but asking where the scoop on all the other common varieties of flour was. I went and opened the flour cabinet in our pantry area and saw… Seven variations on the theme – Hard White Whole Wheat, All Purpose White, Semolina, Whole Wheat Pastry, Wondra, White Pastry, and Cake flours. Looks like the writer was right; time to clarify things a smidge.
That said, the real question of course is, whataya got in your pantry? I’ll bet most home kitchens out there have All Purpose and maybe one other variety at most, and that’s a shame; more to the point, it may be a good reason why your stuff isn’t as good as the stuff you eat elsewhere, and nowhere as good as it could and should be, so let’s fix that, eh?
I’m sure most of us have stood in the aisle, gawked at all those flour varieties and wondered, ‘Do I knead that?’ (Sorry, couldn’t resist…) Nowadays, it’s even more complex, ’cause there’re far more varieties than ever before. Take Bob’s Red Mill, my favorite source for flours and meals. They make sixty eight varieties at last count, from Almond to Whole Wheat with a bunch of letters in between, (Garbanzo, flaxseed, green pea, amaranth, and coconut, just to name a few). Some of those are riding the Anti-Gluten train, but many are things that may be new to us, yet have been around for many moons.
For this post, I’m just gonna cover the wheat-based scene; we’ll save the others for another day.
First things first, let’s talk about the ‘bad’ stuff, AKA, white processed flours. Should these be the only flours in your kitchen? My answer is a firm NO. That’s for three very good reasons, so allow me to elaborate.
One: Regular Old White Flour, by definition, means that the bran and the germ of the wheat kernel have been removed. As such, it contains significantly less fiber than its whole-grain counterpart, (in the neighborhood of 10 grams less per cup), and notably less of the nutrients you want from grain, (like folate, riboflavin, niacin, and several B vitamins).
Two: Then there’s bleaching. Some white flour is white because it’s, well… whitened. Is that done in this country still, you might ask? Answer; oh yeah it is, and it’s commonly achieved with a variety of organic peroxides, even chlorine – yummy huh? Bleached white is far and away the most commonly used flour in processed food, by the way. As such, even if you don’t buy it for home, if you do buy that stuff, you’re still screwed. Need any other reasons on your list to look for ‘Unbleached’ on the label? I don’t use cheap iodized salt, I sure ain’t using this…
Three: ‘Enriched‘, just what the hell does that mean? Well, here again, it can mean a bunch of things. Now, I bet you thought ‘processed’ flour just meant that its milled and sifted to make it a uniform flour, right? Nope, there’s more. See, with the white stuff, since they remove a good chunk of the wheat berry to make it whiter, they gotta do stuff to compensate; this is euphemistically referred to as ‘Enriching’. One of those things they do is called ‘Bromating’, meaning treating the flour with Potassium Bromate. This is done to strengthen the dough and encourage rising, because they have to compensate for proteins they removed, and by the way, they do not have to tell you if they did this in most U.S. States… Enriching also means putting back other stuff they removed, like folate, riboflavin, niacin, and several B vitamins. U.S. Law required this since around the start of WWII, to counter rising health issues caused by diets deficient in… Wait for it… The very same essential nutrients that were in the whole wheat berries they started with in the first place but removed. Ya got all that? Catch 22 anybody?
Now when you’re gawking at bags and read ‘Bleached & Enriched’, you got the full scoop, yeah? My final advice on this crap is to avoid it like the plague…
BIG FYI: In the United States, ya can’t enrich any flour or meal certified and labelled ‘Organic’, so if you want an end around all that B. S., there ya go.
The obvious next step is to say yes, it’s best to use whole grain as much as possible, but before ya do, know this: Most of the Giant Flour Companies here in the U.S. do not grind whole wheat flour from whole grain: They separate everything and then, almost as an afterthought it would seem, put ’em back together to make ‘whole wheat flour’. Why on God’s green earth would they do that, you ponder? Economics, that’s why; the lions share of their sales is white flour. The caveat here is to know who makes your flour, out of what, and how, before you buy. Up there where I said that what you make probably isn’t as good as it could or should be? The where and who of your flour is damn well as important as the which.
I like and recommend Bob’s Red Mill in Oregon and Arrowhead Mills down in Texas, because they’re conscientious folks that make good products. They’re transparent about what goes into it, where it came from, and what they do to make it what it is. Just as with any other thing you eat, the fresher and better the quality, the better off you are, so find out if there’s a local mill near you and try their stuff. If you don’t have one, or you can’t find the varieties you want, check out my guys.
White Flour Caveat. I’m not saying you should only use whole wheat flours. We don’t… Some things, for our taste preferences, simply need white flour. If you feel thus, fear not, there are options. If you can and do go all whole grain, more power to ya.
Alright, ALRIGHT, you say – we get it; on with the show!
As you wish…
Looking back above, I mentioned white versus red wheat in two different kinds of flours. Well, fact is, there are six generally recognized types of wheat, and all of them have different best uses. If you’re gonna truly grok flour, you gotta know your wheat. Here they are in a nutshell.
HARD RED WINTER is the Mac Daddy of U.S. Production and export. This variety makes most of our bread, rolls, and All Purpose flour out there. Hard Red Winter grows in the Great Plains, from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, and Canada to Mexico.
HARD RED SPRING is the protein content winner, which makes it the U.S. Baking champ. It’s grown in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
SOFT RED WINTER is the go-to wheat for flour that ends up as cakes, pastries, crackers and flat breads. This low protein variety is grown mostly east of the Mississippi River.
DURUM is the hardest U.S. wheat and is famous mostly for making Semolina flour; that goes into great pasta. Roughly 80% of our Durum hails from North Dakota.
HARD WHITE is the youngster variety of U.S. Wheat crop. It’s closely related to the reds, but sports a milder, sweeter flavor. Hard White is used for bread and rolls, bulgur, tortillas and Asian noodles, (and my favorite Whole Wheat White Flour). Kansas and Colorado lead U.S. Production.
Finally, SOFT WHITE WHEAT, is a low protein variety that yields flours used for crackers, cookies, quick breads, muffins and other snack foods. It’s grown mostly here in The Pacific Northwest.
Alright, there’s the wheat, let’s get on to flour. If we talk flour, we gotta use The G Word. Yep, Gluten. Now first and foremost, gluten is not a dirty word, ok? Unless you’re genuinely gluten intolerant, gluten is a necessity; its what gives the things we make with flour structure, strength, and texture. Without it, many things just don’t work; without it, bread just ain’t bread. So what is Gluten; fundamentally, it’s a protein matrix that develops in dough when it absorbs water and is subsequently manipulated by kneading. Gluten forms strong, flexible strands which, as yeast produces gases, (mostly CO2), in the dough, traps the gas in bubbles of various size, depending on the flour and what you’re making. That is the essence of what allows dough to rise and expand. When we finally bake it, the gluten matrix solidifies, providing the end result with its desired structural qualities.
My friend Holly is a great cook with a fine food blog, (check out her link to the right of this post). She has family members who are genuinely gluten intolerant, so she’s found ways to build most things without it, but she’d be the first to admit that many substitutions just don’t work very well. It’s genuinely hard to make good bread from flours other than wheat. Heck, you gotta add wheat flour to rye to make bread out of that common grain. If you think you have genuine issues with gluten or would benefit from a gluten free diet, read up before you act to exclude it from your diet. Fact is, if most folks stopped eating the shit food that contains the lions share of bleached, white flour in this country, they’d likely solve their dietary problems right there… If you are genuinely intolerant, I’ll recommend Bob’s again for a wealth of organic, gluten free flours and meals, including a great A.P. Flour Blend.
So, here’s the lineup, and this will answer the ‘why so many flours in your pantry’ question. I think you’ll find that these all do a couple things really well, and by golly, if you’re out to produce the best food at home that you can, that’s what you need! Fortunately, you can find small bags of many of these, and for the most-used varieties, you’ll want more anyway. Flour varieties are ranked by protein content, high to low.
Vital Wheat Gluten isn’t really a flour, per se. It’s made from wheat flour that’s been washed to activate the gluten, then dried and ground back into a powder. At 75% to 80% protein, it’s seriously concentrated stuff. Unless you do a bunch of baking, you’re not likely to have tried it, but you might want to. Just a little bit added to a yeast-risen bread recipe can yield great results. Try it in breads containing dried fruit and nuts for a higher rise and better volume. Some bakers who regularly use bread machines add it to all their doughs.
Whole Wheat Flour, most often made from that Hard Red Spring Wheat we talked about, is the highest protein content you’ll find at 12% to 14%, about the same as bread flour. The caveat for this stuff is that quality really matters. Don’t bother with the mass produced crap, get good, locally milled organic flour.
Bread Flour is made from hard wheat and as such, also has a high 12% to 14% protein content. This yields very elastic doughs that are great for bread and pizza; it’ll give you that chewy texture you’re looking for. You’ll find bread flour milled in everything from relatively coarse American stuff to very fine Italian, (Antimo Caputo ’00’, designed for pizza dough).
Semolina is a high protein flour, (give or take 13%), prized for pasta making. Milled from Durum wheat, Semolina is also great for old style varieties of Italian bread, like pugliese and altamura. This variety can be found milled from coarse to fine. The finer milled stuff does better in extruding pasta makers, like the attachment for KitchenAid mixers, while the coarser versions do great for hand rolled pasta and breads. NOTE: coarser milled Semolina can take notably longer than the finer stuff to absorb water.
All-Purpose Flour, (called plain flour outside the U.S.), is a blend of hard and soft wheat with a fairly high 10% to 12% protein content; many have a touch of malted barley flour added as well. I’ll remind you once again of the B.S. that gets perpetrated on flour in general when I state without reservation that an Organic Unbleached White Flour like Bob’s is what you want to find. All Purpose flour is great for pie and quiche crusts, cookies and bars, and as the white component in mixed flour uses like corn bread. NOTE: There is some significant regional variation in A.P. Flour; southern U.S. bleached brands can be as low as 7% protein.
Self-Rising Flour is a medium protein flour (about 9% to 10%), that has had salt and baking powder incorporated into it. There are quite a few Southern cooking recipes that’ll call for self-rising flour, especially for biscuits, quick breads, muffins and pancakes. I hope I don’t need to say that one does not use this stuff to make yeast breads with, but I will just in case…
Pastry Flour is a soft wheat flour with a relatively low protein content, about 8% to 10%. This makes pastry flour perfect for stuff that demands a light and flaky consistency, like biscuits, tart crusts, pastries, (of course), and many cakes. It spans the gap between cake flour that’ll yield a crumbly end product, and the higher protein varieties that’ll make things too hard and chewy. Here again, this stuff ain’t made to build bread with.
Instant Flour, like Wondra, is pre-gelatinized, meaning a fine ground, low protein, (7% to 9%), soft wheat flour is steamed, dried and then has a bit of malted barley flour added to it. The result is a flour that doesn’t need cooking or a whole lotta time to blend seamlessly with liquids. That is its primary claim to fame, but there are other good uses for Instant, so check out that post I did a few days back.
Finally, there’s Cake Flour, which is a very finely milled, soft wheat product with a high starch/low protein make up, (6% to 8% protein). Know, however, that 99% of the cake flour out there is bleached, because among other things, that process makes cake flour more acidic, which aids in rising delicate batters; the low protein content also helps produce a light and fluffy cake.
King Arthur does make an unbleached cake blend that they claim doesn’t have any added chemicals; I’ve yet to try it. Grain Brain has an organic cake flour, unbleached, unenriched and very nice indeed, along with a bunch of other well done flours.
If you don’t make a lot of cake, you can also build a very workable homemade alternative. Toss 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch in a measuring cup, then top it up to an even 1 cup with pastry flour. Use a sifter or a fine mesh strainer and sift the mixture at least 3 times; this helps incorporate, aerate and homogenize the blend. Pastry flour is about as close to cake in protein content as you can get and is almost as fine; the sifting will bring it even closer. The cornstarch inhibits gluten development in cake batter by competing for liquid absorption, thereby promoting a lighter texture. Give it a try, it works quite well!
Now, a few thoughts on subbing whole wheat for white flours. The main complaint in this arena, which I fully support, is that your baked goods come out kinda heavy. If you simply switch one flour for the other without further adjustment, that is pretty much what will happen, but there are some tricks to help makes things more palatable.
Try a high quality White Whole Wheat flour like Bob’s; you’ll get the whole grain nutrients and fiber with a taste you’ll be hard pressed to tell from white – Yes, it’s that good. You can sub this flour 1:1 for any recipe that calls for white.
Sub good quality Whole Wheat Pastry Flour for things other than bread. The stuff Bob’s makes is sublime. It makes incredibly tender, flaky biscuits, pie and tart crusts and the like. It has yet to disappoint me.
Try a 50% – 50% blend of wheat to white. You’ll get better nutrition and lighter results.
Use less whole wheat flour; if the recipe calls for a cup of white, sub 3/4 cup of whole wheat.
Try a little Vital Wheat Gluten in whole wheat and other heavy grain bread recipes; it can really help give you a better rise and a lighter loaf.
For cookies and brownies, reduce the fat content by 20%, which will encourage a softer end product.
For cakes made with all whole wheat flour, add a couple extra tablespoons of liquid; this’ll help produce a lighter cake.
When subbing whole wheat for white flour in a bread recipe, add an additional 1/4 cup of liquid to compensate.
So there ya go. Just like your spice cabinet, I just removed a bunch if free space from your pantry, huh? Go shopping!