Baking basics – Understanding Flour, Part 1

October, November and December are definitely months of heavy duty for our kitchens, as Halloween, Thanksgiving and finally Christmas put our ovens to work like no other period of the year. I decided to start a little series on baking basics, to help myself and others who do not have great experience with baked goods enter this incredible complex – but not complicated, rewarding world.

Flour, Italian flour, and general explanations

Flour is probably one of the most controversial topics I’ve read about: Some health purists say it’s the devil, some others say that those who say it’s the devil are nuts, and so on. Not to mention the overall confusion on what kind of flour you need for making bread rather than cakes, or what you need for other uses. Though I personally prefer to steer clear of white flour myself, I think it is important to get as much information as you can on the chemistry behind flour and baking, so that everyone can get a step closer to conquering their own baked goods without cluelessly following a recipe that might turn out to be a disaster.

Flours

Flour Basics
There are many kinds of flour, but what is important to know when picking one are two very basic things: the gluten/starch content and the milling process.

Gluten is created by the interaction of two proteins – glutenin, which makes the dough elastic, and gliadin, which makes the dough stretchy. When they absorb water and are kneaded and handled, these proteins ‘come to life’ and create a very elastic web structure – gluten, that is. Gluten can absorb one and a half times its own weight in water, and the web it forms traps the air developed by the yeast. Therefore, the more glutinous a flour is, the more water-absorbent it will be.
The fact that a certain kind of flour is rich in protein does not guarantee that it will be good for bread making. In fact, the only protein that matters when baking is gluten, so you should only care about the gluten content, not the overall protein content.
A flour with a high gluten content is a strong flour (11% ~ 14%), whereas a flour with a low gluten content is soft or weak. Because of their elasticity and water-absorbing properties, flours rich in gluten can withstand long hours of proofing. This is why strong flours are usually mixed with other flours in bread making.

Starch is what is left after gluten has been removed from flours. Soft flours have a lower gluten content (8%~9%) and are ideal for baking cakes and sweets, as chemical yeasts, such as baking soda or powder, act by interacting with the heat of the oven, and the elastic structure of gluten would be an obstacle for raising. This is why sometimes starches are added to regular flour for cakes and the like to obtain a fluffier, well-leavened product.
Weaker flours are good for crackers and cookies, while flours with a slightly higher gluten content are great for cakes. Starches are perfect thickening agents: the starch globules absorb water, they swell and their consistency turns dense and creamy.

Flour Strength

In order to determine how different flours behave and to state their gluten content, they are classified by strength, which is indicated by the letter W. The stretchier, resistant and more water-absorbent a flour is – therefore, the more gluten in contains, the stronger it is. As said above, strong flour can withstand long hours of proofing and trap the air released by the yeast.
Unfortunately the strength of the flour is not indicated in the package, but if you buy flour from a baker or from a mill they will surely know.

90 < W < 160 ~ Weak Flour
Water absorption
: 50% of their own weight

Good for cookies, crepes, wafers, and all preparations that would normally require baking soda. Also good for some pizzas, mixed with strong flour. Cake and some pastry flour are usually the weakest.

160 < W < 250 ~ Medium Weak Flour
Water absorption
: 55% ~ 65% of their own weight
Good for baked goods like cakes, puff pastry, shortbread, and preparations that would require baking powder. Also good for some breads and pizza, for sweet doughs that require a long proofing (like brioche) and starter dough. Cake flour and some all-purpose flours belong in this category.

250 < W < 310 ~ Medium Strong Flour
Water absorption
: 65% ~ 75% of their own weight

Good for bread making, and for all bread preparations that require long hours of proofing. High protein unbleached all-purpose and some bread flour belong here.

310 <W < 370 ~ Strong Flour
Water absorption: up to 90% of their own weight

Good for ‘strengthening’ other flours, for breads that require very long hours of proofing, and for breads made with starter doughs. It is usually mixed with weaker flours. Bread flour and Canadian flour belong in this category.

Italian Flour
In Italy, flour is categorized according to how finely milled it is. The numbers are obtained by measuring the quantity of flour in kilograms after milling 100 kg of wheat. The higher the number, the coarser it is. ’00′ flour seems to be the most difficult one to replace: it almost feels like baby powder, and it is so fine that the best quality in Italy is called ‘Fior di Farina’ (lit. ‘Flower of Flour’, meaning that it is the best and finest). It is great for sweets and pasta.

  • 00 Flour (ash content ~ 0.55%) is the finest, and obtained by only milling the inner part of the grain, with no bran or residues, so that protein and starch are the only things left. Very poor nutritionally, but very efficient in the kitchen, it is used for fresh pasta and baked sweets;
  • 0 Flour  (ash content ~ 0.65%) is coarser and tends to be stronger, and is generally best for bread, flatbread and pizza making;
  • 1 and 2 Flours  (ash content ~ 0.85% / 0.95%)could be considered half whole-wheat, as they contain parts of bran and are richer in protein and starch. Best for pizzas and breads;
  • Whole Wheat Flour (Farina Integrale(ash content ~ 1.70%) contains all of the grain, and in Italy it is usually used together with a finer flour. All the nutrient content is preserved.

NOTE ON WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR: most of the flours present in any store are regular refined white flour to which bran has been added, which makes choosing whole wheat for its better nutritional content pretty pointless. In this case, make sure the flour you buy contains the whole kernel, and comes from an organic source.

American Flour
If Italy categorizes flour by how finely milled it is, the US and other countries generally categorize flours by their gluten content. True enough, if you are not using Italian flours for Italian recipes you will get a texture difference, but when you understand flour strength, figuring out good substitutions becomes quite easy. The milling process, of course, affects the overall texture.

Let’s have a look at the American kinds of flours:

  • All-Purpose Flour is your go-to kind of everyday flour, with a protein content that can range from 9~12%. Unbleached flour tends to have a higher protein content, and it is definitely a better choice compared to bleached. The gluten content varies with the harvest season, region of production, freshness, and many other factors.
  • Bread Flour is a high gluten flour which contains about 13% protein, and it is, of course, best for bread.
  • Pastry Flour is a finer, lower gluten kind of flour that is best suited for sweet baked goods like cakes and cookies. It has a very soft texture.
  • Cake Flour is even finer and lower in gluten than pastry flour. It might be good for baked goods that need an especially soft and fluffy texture and do not need to withstand a long proofing process.
  • Self-raising Flour should just be left in the shelf where it stands. If you want great results in baking, learn how to use and measure your own yeast and baking powders.

Most supermarkets now have flours that are categorized ’00′ or ’0′, but if you can’t find it, try Amazon or searching online. Still, since it is more expensive, you might want to figure out how to mix flours to achieve the correct gluten content and consistency for what you want to make.
I’ve heard many italian bakers – my mom and grandmother included, who swore that mixing flours always results in a better product.

Substitutions

  • For pasta: 30% Durum Wheat, 70% ’00′ (or whole wheat) or finely milled all-purpose flour, maybe with a couple tablespoons pastry flours to help with texture. If you find an all-purpose flour that is very finely milled, pastry flour might not be necessary. Still, pasta might be the only instance in which a real ’00′ flour will probably get you a superior product.;
  • For breads and pizza: 30% Strong Flour, 70% ’00′, or ’0′, or finely milled bread flour (or whole wheat). Those who experimented with both can say that there is not a big difference between making pizza with all-purpose+bread flour and a high gluten 00. For making pizza and bread, Italians don’t use 100% ’00′  flour, as pizza requires a higher gluten content. We mix ’0′ flour with strong american flour, which is called Manitoba here.;
  • For cakes: 30% starch, 70% ’00′ (or whole wheat) flour. Pastry flour is, of course, great for sweets. If using pastry flour, reduce the amount of starch to 10 ~ 15 percent of the total amount.
  • For cookies and goods requiring baking soda: Italians would normally use ’00′, for the US all-purpose flour is great.

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A few facts:

  • You should always sift your flours first. This helps with texture and removes any lumps that might have created in your bag of flour.
  • The number of italian flour has nothing to do with its gluten content: even amongst various kinds of ’00′ flours, The gluten content can vary a lot.
  • Each flour absorbs water differently: water absorption depends on where the flour was produced, how it was stored, when it was harvested and milled, how old it is, and many other things. Unfortunately, all it takes here is trial and error until you find the brands you like best.
  • As a general rule, for things that need to be stretched or raise for a long time you need a gluten rich flour – which will get you a chewy, crusty product, whereas cakes and sweets require a lower gluten content, as gluten – as said above, interferes with chemical yeast. This is why I encourage you to go and check the gluten content according to what you want to achieve.
  • For bread in particular, the slower the raising process, the better it is: This means that, if you are planning to let your bread raise overnight, you need flour with a whole lot of gluten. If you need something fluffier like brioche bread, you need less gluten.

Alternative Flours in Italian Baking

  • Buckwheat Flour, which in Italian is called Grano Saraceno (lit. ‘Saracen wheat’, has always been widely consumed in northern Italy, particularly in Valtellina and the area close to the Alps. It is used in addition to white flour to make crepes, pasta, bread, and in addition to polenta to make ‘polenta Taragna’. Some famous preparations include Pizzoccheri - a pasta cut in short strips, and a local buckwheat cake with lingonberry jam.
  • Chickpea/Garbanzo Flour (Farina di Ceci) is famous in the Near East, but it has always played an important role in Italain cuisine, especially in Liguria and Sicily. A flatbread made with this flour, called Farinata in Liguria and Cecina in Tuscany, is still a well known dish. There are also Sicilian Panelle, flat disks of fried chickpea dough.
  • Chestnut Flour (Farina di Castagne) is widely used in Liguria, Tuscany and the Emilia Romagna regions. Also called ‘sweet flour’, it has always been a great addition to cookie and cakes recipes, though it stars in many savory dishes as well. The most famous preparation is Castagnaccio, a cake made out of nuts, raisins, rosemary and olive oil. In Liguria it is is used to make Trofie, a kind of pasta traditionally eaten with Pesto.
  • Spelt Flour (Farina di Farro) Is usually added to regular flour to make bread and is widely appreciated for its nutty, yet mild taste. I’ve often seen it as the protagonist of many vegan sweets and cookies and cakes in general.
  • Other widely used flours include Orzo flour, oat flour, hazelnut flour, and the splendid durum wheat flour, but that is another story.

In part 2, I will be describing all kinds of flour aside from wheat flour, their gluten content, and glooten free flours. See you next!

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6 thoughts on “Baking basics – Understanding Flour, Part 1

  1. I found this wonderful description of flours on your English blog but not on the Italian one! So now I should join both. Here in australia, we also have various ways of labelling flours, which are not the same as those of America. We also can purchase all types of Italian flour ( the Italian community is very strong in Melbourne). One note I might add is that I always check the milling date on the packet, which is legal requirement here in Australia. The freshest flour is the best. Like extra virgin olive oil! Often buying closer to the place of growing and production guarantees this freshness.

    • Hi again Francesca! :D
      I am in the process of translating everything, so things are still missing in the italian version (the latest farro post will be live tomorrow!) but I’m getting there!

      I’m not surprised at all there are many italians in Melbourne, you’re getting all of our expats! Eheh!
      Thanks for pointing it out, flour freshnexx is extremely important!

  2. Very informative…..I have a doubt…..I use gluten myself for making breads but I find almost all the recipes on the net using all purpose flour……I ahve never got good results making bread unless and untill I use strong flour…how do the others get good results .

    • Hello there!
      So, making good bread is a matter of many factors: the humidity and temperature of your room, the amount of water you use, how much bread you actually make, the yeast, and so on. It could be that, considering all these factors, bread flour is the only flour that gets along with the methods you’re using. It could also be that the AP flour you use doesn’t have enough gluten, as not all flours have the same protein content. Why don’t you just stick with bread flour for now?

      I am preparing a thorough guide about bread making, which will be published next week. If you have a little patience, you can find out more in a bit! :)

  3. Super interesting, thank you! I will definitely pay more attention to the flours I use in my home baking.

    I ran out of flour the other day & went to the bakery down the street to see if they’d sell me a couple of pounds – best pie crust EVER as a result of adding the harder flour to the rest of my unbleached “all purpose”.

    • Eheh, see? :) choosing a good flour is key! So happy your crust turned out better than usual! Getting it from a mill or a bakery is always a great idea :D

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