I'm always confused about different types of flour and which flour is the best for baking bread, cookies, sponge cake etc. So I think I'm not alone with those dilemmas... To save you the time of looking for some answers to the questions you might have about the flour here's a little sum up of what I've found during my research online. I would like to share it with you in a kind of article form to save you those hours browsing and looking for the answer ;)
All feedback welcome!
First why flour is called flour...
"The word "flour" is originally a variant of the word "flower". Both derive from the Old French fleur or flour, which had the literal meaning "blossom," and a figurative meaning "the finest." The phrase "fleur de farine" meant "the finest part of the meal," since flour resulted from the elimination of coarse and unwanted matter from the grain during milling."
What was the first flour...
"Approximately 9000 BC it was discovered that wheat seeds could be crushed between simple grindstones to make flour. Around 3000 BC the Egyptians introduced yeast. The Romans were the first to grind corn on cone mills and in 1879, the beginning of the Industrial Era, the first steam mill was erected in London. In the 1930s began enrichment of some flour with Iron, Niacin, Thiamine and Riboflavin. In the 1940s mills started to enrich flour and Folic Acid was added to the list in the 1990s."
Unbleached flour is simply flour that has not undergone bleaching and therefore does not have the color of "white" flour. An example of this would be the Graham flour. Sylvester Graham was against using bleaching agents, as being unhealthy, and John Harvey Kellogg, influenced by Graham, invented the cereal Corn Flakes.
Bleached flour is any flour with a whitening agent added and is referred to as Refined flour.
Plain flour is a flour that does not have a leavening agent (typically baking powder) is called all-purpose or plain flour. Cookies are usually prepared using this type of flour.
Self-rising flour is a flour when leavening agents are used with it, especially those with significant gluten content, to produce lighter and softer baked products by embedding small gas bubbles. Self-raising (or self-rising) flour is sold premixed with chemical leavening agents. It was invented by Henry Jones and patented in 1845 (self-raising flour is typically composed of the following ratio: 1 cup (100 g) flour + 1 teaspoon (3 g) baking powder + a pinch to ½ teaspoon (1 g or less) salt).
Enriched flour is when during the process of making flour nutrients are lost. Some of these nutrients are replaced during refining and the result is "enriched flour".
TYPES of flour:
Explaining the more common terminology and highlighting a few pitfalls that the uninformed would simply never realise were there. The most useful advice is to read flour packaging and be aware of what it does not tell you.
The most effective grain for bread-making is wheat. It tastes good - nutty with no bitterness - and it performs consistently well. An ear of wheat has all the ingredients for a good loaf: starch for bulk to feed the yeast and to turn a golden brown during cooking; germ to give essential fats and oils which enhance breads nutritional value; bran to help our digestive systems; and gluten which allows bread to stretch and rise.
The primary rule for producing a really good wheat loaf is to use strong bread flour. What differentiates a bread flour from flour more suited to making cakes and biscuits, is the gluten content. Gluten is a protein present in all wheat in varying amounts. Wheat grown in hot, dry summers in a short season will have a higher gluten content. These wheats are known as hard or strong. The high gluten content will ensure an extensive and even rise and a lighter loaf.
Stone ground 100% Wholewheat or Wholemeal Flour
As the name suggests, this flour is ground on a traditional millstone and made from the whole grain of the wheat, from which nothing is extracted and to which nothing is added. There is no difference between wholewheat and wholemeal flour, unless the packaging on wholemeal flour states that barley and/or rye are added to the wheat.
When wholemeal has been stone ground, it will be stated on the packaging. If it does not say this, the chances are that the flour is reconstituted. In other words, it is a roller-milled flour, which is bleached and to which the bulk of the bran and wheat germ removed by the roller-milling process has been returned.
80% - 90% Extraction Flours
Between 10% and 20% of the bran (the outside layer of the wheat) is sieved off to leave a finer, paler and lighter flour than 100% wholewheat. Provided it is labelled as stone ground, this is natural flour with only bran removed; it will not have been bleached or reconstituted. This type of flour is sometimes called wheatmeal and produces a loaf of a finer flavour and texture than wholewheat.
Strong White Flour
The best strong white flour is stone ground which is then sieved to remove most of the bran and the germ which constitutes almost all of the nutritional value. A by-product of this process is the wheat endosperm, which is known as semolina. Strong white flour will make a light and creamy bread which is best eaten very fresh.
Unless the packaging says it is unbleached the flour will have gone through a bleaching process, inspired by a desire for whiter-than-white bread in the 19th Century. Unbleached white flour is a pale cream colour.
This is a combination of 80% - 90% extraction flour and malted wheat or barley flour. Malted wheat or barley has been allowed to start to germinate, thus releasing some of the sugars locked up in the germ. The result is a bread that has a characteristic sweet nutty flavour, much favoured by many people.
Beware additives to granary type flours. Unless the packaging states that it is stone ground wheatmeal with added malted grain, it is almost certain to be roller-milled flour with added caramel, bran, molasses and malt extract.
This is not normally suitable for making a good bread unless it is a strong brown flour, but it is worth mentioning here as the brown in its name will usually be caramel. Unless the packaging tells you otherwise, it is roller-milled bleached flour with caramel and sometimes some bran added. This is another reconstituted flour.
There are many other flours that are used in bread-making. The most commonly used ones will be covered here.
For people with gluten intolerance it is often wheat which is the main problem. Flours such as barley, rye and oats all have very low gluten content but it is hard to make a palatable risen bread, in the European sense, with non-wheat flours. They tend to be heavier and doughier than conventional bread.
Barley produces a flour with lower gluten content than wheat and it therefore does not rise as well. It makes a sweeter bread and is an excellent alternative for people who are wheat intolerant. Barley flour, when used 50:50 with wheat flour, makes a flavoursome and sweet bread. Northern British breads and bannocks were traditionally made using barley, which is better suited to growing in cooler and wetter conditions.
Rye was one of the staple grains of Britain in the Middle Ages and was used with wheat flour to produce maslin flour. Rye flour alone is unstable, resulting in very dense bread2 and it is almost always used with wheat to produce bread with a rich nutty taste.
Spelt is an ancient grain which was used throughout Europe. It almost died out in the 19th Century as it is a low-yielding grain and therefore not so commercially viable as other flour grains. Some people who are slightly wheat intolerant are able to eat spelt. It is a fine flour which produces loaves which are not dissimilar to those made using maslin.
And The Rest...
Oats have largely disappeared from modern bread-making, although as they have very little gluten they are an alternative to wheat for those who cannot eat gluten. The main use for oatmeal historically has been for flat breads and bannocks in Scotland and northern England. It is also popular as an element of multi-grain flours in continental Europe.
Maize - or cornmeal - is the yellow meal ground from sweetcorn and is used to make Italian polenta, and Southern corn bread in the USA. Both are non-yeast based breads. Broa is a Portuguese corn bread made with yeast and provides an alternative for people with gluten intolerance.
Rice and rice flour are not suitable for bread-making except as additives to a wheat flour-based loaf, or as unleavened breads.
Soy flour is added to conventional bread dough to enrich it.
Chickpea or lentil flour is used to make unleavened naans and chapattis.
Flour type numbers
In some markets, the different available flour varieties are labeled according to the ash mass ("mineral content") that remains after a sample is incinerated in a laboratory oven (typically at 550 °C or 900 °C, see international standards ISO 2171 and ICC 104/1). This is an easily verified indicator for the fraction of the whole grain remains in the flour, because the mineral content of the starchy endosperm is much lower than that of the outer parts of the grain. Flour made from all parts of the grain (extraction rate: 100%) leaves about 2 g ash or more per 100 g dry flour. Plain white flour (extraction rate: 50–60%) leaves only about 0.4 g.
- German flour type numbers (Mehltypen) indicate the amount of ash (measured in milligrams) obtained from 100 g of the dry mass of this flour. Standard wheat flours (defined in DIN 10355) range from type 405 for normal white wheat flour for baking, to strong bread flour types 550, 650, 812, and the darker types 1050 and 1600 for wholegrain breads.
- French flour type numbers (type de farine) are a factor 10 smaller than those used in Germany, because they indicate the ash content (in milligrams) per 10 g flour. Type 55 is the standard, hard-wheat white flour for baking, including puff pastries ("pâte feuilletée"). Type 45 is often called pastry flour, but is generally from a softer wheat (this corresponds to what older French texts call "farine de gruau", used for croissants, for instance). Types 65, 80, and 110 are strong bread flours of increasing darkness, and type 150 is a wholemeal flour.
- In the United States and the United Kingdom, no numbered standardized flour types are defined, and the ash mass is only rarely given on the label by flour manufacturers. However, the legally required standard nutrition label specifies the protein content of the flour, which is also a way for comparing the extraction rates of different available flour types.
In general, as the extraction rate of the flour increases, so do both the protein and the ash content. However, as the extraction rate approaches 100% (whole meal), the protein content drops slightly, while the ash content continues to rise.
Where to buy flour
Fortunately most supermarkets these days stock a variety of proper flours. However, a greater choice can be found in wholefood shops and farm shops. There are also a number of watermills and windmills that sell their own flour, with many products available to order on the web.
Whenever possible, flour should be measured using a scale. With a good digital scale with fast response, it is actually easier to measure flour by simply pouring it into a bowl on the scale and stopping when you hit the mark.
If you do not own a scale and need to use a measuring cup, then make sure you use a dry measuring cup. Scoop the sifted flour into the cup and level with a flat straight edge (like a bench scraper or ruler). You'll get really close to 125 g per cup with this technique - but you have to make sure you sift your flour. One easy and mostly effective way to do this is to store your flour in a large air tight container. I use a pickling jar big enough to hold a 5 pound bag of flour with room to spare. Before measuring, pick up the container and shake it so you incorporate as much of the air in the jar into the flour as possible. It works best if the jar is half air and half flour. Once you've done this, let it sit for a few minutes so you don't get a face full of flour when you open the lid. Then scoop and level.
I think that's all. I hope it helped you in some way. I'm sure I didn't cover all the topics I could, but it really is a huge part of baking/cooking world.
If you have any suggestions, advice, information you would like to share with me and others I'll be more than happy to include it in the article :) For now - happy baking!
- Cooking for engineers
- British Nutrition Foundation