All About Flour
Freezing flour? Which flour is best to use for the best pizza?
Understanding what different types of flour are and how they function in baking is an important skill for every baker.
What is flour?
Wheat flour is made from wheat kernels that are milled or processed into flour.
A kernel of wheat has three parts:
- Bran: Thick outer coating that keeps the inside of the kernel protected from light, heat, and decay. Bran has a high fiber content. It has many health benefits, but makes baking more tricky as it absorbs a lot of water and requires more water added to the dough and it can disrupt gluten development which is why whole wheat loaves are not as airy and puffy as those made with white flour primarily
- Endosperm: White, starchy interior. This contains most of the carbohydrates and starches of the wheat kernel that are broken down into sugars during fermentation. White flour is made when this part of the kernel is extracted by roller milling.
- Germ: Contains rich, nutrient dense oils and the life needed to sprout into a new stalk of wheat if planted. The oils in the germ are very delicate and easily oxidized by light and heat which is why commercial mills try to extract this during the milling process. Home milling is the best way to ensure that you get the nutrition from this part of the wheat kernel.
Flour makes up the greatest proportion of your baking recipes, so storing, using, and choosing it well is important as a baker.
Flour you buy at the grocery store has usually been made to maximize shelf life. However, make sure to check the dates to ensure that it hasn’t been sitting on a store shelf too long. Old flour can become stale tasting or rancid if it is a variety that contains some whole wheat.
White flour can be stored at room temperature. Choose a cool location as well as a dark, airtight container. If you don’t use your white flour often, you can consider storing it in a resealable container in the fridge.
Whole wheat flour, especially freshly milled which is my preference, should be stored in the fridge or the freezer. When I mill my wheat I use this rule of thumb:
- Room temperature: Good for 1-3 days (my fresh flour loses nutrition value the more light and heat it is exposed to)
- Fridge: Good for 1-2 weeks
- Freezer: Good for 2-3 months
Store bought whole wheat is made with a process to remove the germ which contains the oils that can go rancid easily making it more shelf stable, but if you don’t plan to use it quickly, storing it in the fridge will improve its shelf life even more.
If you are serious about baking, please invest in a food scale. Mine cost about $11. This tool will help you precisely measure your flour which results in the best final results.
Scooping flour with measuring cups creates a wide range of variability due to how the flour has settled, how it was scooped, etc.
Intuition in baking is what takes you from beginner to intermediate baker and even further. Intuition is developed through time and experience and involves how you sense the dough by sight and touch.
Sometimes you will find variation even between two brands of all-purpose flour in how the dough feels–dry or too wet. You may need to make a judgment call on whether to add a bit more water or a bit more flour. This can be tricky, so only add in small amounts at a time and note your changes to the recipe just in case you want to review them later.
Since flour is a primary ingredient, invest in quality. You’ll get what you pay for.
Unprocessed wheat actually has a lot of rare minerals and nutrients, as well as good amount of fiber. However, most of the flour that is readily available is stripped of these elements.
For the best whole wheat, look for organic and stone milled/ground varieties, especially sourced from local farms or mills. The stone milling doesn’t heat up the whole wheat flour as much as other methods which degrades the nutrition of the flour.
Organic whole wheat is important because some growers spray pesticides or other chemicals on their wheat, especially at harvest, which is absorbed by the outer coating of the wheat kernel–the bran.
When I purchase white flour, I look for unbleached and unenriched. I don’t like to have vitamins and minerals added to my flour that are difficult for my body to absorb. I generally buy organic, but white flour is one where you can buy conventional since the bran which may have absorbed some chemicals has been removed.
Below are some common types of flour and how they are used in baking:
This is the type of flour most households are familiar with. All-purpose has a moderately high gluten protein percentage (around 8-11%). It is can be used for muffins, cookies, biscuits, thickening a sauce, cakes, pancakes, etc. It can be used to make many varieties of bread and pizza when bread flour is not available.
When making bread or pizza, bread flour is the way to go. Bread flour has a higher gluten protein percentage (12-14%) which results in a dough that is stronger and has a better texture. Due to the higher gluten protein amount, this flour works well for dough recipes that are especially wet like focaccia or panettone. The higher gluten protein percentage also means that your dough needs to be sufficiently kneaded or folded to work the dough to the best texture.
If you want a tender, delicate texture in your baked good, pastry flour is perfect. Pastry flour has a low gluten protein percentage (7-8%) which makes it perfect for attaining a flaky, tender texture in scones, biscuits, pies, and other pastries.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole-wheat flours introduce a new level of flavor, texture, and nutrition. Whole-wheat has two subcategories: hard and soft. Hard wheat has a higher protein content than soft wheat and is generally better for yeasted breads that require a higher gluten-protein percentage, which creates more strength in the dough. Soft wheat is lower in protein, and is excellent for pies, scones, cookies, and flatbreads. Here are some examples:
- Hard wheat: Hard Red Winter, Hard Red Spring, Hard White, Durum (mainly used for pasta and specialty breads)
- Soft wheat: Soft White, Soft Red Winter
For better quality whole wheat flour, check out some of our favorite farms and mills for healthier and sustainable options.
Rye flour has a very distinct flavor and unique chemical structure that makes it ferment more rapidly than other wheat varieties. If you are already baking sourdough, rye flour is best in long fermentation baking since it speeds up fermentation on its own, the time needed for sourdough allows more flavor and complexity to come out than a recipe with quick yeast.
Due to the chemical structure that has higher enzyme activity, it is my preferred way to start a sourdough starter from scratch, you can find my step by step 7-10 process here.
Ancient varieties of wheat can be great for making bread and include einkorn, emmer, and spelt. Sonora is a household favorite and this soft wheat is native to the southwestern United States. See the Grain to Bread page to find out about some farms growing ancient grain varieties.
This 21-page guide describes what a sourdough starter is, benefits, how to care for one, step-by-step illustrations and photos for baking a rustic sourdough bread, timing cheat sheets, and more!
What is a sourdough starter? Learn the basics or review how to refresh your starter (discard and feed):
Many people have an issue with caring for their sourdough starter. They don’t realize that their sourdough starter must be refreshed by use (or discard if the starter was not used while active) then feed. Feeding a starter repeatedly that hasn’t been used results in an unhealthy starter.
In this guide, I give you the step by step instructions for creating your own sourdough starter over 7-10 days.
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