When I said we’d be going back to the basics I meant it. Flour is the foundation of many recipes: baked goods and breads, waffles and pancakes, soups and gravies, pastas and dumplings.
While many of us may think of all-purpose flour, there are numerous types of flours – each of which has its own distinctive effect on the final product.
So, let’s dive into what flour is and why it’s so important in the culinary world. Then we’ll meet some of the more common flours you may come across when looking for recipes, particularly healthy recipes!
What is Flour?
Traditionally speaking, flour is a powder made from grinding grains. However, there are many flours on the market made from grinding roots or nuts as well.
For flours made from cereal grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, oats, rye, sorghum, triticale, or corn), it’s the edible seed of these plants that’s ground into a powder through milling. This is important as it’s the milling process that makes some flours “white flours” and others whole wheat.
Whole grains are made up of 3 parts: the endosperm, the bran, and the germ. The bran is the outer layer, and it is rich in B-vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants. Next is the endosperm, which is where most of the starchy carbohydrates and proteins are found. Finally, the germ is the innermost section; while it also contains B-vitamins, it’s the main source of healthy fats in the grain.
So, let’s quickly get back to the milling part. During this process, the grains get broken into a bunch of tiny pieces, with those three parts of the grain getting separated. White flour is made from just the endosperm, while whole wheat flour is often made by recombining all three parts. As a result, whole grains contain all the nutrition benefits, not just the starchy carb and protein.
Role of Flour in Cooking and Baking
The primary role of flour is to provide structure. Remember how flour contains protein? (if not, go back to the previous section.) Well, when these proteins are hydrated, they form an elastic connection that helps make your baked good end up with the shape and texture that you’re hoping for (along with many other ingredients working in tandem). In cooking, these proteins can also help with thickening, especially for soups and sauces. For cereal grains, the main protein at work is gluten.
As a general rule, the more protein in a flour, the more gluten, and therefore the more structure the baked good can have. For example, cake flour is the lowest protein wheat flour. Because of the low protein content, when you use cake flour you end up with a tender, more airy texture. Low protein wheat flours are classified as soft wheat flours.
In contrast, bread flour is the wheat flour with the highest amount of protein. Using it results in a solidly-shaped loaf of bread with a desirable chew. You may see high protein flours classified as hard wheat.
All-purpose flour is milled from a mixture of hard and soft wheat, making it a moderate protein-containing flour. Because of this, all-purpose flour is more versatile than the cake or bread flour, and is why it’s a staple in most households.
As you can see, flours vary by their protein content. This is why choosing the right protein for your recipe is imperative. You wouldn’t want to make a cake with bread flour or vice-versa. And then there’s gluten-free flours which have their own chemical characteristics. Some of which we’ll get to this month! The biggest take away is when cooking and baking, never assume you can substitute one flour for another at a 1:1 ratio. Oftentimes the amount of flour will need to be adjusted along with changes in liquids and rising agents in the recipe.
Types of Flours
While this list is in no means exhaustive, here are some flours you may come across in recipes or on ingredient labels:
- All-purpose flour
- Almond flour (gluten free)
- Bread flour
- Buckwheat flour (gluten free)
- Cake flour
- Chickpea flour (gluten free)
- Coconut flour (gluten free)
- Corn flour (gluten free)
- Oat flour (gluten free)
- Pastry flour
- Pecan meal
- Rice flour (gluten free)
- Rye flour
- Self-rising flour
- Semolina flour
- Sorghum flour (gluten free)
- Sprouted wheat flour
- Tapioca flour (a.k.a tapioca starch; gluten free)
- Teff flour (gluten free)
- White whole wheat flour
- Whole wheat flour
Bleached vs. Unbleached
When buying flour, you may notice that some flours, particularly white flours, say either “bleached” or “unbleached.” While you might be able to figure out that one is whiter in color than the other, what the actual difference is and whether or not it matters may not be so obvious.
Flour naturally has a yellowish color that overtime turns white. However, some companies speed up this aging process by adding bleaching agents. Not only does this make flour that pure white many of us may have grown up with, but it also affects the texture (and possibly the taste).
Bleached flour is softer and has a finer texture than unbleached flour. This also changes how it acts in food, as baked goods made with bleached flour are often softer, more voluminous, and brighter in color.
Unbleached flour on the other hand is flour that’s been left to age naturally. It will likely have an off-white color and will be denser than bleached flour. However, don’t take that to mean that all unbleached flours haven’t been treated with chemicals! Always check the ingredient label before buying flour.
Personally, I always buy King Arthur Unbleached Flour (not an affiliate, just a long-time customer).
Meet Your Ingredient Featured Flours
As you can see there are a bunch of different flours! For this month’s Meet Your Ingredient segment, we’ll be focusing on the 4 you’ll likely see the most often on health blogs:
See you all next week when we delve into cooking and baking with white whole wheat flour!