A Plethora of Flours
As I am in baking and pastry class this quarter, I thought it would do nicely to talk a bit about flour and the varieties that are available.
Flour, as most of us know it, is made from wheat berries that are ground and processed. It is made from spring wheat and winter wheat, and the type of wheat that is used determines the strength of the flour or protein content.
All Purpose Flour - is the most common flour and can work in a wide variety of applications. It is usually composed of 'hard' and 'soft' wheat mixed together. Again, this goes back to the spring and winter types. I'm unsure of which one is the 'hard' and which the 'soft,' but they are mixed together to get the this multi-use flour. It usually contains between 8-11% protein. It can be bleached or unbleached. Bleached flour has been chemically processed and contains less protein than unbleached flour. It can be stored between 8 - 12 months depending temperature, air flow, and other factors. Obviously, keeping it in the refrigerator will extend that 8 months to the longer 12 month range.
Bread or High Gluten Flour - is a white flour made from high protein wheat, labeled 'hard.' It contains between 12-14% protein and is best for yeast breads. It may be packaged with ascorbic acid for volume and texture. Well wrapped, it can last several months at room temperature or a year or more if kept in the freezer.
Cake Flour - is a high starch white flour made from 'soft' wheat. It is best for cakes and other more delicate baked goods because of its ability to distribute fat more evenly throughout. It contains 8-10% protein. Cake flour is always bleached which leaves it with a very fine texture. Bleached all purpose flour may be substituted in the place of cake flour though a slight adjustment of about 2 Tbsp less per cup used should be taken into account when substituting. Again, if well wrapped, it can be stored for months.
Pastry Flour - is another flour made from 'soft' wheat. It falls in between cake and all purpose flour in terms of protein (9-10%). It is best suited for quick breads, cookies, brownies, pie crusts and the like. It is not usually available in most supermarkets though can be found online. Its characteristics can be mimicked if cake and all purpose flour are mixed together at a ratio of 2:1 all purpose to cake flour.
Self-Rising Flour - is simply a low protein flour with leavening and salt already added. Recipes calling for this type of flour should never have additional leavening added. It is used mostly for quick breads. Each individual manufacturer uses their own ratio of flour to leavening and salt. It can be made in your own kitchen by adding 1.5 teaspoons of baking powder and .5 teaspoons of salt to every 1 cup of all purpose flour that you need.
Whole Wheat Flour - is made from the entire wheat kernel. Usually, the hull and germ are removed, but it is left during processing to create this flour. Whole wheat flour has more nutrient content than other flours because of the hull and germ. When used in making bread, high gluten flour is often added because whole wheat flour does not contain enough gluten in itself to achieve the desired results of a well risen bread. With the incorporation of the hull and germ, there is a higher potential for spoilage during storage because of the presence of a fat. Whole wheat flour should be stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer for the maximum shelf life.
There are several other types of flour, many of which are not made from wheat. Buckwheat, Coconut, Almond, Rice, Oat, Potato, Corn, Soy, Tapioca, and Rye are all flour types. With the exception of Buckwheat, Corn, and Rye, all other listed are gluten free. Almond flour is simply ground up almonds, and can easily be made with a food processor. In fact, any nut can be turned into a 'flour' by finely grinding it up. These gluten free flours are ideal for those who have any kind of dietary restriction because they can be baked into many kinds of breads and pastries just as wheat flour can. The real difference in the final product is one of texture and taste. Gluten is the reason why breads and baked goods come out with a spongy or airy texture. During baking, the baked good rises whether from chemical reactions, yeast, or simply steam escaping. This creates pockets in the dough, and the gluten creates sort of a web-like matrix inside that sets the texture, keeping the spongy or airy feel to the finished product. The gluten free flours can produce similar effects, but it will not be exactly the same feel as with a bread containing gluten.