Wednesday, January 03, 2007

flour primer

i have to admit, i have done a lot of cooking and baking over the years. when it comes down to it, there is a big difference between the two worlds. it is well known that when it comes to cooking, one can improvise and deviate from a recipe and add a little of this, a little of that or change things to suit one's taste. in many cases, it is not so exacting unless you're following a recipe verbatim — and even then....

when it comes to baking, however, things are really much the opposite. it is both a science and an art [though i'm sure i could get a good argument from those who only cook]. baking requires much more precision and technique to obtain the desired results. this also means using the right ingredients such as the correct type of flour.

* * * * *

baking with the proper flour called for in a recipe does make a huge difference in the final analysis. it can, however, be confusing for those who do not have experience in the art of baking or have never heard of the many different varieties.

the following is a little primer of sorts on the different kinds. be aware that outside north america, they have different names and sometimes certain types just go by numbers. they can even be difficult to find if you are not in a big metropolis or do not live somewhere with good access to a variety of foodstuffs.

i should start by saying that flour can be milled from all types of grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and even tubers [basically anything with high levels of starch]. there are many, many different types, some of which would even seem odd to many a north american or european who is accustomed to using only those made from wheat.

in terms of flours milled from wheat, the different types get their names from the amount of protein which is present in them. different kinds of baked products require different levels of protein — baking cookies with bread flour just wouldn't make sense and neither would making baguettes from cake flour.

wheat flour protein levels:
  • cake flour 8 - 10 %
  • pastry flour 9 - 10%
  • all purpose 10-11.5%
  • bread flour 11-13%
  • high gluten 14% + higher
  • vital gluten flour - pure gluten
flour can be further classified by both colour and type of grain.

it is generally categorized as white or brown and is the result of the level of refinement of the flour and which part of the wheat grain is used in milling.
  • hard red winter
  • soft red winter
  • hard red spring
  • hard white
  • soft white
  • durum
wheat flour is ground from the seed of the plant. the wheat seed (grain) is made up of 3 parts — the bran, the endosperm and the germ. from these, 3 kinds of flours are made.
  • the endosperm is the starch component
  • the bran is the fiber component
  • the germ is the protein component
the three different types are of flours from these components are:
  1. white flour = endosperm only
  2. whole wheat (grain) flour = endosperm, bran & germ
  3. germ flour = germ and endosperm only
an extremely important point is the issue of gluten. glutenin, the protein of the flour itself, is responsible for the elasticity in doughs. it is also the source of many problems for those who cannot metabolize this protein. the gluten content is the basis for flours being designated as either hard flours or soft flours. an example of a hard flour would be a bread flour or high gluten flour whereas a pastry or cake flour would be called a weak flour. to see what gluten really is (if you don't know already), do this experiment: take 1/4 c of white flour and add a few tablespoons of water to it. make a dough and knead it a bit. then let it soak in a large bowl of warm water for about an hour. drain this and refill the bowl half way. start kneading the dough. you will notice the water changes to look like milk. this is the starch being released. drain and repeat. as you keep this up, the ball of dough will start to become shaggy and gluey and change colour. drain and keep repeating the kneading. eventually the water will turn clear again and you will be left with a sponge like material which is grey and very spongy. this is the pure gluten that is responsible for making wonderful breads and pizza doughs or anything chewy. it is also called "seitan" in asian countries and is used as a protein substitute. in today's food industry, you can buy it already prepared and order it as "fake meat" at asian, vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

as an aside, it is said that countries where there are weather extremes [such as where i live (canada)] result in wheats which yield higher gluten contents in the milled flours. so using a flour which comes from canada versus a flour made from wheat in a more temperate area of the united states would make a difference. then again, flours are tested for their various contents and i am sure fortified with agents [such as vital wheat gluten itself] to bring a weaker flour up to par or it is blended with other flours with higher gluten content.

the type of wheat used is important, too. very briefly, wheat can be divided into when it was harvested and the colour of it. for example there is red wheat and there is winter wheat. for more in depth information, check out some of the wheat boards in canada or the united states. mills will use specific types of wheat for the various types of flours they produce. note, too, that some flours require certain types of wheat. end products are usually based on factors such as how the grain is milled (stone ground vs steel ground) and protein and mineral content needed to make the correct flours.

in european countries such as italy, france and germany, there are various types of flours which are usually differentiated by numbers. often here, we see recipes requiring "00" type flour. so what is that all about? these numbers refer to how much mineral content, namely ash, is left after a standardized burn test is done. these types, or numbers, however are not the same in every country.

canada and the united states do not have this system. flours here are basically sold by name, such as: all purpose, cake and pastry flour, bread flour, etc. i cannot even find the amount of protein listed on the labeling of our flours. additionally, while cake and pastry flour is different, here it is sold combined as "cake AND pastry flour". i must say, though, that i have seen a much greater variety emerge over the years. king arthur, an american flour company, produces a great assortment of high quality flours as well as selling other wonderful things for baking and providing gorgeous recipes. some of these european type flours, though american made, are available through this source.

the following is a basic synopsis of some of the different types of flours:

basic types of flours:

all purpose flour - hard wheats or mixture of soft and hard wheats [medium protein]. used in general baking.

bread flour - hard red spring wheat [high protein]; looks like AP flour but stronger. used with breads and yeasted products requiring long kneading.

cake flour - soft wheat [low protein]. low in gluten and good for making cakes, pastries, delicate cookies and crackers. cake flour can be approximated by removing 2 tbsp of flour from every cup of all purpose flour. the texture of the flour however is not the same as cake flour.

pastry flour - soft wheat, low gluten content. protein is similar to cake flour but has less starch. used in pastry making.

(high) gluten flour - spring wheat, higher protein content than bread flour. can be used with low protein or non-wheat flours. improves quality and produces breads with a high protein content. high gluten flour can be approximated by adding 2% vital wheat gluten to the total weight of flour being used, e.g. 200 gr AP flour + 4 g vital wheat gluten.

whole wheat flour - contains the germ, bran, endosperm. bran lowers development of gluten making baked products both heavier and denser.

self-rising flour - all purpose flour with salt and leavening. to maky yourself: one cup of AP flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and up to 1/2 teaspoon of salt. adjust salt and leavening in original recipe if making yourself to account for this.

bleached flour - flour exposed to chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide ; this matures flour and conditions gluten and is said to improve baking quality. used to reduce spoilage and contamination.

unbleached flour - bleached by oxygen in air while aging leaving a product off-white in color. said to be healthier.

bromated flour - unbleached from hard wheat. this flour is treated with bromate (vitamin) and has a high gluten content.

enriched flour - per pound, it contains 2.9 mg thiamin, 1.8 mg riboflavin, 24 mg niacin, and 20 mg iron. most all purpose flour in the north america is enriched.

farina - coarsely ground endosperm from hard wheat. seen in hot breakfast cereals.

semolina - coarsely ground endosperm of durum wheat. high protein content. used to make higher quality pasta. used for couscous also. note that there are several grinds of semolina, from coarse to very fine.

durum flour - made in the production of semolina. used for noodles, various kinds of pasta, and some breads and pastries.

specialty (american) flours based on extraction rates:

straight flour - 100 percent extraction flour; breadmaking flour. used to make patent, clear, and low-grade flours.

stuffed straight flour - straight flour with some clear added to it

patent flour - purest and highest quality of commercial flour available. made from center portion of the endosperm. patent flour is classified into five categories, each having its own purpose [see link].

clear flour - by-product of straight flour remaining after patent flour removed. graded into fancy, first clear, and second clear. each has its own use [see link].

more on american flours with specific charts for protein and mineral content. they are also compared to eachother with respect to different brands.

similar flour types from a canadian source.

other specialty (industry) type flours:

biscuit flour - from soft wheat or combination of soft and hard wheat. used for making american biscuits.

cookie flour - lower-protein soft wheat flour.

cracker flour - from soft [red] winter wheat or blend of hard and soft wheats.

graham flour - specialty type flour used for crackers and other baked good. a whole wheat flour but made in specific proportions.

[there are more which i will add later! this is still "in the works!"]


The TriniGourmet said...

and to think i only know all purpose and wholewheat :D

we have a few others but they are so expensive i never pick them up :(

burekaboy — said...

sarina - really?? i wouldn't have thought that you don't know about all these different ones! i guess being on an island boosts import costs considerably. then again there's lots of stuff you have, we don't!

The TriniGourmet said...

yeah higher cost + lower demand means distributors are not interested in many things too out of the norm :)

i used to like to frequent the niche gourmet stores that cater to the affluent and expats but economic circumstances and nationalism now make me want to revisit indigenous stuff and work that into a haute lexicon :) they are every bit as valid i think :D

just made a carambola bread that I'm gonna share in a bit :D

The TriniGourmet said...

we have cake flour and chickpea flour too :)

every now again i see spelt and other random things from the knights of the round table dayz but like i said ... $$$$$

Ostara said...

Interesting stuff! I've lead such a sheltered flour life. I've used all purpose, whole wheat (in my breadmaking past) and unbleached all purpose but ... would you believe my first experience with the more exotic cake flour was last month when I tried your pineapple upside-down cake? LOL

My uncle used to work at a big flour mill in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. We didn't see him often but whenever he'd visit he'd bring us a HUGE bag of all purpose flour. I have vivid memories of my poor mother standing with her hands on her hips, gazing at the gigantic bag and asking, "What am I going to do with all that?! (Dad and I always had plenty of suggestions.)

Thanks for the primer.

Pammie said...

Hi Burekaboy, I moved from the US to Australia in 1989 and it took a while to adjust. For a start no one outside North America uses Crisco, which at that time was still acceptable to use. We also had troubles adjusting to the different flours for the reasons you discuss, and the different grinds on cornmeal in order to make a proper corn bread. We couldn't find things like corn syrup, or brown sugar believe it or not, our familiar grade of molasses, Monterey Jack cheese is unknown outside the Americas, not to mention many Mexican ingredients, graham crackers or graham cracker pie crusts don't exist, I could go on forever. Then there's the whole metric/imperial story....It was an education!

burekaboy — said...

sarina - too bad the costs are so high but i guess that is just the reality of living in the caribbean. anyway, it's not like you've "suffered" from the lack of. using indigineous/island ingredients in place makes for interesting variations (provided they work, of course! LOL).

ostara - i can just imagine the size of that bag of flour and your mom wondering what in the world she was going to do with it all! lol, guess i'm gonna have to provide you with something else to make to use up that cake flour! there are some good things you can make from it. did you notice how different it felt from all purpose flour? (remember, this flour is always sifted before measuring unless directed unlike all purpose flour).

pammie - that must have been difficult at first, not having all those kind of "staple" things we are used to. no crisco!! LOL. what do they use then? i know they have cophra. i think i'd have a hard time adjusting to not having access to those items.

The TriniGourmet said...

isn't crisco just shortening? we no have crisco but we have cookeen which is like shortening in a bar :D

burekaboy — said...

sarina - yup, same thing :)

Princess Jibi said...

I only knew about Wheat flour, and then a few years back when our country became more health conscious the started to import Whole Wheat Flour.

At one time, when our country was ruled by a man called Burhnam. He had banned importing foriegn products, so our country use to use rice and make Rice flour. But after he died and stuff the stopped, too many people were getting weak, since we use flour mainly to cook Roti, which is one of our main dish.

I have seen bread that have enriched flour on them in stores here, I had no idea what it means until now, but i bought that one anyways, cause my mom she cant use the whole wheat flour.

thanks for posting this up, its very imformative..

burekaboy — said...

PJ - yes, there are many different kinds as you can see! it can be confusing sometimes, especially if you have never used them before. for most white (wheat) flours, it comes down to how much gluten is in the flour. the higher the gluten, the more chewy the baked good (like bread).

guyana is certainly an interesting country with lots of mixed traditions.

TopChamp said...

Hello - expected a quick comment answer probably... not a whole entry. As you say - lucky!

burekaboy — said...

topchamp - i had said, i actually had this in final stages when you wrote the other comment. you just provided the impetus to finish it. anyway, hope you found your answers :)

annie said...

I have a couple of flours I use...all-purpose, whole wheat, bread flour, and cake flour. I haven't seen pastry flour (or really looked for it). I'm going to have to keep my eye out for it.

Great flour post!!

burekaboy — said...

thanks annie - it's funny because i have only seen it once. i know king arthur sells it. here in canada it's always sold as one, called "cake and pastry" flour. i guess the difference btwn 8 & 9% gluten is negligible so they don't produce 2 diff kinds.