A Flour for Every Occassion

30 Dec

Friends, I am here today to tell you that all flour is not created equal. Some is hard, some is soft, and some comes from the most unusual sources.

I will attempt to tell you all I know, which isn’t really all that much, but has improved my baking 1,000 fold. The information I’m sharing with you today comes from experience, and is supplemented with some cold hard facts from “Super Natural Cooking” by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks fame, and “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” by Harold McGee. Both books are fantastic- I can’t recommend them both enough.

From left to right: Regular whole wheat flour, unbleached all-purpose flour, whole wheat bread flour, whole wheat pastry flour.

When I first started baking breads, I was frustrated with how hard it was to get my dough to rise properly. I cried and gnashed my teeth over the lackluster performance of the dough I had coddled and pampered to no avail. Then, one day, I baked a loaf with bread flour. And suddenly everything happened the way it was supposed to! My yeasty water bubbled and foamed, dough was doubling in size, and the finished product was chewy and beautiful. I did some research and found out that the significant difference was because all the flours I assumed were more are less the same aren’t actually at all.

Flours have different textures, flavors, and most importantly, different protein levels. Two proteins found in flour are super important: glutenin and gliadin. When you get these little proteins wet and massage them a bit, they form gluten, which is what makes dough elastic, and what gives bread its structure.

Hard flours, like bread, all-purpose and whole wheat flours, have a high protein content. Soft flours, like cake and pastry flours, have a lower protein content. Soft flour is great for crumbly delicious things like scones and cookies, while hard flour is better for things that need to hold together, like bread and pizza crust.The difference in protein content is significant- “hard” bread flour has 12-13% protein content while “soft” pastry flour has 8-9%.

And to get super persnickety, we can look at the value of whole wheat vs white flours. I won’t get too detailed, but the white all-purpose  flour you buy at Safeway has been stripped of the bran and germ that give it nutritional value, then actually (no joke) BLEACHED to make it white, since that’s what consumers expect. I don’t often use white all-purpose flour, but when I do, it’s UNBLEACHED so at least I’m not replacing the missing nutrients with chemicals. Whole wheat flours (which come in many varieties, including pastry and bread), have all of the lovely nutrients still attached. As always, whole foods are better foods.

Of course, this whole time I’ve only been referring to WHEAT flours. But flour can be made from a whole variety of things! Corn! Tapioca! Rice! Quinoa! Amaranth! Etc! Non-wheat flours are not always gluten free, but many ARE gluten-free or at least have very little gluten in them. This is great news for folks with gluten intolerance, but bad news for people who think they can make bread rise with nothing but quinoa flour. It just won’t happen without those lovely little gluten-forming proteins.

Quinoa, Amaranth, Tapioca and Brown Rice flours

But I have amaranth and quinoa flour in my pantry right now. Amaranth flour (made from a “new world” grain) has a lovely grassy flavor that makes dramatic tasting biscuits when mixed with whole wheat flour (I’m making some tonight- I’ll post the recipe soon!). Quinoa flour has ton of protein, so gives a little extra nutritional value to your baked goods. Tapioca, quinoa and rice flours can be combined to make gluten free baked goods!

There you are. All I know! Now go forth and bake something delicious (with the right flour, of course).

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