I had this odd moment a few weeks ago at the checking out at the grocery store where I had five different kinds of flour in my cart. The cashier asked if I was a baker and I replied that I was a blogger. That was the end of that conversation.
As I got home though, I got to thinking more and more about the five different flours I bought. I mean, I bought them because a recipe that I wanted to make called for them. But I realized that if the cashier had asked me what the difference was between all of these flours, I’m not sure I could have given a very thorough answer.
Now what kind of blogger would I be if I couldn’t even explain the difference between ingredients I was using. I also decided that I’m probably not the only one who could use a refresher in flour, so I thought I would take a day to explore the world of wheat.
The Anatomy of a Wheat Berry. You can make flour out of many different things. Besides wheat, corn is maybe the most common. For this post though, I want to focus specifically on wheat flour because that’s what most people know.
There are a bunch of different varieties of wheat but they all have a berry which is what would sprout the next baby wheat stalk. Even more, each berry has three specific parts:
Bran – When you look at a wheat berry all you see really is bran. It’s the outer husk of the berry. When flour is being made, each individual wheat berry has to be crushed to remove this part. Depending on the flour, sometimes it may contain the ground bran but for refined flours it’s always removed. The bran has a lot of nutritional value though so it’s a common addition to cereals and stuff.
Germ – This is the embryo of the berry. The wheat germ is what actually sprouts the wheat. It’s packed full of Vitamin E and many other nutrients. Guess what. It’s also removed from most flours.
So we’ve removed the bran which has lots of fiber and the germ which has lots of nutrients. What’s left?
Endosperm – This is what most flour is made of. It’s got a lot of starch and some protein in it and takes up a large percentage of the berry. If you think of a wheat berry as an egg, this would be the white of the egg.
Let’s say that I was to give you a few pounds of wheat berries and asked you to make me a loaf of bread. Would you know where to start? I’m not sure that I would. The process sounds easy enough, remove the bran and germ from each little berry and then grind the endosperm up as fine as possible.
Ok. Maybe that doesn’t even sound easy. It sounds kind of hard actually. The point is that after doing that for many years, people wised up pretty fast. People started developing water mills and windmills that would do this crushing for them and then they could just separate out the unwanted parts through a series of sieves.
Eventually, you’re left with a very fine, ground endosperm which you can use to make all sorts of baking products.
A word on gluten
Like there are different types of corn and peppers, there are a bunch of different varieties of wheat as well. Each of these varieties has slightly different properties, but maybe most important is the different amounts of gluten protein in the endosperm. Gluten, most basically, is the thing in flour that gives it elasticity when it is kneaded. Gluten is why it’s a bad idea to make a bagel out of cake flour or cake out of bread flour.
Types of Flour
This is a brief overview of the types of common flours you can find in your store these days.
Cake Flour – I consider this the daintiest of flours. It is very soft and has very little gluten (6% to 7%). It makes very airy baked products so it’s perfect for things like cupcakes and cakes. This stuff is ground really fine and is usually bleached also so you end with a perfectly white flour. If something calls for cake flour, it’s a good idea to get your hands on some. I’ve tried to substitute other flours and it just doesn’t work.
Pastry Flour – Pastry has slightly more gluten than cake flour (like 8%), but also has higher starch content. This means that it doesn’t develop quite the elasticity that you need for like a baguette, but it can produce really tender results for, obviously, pastries. Unlike cake flour, if you don’t have any on hand you can mix half all-purpose flour and half cake flour and get pretty close.
All-purpose Flour – This is the most common flour in America I would say. It’s middle of the road in gluten content (usually around 10-11%). All-purpose flour also can be bleached or unbleached. I basically always use unbleached just because it is more natural and gives the baked product a better flavor I think.
Bread Flour – Bread flour also comes in bleached and unbleached options and again I always go with unbleached. If you love bleach though then go to town! No but seriously, as far as I can tell the only real argument to use bleached flour is for color. Bleached flour has a very clean, white look. Bread flour gets into the higher ranges of gluten (12-13%). You would not want to make cupcakes with this stuff. You would want to make no knead bread with it!
High Gluten Flour – Any flour with 13%-16% (basically the max) gluten is called high-gluten flour and is kind of hard to find in stores. You can find it online though. Again, it is used for bread products only really.
Whole Wheat Flour – You know all of those three parts of the wheat berry? This type of flour actually uses all of them. This makes it incredibly flavorful and nutritious. It also means though that it’s hard to make a good bread with just whole wheat flour. That’s why I like to mix it with other flour types for a lot of different products.
Do you Know your Flours?
Kind of hard to tell just by a photo, but these are the flours from left to right in the above photo: Cake Flour, Unbleached Pastry Flour, Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, Whole Wheat Flour, Unbleached Bread Flour, Rye Flour. Rye flour is made out of rye, not wheat, but I through it in because it has a good color.
So, what am I missing? Leave a comment and teach me something about flour!