Have you ever wondered what the differences are between all the flours available on the market? Well, if you don't already, you'll soon know how all these flours are made differently, the uses for each, and even more interesting information on this subject.
Starting with its definition, flour is the finely ground and sifted meal of any of various edible grains. Giant steel or stone rollers are used to break and grind the grain. At this point you may be thinking to yourself, "Who cares what the rollers are made of, just cut to the chase." As you'll soon find out, even the kind of roller used makes a big difference in the type, characteristics, and uses of the flour, but if you really are that anxious, you can scroll to the bottom of this article. Just be aware that if you do that, you'll be skipping all the why's and if's about flour to the list of each type of flour and its recommended uses. Going back to the rollers, most supermarkets carry steel-ground flour. This grinding method produces a great deal of heat, which strips away the wheat germ and destroys many of the valuable vitamins and enzymes. On the other hand, stone grinding generates almost no heat, making the flour more naturally nutritious by preserving all the valuable vitamins and enzymes, which saves the germ. This type of flour can be found in some large supermarkets and in specialty stores.
Wheat is the world's largest cereal-grass crop, and for very good reasons. Unlike other grains, wheat contains a relatively high amount of gluten. Gluten is the protein that, when a bread dough is kneaded, helps hold in the gas bubbles formed by the leavening agent (the leavening agent being yeast in most cases). Out of the 30,000+ varieties of wheat, the three major types are hard wheat, soft wheat, and durum wheat. Hard wheat is high in protein (10-14%) which yields a flour rich in gluten, making it best suited for yeast breads. Soft wheat isn't very good for baking, but is excellent for pasta making. Generally, the rule holds that more protein means more gluten, and more gluten means that your breads will be high, thick-crusted, and full of fresh grain flavor.
The word "Whole" on the label means that the bran has not been stripped away before it's milled. This will give the flour a darker appearance, and will generally have a nut-like and more pronounced flavor than those made from white-wheat flour.
The texture of flour all depends on how fine a bolting (sifting) it receives at the mill. The "Enriched" label on flour signifies that niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and iron are added to the flour, which are required additions (by US law) in all flours that don't contain the wheat germ.
Some manufacturers add potassium bromate to the flour to increase the yield. This process is called "bromating the flour", which is a controversial procedure that is banned in some areas.
In reference to organic flours, I think Daniel Leader, owner of Bread Alone, says it best: "When I first started baking with organic flours, I wasn't prepared for the surprises. After all, commercial flours, even though they never taste very good as a rule, manage to behave predictably and are durable. Organic flours may, on the other hand, deliver a full earthy taste one season and a subtle wheaty tang the next, depending on how the growing season progressed and how the fields were fertilized and drained."
As we promised, here is the list of many different types of flours, including their individual descriptions and recommended uses:
All-Purpose Flour: A mixture of approximately equal parts hard and soft wheat flours. It's used in the kitchen rather than in the bakeshop.
Bread Flour: A hard wheat flour. It's very easy to dust into a thin film, making it ideal to use when rolling out and working with dough. Bread flour is milled from wheat rich in protein, providing dough with a high gluten content. The wheat must be grown in areas with appropriate amount of rainfall and in soil rich in nitrogen. Bread flour is obviously best used for baking breads.
Cake Flour: A soft wheat flour that has been chlorinated to further break down the strength of the gluten. It feels very smooth and can be pressed into a lump in your hand. Because it contains less of the gluten-producing proteins, cake flour yields a more crumbly, but lighter texture. It is used in making sponge cakes and other baked goods where a weaker gluten structure is preferable.
Pastry Flour: Another soft wheat flour, which is close to all-purpose flour in gluten strength. It can be used for the same uses as cake flour, but with cakes and pastries you'd prefer to have some gluten strength in.
Whole Wheat Flour: Also known as graham flour, whole-wheat flour is milled from the entire wheat kernel, including the germ and the bran, this being the reason why it is very nutritious. This flour doesn't keep as long as white flour because of the fat contained in the wheat germ. Whole wheat flour can be used to make breads, but since bread made solely from this flour is a lot heavier than that made with white flour, most of the time a combination of the two is used.
Nonwheat Flours: Flours other than wheat (that have been milled from other plants) can be used. Each contributes its own distinctive taste, texture, and nutritional benefit; however, since these flours are lower in gluten content, they are always combined with a percentage of wheat flour to assure proper leavening.
Barley Flour: This flour is seldom used in bread baking today, but in the past it was used extensively. To substitute barley flour for wheat flour, use half the amount by volume, continuing to use wheat flour for the other half.
Buckwheat Flour: This flour is made from the roasted seeds of the plant. Buckwheat is used most often in pancakes, especially for the popular buckwheat blini, known from Eastern Europe.
Corn Flour: Corn flour, not to be confused with cornstarch, is milled from either white or yellow corn. It's also produced as a byproduct in the making of cornmeal. This flour contains no gluten, and is sprinkled on top of English muffins, sourdough breads, and breadsticks to give them a crunchy crust.
Potato Flour: Potato flour, also known as potato starch, is made from cooked, dried, ground potatoes. It is most frequently used as a thickening agent, but can also be used in baking to reduce the gluten strength of bread flour since potato flour has no gluten.
Rye Flour: This is one of the best-tasting flours for making bread. It is divided into four categories, those being light, medium, dark, and pumpernickel. As with wheat flour, these grades are determined by the part of the grain that the flour is milled from, the medium grade being the most popular. Pumpernickel flour is made in much the same way as whole wheat flour: it is milled from the entire rye grain including the bran. Rye flour is almost always mixed with some wheat flour to give it added gluten strength and rising power in bread baking. A small amount of vinegar added to rye bread dough will help to bring out the rye flavor. Caraway seeds are almost always an ingredient in rye bread also.
Soy Flour: Soy flour is made from the soybean rather than from a cereal grain. It isn't commonly used in the pastry shop, but it is very nutritious and can be mixed with other flours in cakes for consumers with special diets.
by Ira Krizo, CCF Director
For more information on "Grains, Meals, Flours, and Other Starches" in general, you can find a chart on them, including their names, purchase forms, and major uses in our Charts page. As well as that chart this same webpage includes the above chart defining each flour and telling the uses for each: