Choosing the right flour for baking can be a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be. Just remember that it’s important to use the proper wheat flour for what you intend to bake. And what’s so special about wheat anyway? Let’s take a look at the wheat kernel. It has 3 main parts: the endosperm, making up the bulk (80 to 85%) of the grain, is mainly starch and protein; the tiny germ (2 to 3 % of the kernel), or future embryo, is packed with minerals, vitamins, including Vitamin E, proteins, and fats; and the bran (about 15% of the grain), or tough outer husk, is a rich source of fiber.
Whole wheat flour is the entire grain all ground up, giving baked goods high nutritional value and great depth of flavor.
Because the wheat germ’s fats are part of the flour, the flour can turn rancid if improperly stored. Refrigerate or freeze any flour if you bake infrequently.
White flour is made from the endosperm alone, which contains the various proteins, starchy carbohydrates, and some B-complex vitamins. The most common white flours are all-purpose, bread, and cake. All these flours have different protein contents, and it’s the amount of protein that determines which flour you’ll choose for baking.
Wheat flour contains all sorts of proteins, but two of the main ones, glutenin and gliadin, are what give the wheat its “strength.” When glutenin and gliadin come into contact with liquid, they knit together to form a network called gluten. The more there is of these proteins (the harder the wheat), the more gluten is formed, and the stretchier the dough becomes. Soft flours are typically low in protein (7 to 8 grams/cup), making these flours ideal for cake and pastry. Hard flours (13 to 15 grams protein/cup) are best used for yeast breads. And all-purpose flours, a blend of soft and hard wheat flours, have a protein content somewhere in between.
When shopping for all-purpose flour, you’ll find packages marked bleached or unbleached. After the bran and germ have been removed from wheat, the resulting flour has a creamy cast and is unbleached. To make the flour pure white, it is treated chemically with chlorine dioxide, benzoyl peroxide, and acetone peroxide. This bleaching, or whitening process, destroys Vitamins E and members of the B-complex group, so bleached flour must be “enriched” by having these vitamins added back to the flour. Bleached flours have been with us since around 1900.
Cake flour, lower in protein than all-purpose flour, is also more finely milled. As a result it has more surface area and can absorb more liquid than all-purpose flour. More liquid allows more sugar in the recipe, and more sugar not only adds sweetness, it contributes to the cake’s tenderness.
Most commercially available cake flours (SwansDown and Softasilk) are bleached by chlorination, making the flour slightly acidic. For cakes this is desirable because the acid makes them set a bit sooner, giving them a finer texture. And chlorinated starch absorbs water better than unchlorinated starch, also contributing to a finer texture.
For most baking I use unbleached all-purpose flour, and my default brand is Gold Medal organic. It works very well for pizza doughs, coffee cakes, muffins, scones and many cakes. For cakes where fineness of texture is important, such as angel food cake, I use cake flour. Bread flour is great in doughs where I want a really chewy quality, in bagels especially, and in peasanty sourdough loaves.
Which wheat flours are your favorites and why?