In this guide, we navigate through the huge choice of flours, explaining what the differences are between each type, and how best to use them.
Firstly, what is flour? Flour can be made out of any plant (or its seeds) which contains enough starch content to grind into flour, for example: wheat, buckwheat, teff, corn, rice, chickpeas, potato, and nuts. However the flours in this feature all contain gluten.
What is gluten?
Gluten is formed naturally when water is added to flours made from wheat, rye and barley. In wheat, gluten is formed when two proteins, glutenin and gliadin come together in the presence of water and form what we recognise as cohesive malleable dough – one which can hold its shape and allows for expansion when gas is produced by the yeast (and sometimes bacteria).
For flour that you think needs strengthening add a tablespoon of Vital Wheat Gluten to it.
One of the most frequently asked questions is ‘what is the difference between bread flour and plain flour?’ The distinction comes down to varieties. If the flour is to be grown and sold for the bread market, a strong wheat variety is sown, one known for its stronger gluten content. Different varieties will be grown for cakes, biscuits, pastries and general use.
The best way to think of bread flour is to see it as a ‘tolerant’ flour. Bread flour varieties are grown for their stronger gluten content because they are easier to handle when making bread. They allow the baker longer to prove without fear of over-proving, they absorb more water (higher hydration) and they generally rise well.
It’s easy to be confused when discussing flour in terms of strong flour for bread and weak flour for cakes, because bread can also be made with weaker flour! In fact, baguettes can be made with flour as low as 9% protein which is considered to be a low protein flour.
Bread flour is a particularly great choice for making enriched doughs, soft crumb and for the baker seeking a stress-free bread baking time. However, don’t think of bread flour for bread only. It’s an excellent choice for baking vegan cookies – due to its strong gluten content, bread flour helps bind the cookies together in lieu of other binding agents.
In the UK, flours containing 100% of the wheat kernel are legally named wholemeal. Wholemeal flour is nutritionally good because it contains the outer layers of the kernel, where most of its micronutrients are. As the flour includes all of the kernel it produces a naturally coarse texture and that sweet intense wheat flavour.
A good tip when making a wholemeal loaf is to remove the bran with a fine sieve and set it aside while making the dough. This stops the shards of bran cutting into the dough, which makes gluten development harder. Once the dough has had its initial development the bran can be added back in – so you still enjoy the extra flavour and texture of wholemeal flour.
Use wholemeal flour in cakes with fruit or vegetables, such as apple or carrot cake. The fibre absorbs some of the excess liquid, thus preventing the cakes from becoming claggy.
White flour is made from crushing the wheat kernel into very small particles. These particles are sieved, and the outer darker layers of the kernel are discarded until only the white starchy powder from inside the kernel is left.
White flour is the white starch from the inside of the kernel. How the kernel is crushed and how many times the flour is sieved will depend on the type of mill it is – either a traditional stoneground mill or a modern roller mill – and what the flour will be used for.
The whiter the flour the less flavour it will have, but the easier it will be for gluten development. That’s the trade-off!
This plain flour is a good all purpose flour for cakes, biscuits, pastries, sauces and roux sauces.
Stoneground flour is milled using two millstones. The grain is fed between the two (very close) millstones and crushed. The miller adjusts the gap between the stones, the speed and flow rate depending on the grain and desired flour.
To make white flour, the crushed fractions of the kernel are put through different sized bolting cloths (sieves) to separate the fine white flour from semolina and the bran. A good stoneground flour is kept cool enough throughout the grinding so that the nutrients from the germ are retained.
Stoneground milling is a slower, more labour intensive process than the modern day roller milling, therefore commands a higher price.
Modern day roller mills are fast and efficient – they can crush the kernels more than once, sieving it various times, and extracting the most out of the kernel. This results in a flour that’s very affordable. White flour from roller mills is nutritionally deficient and legally in the UK has to be boosted with calcium, iron and thiamine.
Roller mills have made flour accessible and incredibly practical, while stoneground flour retains its nutrients better. Each method of milling carries with it its own benefits and produces different products. And on those grounds it’s not appropriate to compare.
White stoneground flour contains the most nutrition and flavour of all the white flours due to minuscule particles from the aleurone layer (that layer that sits underneath the outer skin of the kernel), as well as the micronutrients from the germ. A white stoneground flour will always be darker in appearance than a white roller mill flour.
Rye and wheat are both grasses, but rye behaves in a completely different way. Rye has the protein gliadin but not enough of the protein glutenin, and it is this particular protein that gives flour its backbone.
Naturally one might ask why have humans continued cultivating it, and the answer is that rye can grow in poorer conditions and colder climates to wheat, hence why northern European cultures have a rich history of rye baking. Rye flour delivers a fantastic punch of flavour. If mixing it in with white wheat flour it will bring its fruity, lively and characterful aroma to the loaf.
When making loaves with a high percentage of rye, the doughs do not need to be developed in the same way that wheat doughs do. Rye loaves are meant to be handled less with shorter proving times, making it altogether an easier experience for the baker.
Dark rye flours are like wholemeal flours, where the entire parts of the rye kernel are in the flour. If you mix rye flour into your normal white wheat loaf, exchange 60-100g of the wheat flour for a dark rye flour. This will give you a loaf with boosted flavour but still have the spring of a wheat loaf.
Durum is a wheat, but it is a different species to the common wheat flour. (Durum wheat is a tetraploid plant and comes from the lineage of emmer wheat, whereas the common wheat is a hexaploid plant). This is why durum flour can have higher gluten content than common wheat, but does not produce high volume loaves in the same way common wheat does.
Dried pasta is made from durum wheat because of its ability to maintain the all-important ‘al dente’ texture when cooked. The durum wheat also adds a creamy yellow colour, because its high percentage of carotenoids pigments.
Durum is a very hard wheat and not easy to make into fine flour. Most of the time it’s sold as the granular flour called durum semolina, used in pasta, cakes, biscuits, breads.
This re-milled fine durum flour is perfect for making traditional Italian breads such as Pani di Altamura, as well as light semolina cakes and homemade pasta.
Spelt wheat is from the same species as common wheat, but from archaeological findings we know it has had a rich history throughout Neolithic times. Its recent resurgence is perhaps due to a couple of factors:
- ecologically spelt is a low-input plant suitable for growing in harsh and marginal areas of cultivation,
- and secondly some people claim spelt is easier to digest than common wheat. Wholemeal spelt varieties tend to be higher in dietary fibre and protein than common wheat varieties.
This light spelt flour is ideal for experimenting with bread baking as the bran has been removed making dough development easier. When using spelt flour for bread treat it as you would plain flour – more delicately – it will have gluten development but not to the extent as common bread flour.
An effortless and interesting way to add spelt to your diet is using spelt grains and pearled spelt, also known as farro in Italian. They can be used as rice or made into salads, added to soups or in a bread recipe using sprouted grains. These are ideal to sprout.
Semolina refers to the texture and size of the flour. Although the word often refers to durum wheat semolina it can also refer to common wheat flour semolina.
Italian ‘00’ Flour
In Italy, flour is graded by a number system from tipo 2 (brown flour with bran removed) to ‘000’ (superfine white flour the texture of cornflour). The popular ‘00’ flour is roughly in the middle of these grades, and is often used for pizza bases and homemade pastas.
The number refers to how fine the flour is ground, and how white the flour is. ‘00’ flour is from the very inner part of the kernel. The number system does not refer to the percentage of gluten content in the flour.
Italian mills will usually sell flour based on what its purpose is for. For long fermented doughs such as panettone the flour will be ‘00’ but with a stronger gluten content than the ‘00’ flour they’ll sell for pizza or pasta making. An all-purpose flour can also be ‘00’.
Want to experiment with your pizza dough? Try this artisan pizza flour from Molini Del Ponte from Sicily for a white flour with flavour.
French flour is graded on the ash content (minerals) in the flour. A French flour T110 will be similar to the Italian tipo 2, a brown flour with bran removed. As the numbers drop, T80, T65, T55 and T45 so does the flour’s ash content, and the whiter and finer the flour becomes.
This French flour T65 is a great choice for making bread as it contains enough minerals to feed the yeast, add flavour to the loaf and the appealing creamy shade of white French breads have.
French wheat flour has strong enough protein to absorb sufficient water in order to produce the desired open crumb without compromising the crust. For good thin crusts one has to stay away from very strong gluten flours. The French certainly know a thing or two when it comes to crust.