We have sixteen different kinds of flour on hand. Chances are, you don’t need that many. But it’s nice to know what kinds of flours work best for your baking. What follows is a primer on the different kinds of flours that are available.
There are so many kinds of flour available. We recommend experimenting until you find the flour that you like best, for pastries or for breads. We suggest sticking with the major brands. We believe that the major processors have access to more and better feedstock grains and that they can hold their flours to a tighter specification so that you will get more uniform results.
Be wary of "bargains".
Flours that don't meet commercial specifications (for moisture, ash
content, protein, etc.) are often sold in grocery stores. Flour is cheap
compared to the other ingredients in the recipe. Use the best, most
consistent flours you can get.
The right flour does make a difference.
The White Flours
By far, the western world consumes more white flour than any other. We can buy bleached or unbleached, bread, all-purpose, self-rising, cake, and pastry. We can buy flour made with soft Southern wheat or hard winter wheat. They are all different with an intended purpose. The choice of flour will make a profound difference to most baked goods.
Do you buy bleached or unbleached flour? The natural color of wheat flour is somewhat yellowish. Many store breads use bleached flour to obtain the whiteness that we associate with commercial white bread. Chlorine is the common bleaching agent used to whiten flour. While the FDA has approved the use of chorine in flour, you may prefer to avoid this additive and use flour in its more natural state. When you don’t mind the ivory or cream color of products made with unbleached flour, by all means use that. The only bleached flour that we use is bleached cake flour when we want to obtain the pure white texture we prefer in white cakes. In yellow cakes or cakes of other colors, we use unbleached pastry flour. If you switch from bleached to unbleached flour in your bread recipes, be aware that the two flours may exhibit different performance characteristics.
In your grocery store, you may find either bromated flour or flour that has not been bromated. Bread flours have to age or oxidize before they perform well. The time and expense of natural oxidation is not practical in commercial operations and the results are not often uniform. So the industry has explored means of speeding the process along—bromates being one of them. The FDA has ruled bromates to be safe and legal (though California outlawed bromates in 1991 as a possible carcinogen and most of Europe will not allow bromates). If you are not comfortable with bromates even though the FDA has approved their use, look for flour that has been treated with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) or other chemicals that you might recognize.
Predominantly on grocery shelves are bread flours, all-purpose flours, and cake and pastry flours. Bread flours have a high protein content—10% to 14%—necessary to give bread the chewy texture and open appearance—the “crumb"—that we cherish in our breads. (We'll talk about how protein works in just a moment.) Cake and pastry flours have a low protein content to create the soft, crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture that we prefer in our desserts. All-purpose flour is a compromise between the protein content in bread flours and the protein in pastry flours. All-purpose flours make passable bread and passable pastry but more specialized products are more reliable performers. That’s why you will rarely see all-purpose flour in a commercial bakery. Self-rising flours have salt and leaveners added. Cake flour is almost always bleached. Pastry flour is usually unbleached but can be found bleached.
Gluten, formed from the proteins in flour, is what gives baked goods their structure. A high protein content is necessary for great bread and a low protein content is required for proper cakes. When water is mixed with flour, the protein in the flour absorbs this moisture. When the combination is worked by mixing or kneading, two types of protein come together into strands—tiny ropes of gluten. During baking, this protein coagulates just as the proteins in an egg coagulate in the heat of a frying pan. It's this coagulated protein that gives bread its chewiness. In a cake, we don’t want chewiness so we use a low protein content flour. Furthermore, we use a shortening (commercial shortening, butter, margarine, or oil) to lubricate and shorten the gluten strands. (Hence the descriptive name “shortening”.)
There are other factors in flour that determine performance. Acidity and the presence of conditioners affect how yeast performs. Ash and moisture contents may affect your baking.
So what flour should you buy? Buy flours for their intended uses—bread flour for breads and pastry flours for pastries plus all-purpose flours for those new recipes—except breads—that were probably developed with all-purpose flour since that is what is common in nearly all kitchens. You can switch to a specialty flour after you become familiar with the recipe. We recommend that you try different brands—there is a surprising difference in performance between brands—and then stick with what works for you. If you really want to broaden your selection, make friends with a baker. Buy a bag or two of flour from your baker and try it. Flour is inexpensive but may be the most important ingredient in your baking.
Whole Wheat Flour
The wheat kernel is composed of three parts: the bran which forms the hard outer coating of the kernel, the smaller germ which is the embryonic portion of the kernel as the yolk is to an egg, only of smaller proportion, and the starchy endosperm. In the milling of white flour, the bran is cracked from the kernel and discarded and most of the germ is removed leaving the endosperm. In whole wheat flour, both the bran and the germ are left with the flour. Since the germ has a high fat content and fat can go rancid, whole wheat flours are much more likely to spoil. Also, since the flour is composed of the entire wheat kernel, whole wheat flour is not enriched with vitamin additive as white flour is. (The federal government specifies the addition of vitamins to white flour. See the nutritional comparison of enriched white flour to whole wheat flour.) Whole wheat flour can be purchased in either a fine ground or course ground texture.
Like wheat flour, cornmeal can be purchased with or without the germ and in a fine or a course ground form. For cornmeal with the germ removed, look for the term “degerminated” on the label. Degerminated cornmeal keeps longer since the higher fat content germ is removed but is not as nutritionally complete as cornmeal with the germ. The word “meal” refers to products that are not as finely ground as flour. Both cornmeal and corn flour are available.
Rye flour is used extensively in pumpernickel and rye breads. It can be purchased in light rye to dark rye blends. Because its proteins do not form gluten, bread made with rye flour alone is heavy and dense. Accordingly, when making breads with rye flour, add two to three times as much high protein content bread flour as you have rye flour.
Oats are used in baking in various forms: rolled, quick, steel cut, and flour. (Steel cut oats are quick oats that are not flattened.) Oat products are most generally used with chemically leavened products like scones and muffins. Rolled oats added to bread make for a wonderful chewy texture and moistness.
Buckwheat flour is often used in pancakes and sometimes in breads. Buckwheat is not really a grain but a seed. Because there are no proteins for gluten, buckwheat adds no structure to the baked product. Buckwheat flour is most commonly used in pancakes.
Potato flour is an important component in the baker's arsenal. Unlike wheat flour, it is hygroscopic—that is, it attracts water instead of dries out. So the staling process in breads is retarded or slowed. One tablespoon of potato flour to two cups of wheat flour will extend the life of your bread and keep it moist. We use potato flours extensively in our breads.