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.

treccia4-h

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!

treccia1paneee

  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

  4. Question: what does it mean when a flour seems to be quickly wet despite not adding as much water as normal. I have purchased this organic whole wheat flour and normally in whole wheat recipes I do 3 cups flour to make 1.5 lb loaf in my bread machine with 1 1/4 cup warm water BUT this flour is so “weird”. It doesnt even hold its shape into a ball within minutes into the first rise and the end result is a brick LOL. I have made whole what breads in the past (been baking bread for couple years; sometimes in the oven or sometimes in the bread machine) BUT I was experimenting one day using this new flour and didnt change the recipe from my previously failed attempts EXCEPT I ADDED 1/4 cup gluten and I had a beatiful high rising loaf soft and chewy! It stayed in a nice ball through the whole thing !! What do you think this could mean ?? That its because the whole what flour has a low gluten content ? The mill where I purchased the flour said it was hard wheat and high in gluten and perfect for bread making. Any input would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by! :)
      So, what you describe seems to be all the symptoms of low gluten content.
      Many flours are perfect for bread making, flavor and texture wise, but many don’t have enough gluten to actually hold a loaf on their own (ex. rye, oat). This is why they must always be mixed with some stronger flour, like Manitoba.
      Organic, local mill flours differ from the ones you find in stores a lot. Because real whole wheat flour contains much more bran than the polished stuff you find at the store, the action of gluten is somehow inhibited by the fiber content. If you have a lot of bran, there is less space for gluten. Bran is high in protein, but protein and gluten are not the same thing. The flour you purchased must be very rough, therefore low in gluten.

      Have you ever made bread with rye flour? Even though it is perfect for bread making, the gluten content is so low that every loaf will be brick-like if you use 100% rye. this is because rye has such a high fiber content that the room left for gluten is not much at all. All these flours need to be supported by some other strong flour to rise high and fluffy.

      All organic products behave differently than what we are used to buy. For example, regular beans cook much quicker than organic beans. Take this as a chance to learn to work with new ingredients! Even though they could be a little more difficult to work with, there’s no better choice that sourcing flours from a local mill! :)

      Hope this helped!

  5. Thanks so much for replying ! Yes I also thought it was low gluten and yes definitely my flour is VERY rough LOL !! With the red fife flour (organic; same mill I purchased this flour) it produced a wonderful high rising soft bread WITHOUT adding any gluten but now that I think of it, that flour wasnt rough at all. So I guess I’m stuck with using gluten flour to help with the rise until I finish this HUGE bag of whole wheat flour !! Do you ever use gluten flour to your breads ? Oh and just another thought … I heard that whole wheat and white flour have the same amount of gluten in it but its just because the bran is rough that it cuts all the gluten. Do you think this might be the case or do you think its just low gluten ? Hmmmm…I wonder. I love to learn as I go :-)

    • (ack, sorry for this late reply!)
      Yes, because I love whole flours so much, I always have to add some strong gluten flour to the mix. If you go have a look at my guide on how to make bread, you’ll see that I make the pre-ferment using only that. Right now I’m loving a special flour called ‘split wheat’, which is made by very roughly grinding fresh, organic wheat. It’s as whole as it gets and produces a dense, intensely flavored bread. The bran definitely cuts the gluten, but there’s really nothing wrong in mixing in high gluten flour. Just make sure you buy some good quality stuff :)

    • Ciao Domenico, tutte le ricette che ho visto usano la farina 00, ma io ci mischierei una percentuale di farina manitoba. Potrebbe bastare anche solo usare 1/4 manitoba e 3/4 farina 00. Ricorda che in questo caso potrebbe servire poca più acqua :)
      Ai pretzel va fatto il bagno di soda…occhio!

  6. Can I substitute fresh milled flour ground from hard red wheat berries one to one with all purpose flour?

    • I don’t see why not! I often use those kinds of whole flours and they are amazing. The water content of the recipe might change…rough and whole flours usually need more water :)

  7. hi, I am wondering, how much gluten can I add per cup using, all purpose unbleached flour? I normally make 9 loafs,but it seems that my bread don’t rise as well, ty..

    • Hi Maggie!
      Unfortunately (or fortunately, rather) I never used AP flour for baking when I was in the US, and we don’t really have AP flour in Italy, so I never found myself in a situation like yours. After a little research, my bet would be to add 1 tbsp gluten per cup of AP flour, or 2 tbsp for 1 pound.
      Once you run out of flour, try and look for Canadian flour (or Manitoba flour), and flours that are specific for bread making. You should find them easily in any supermarket. Or, if you are lucky enough to be close to a mill, go buy it straight from there! These flours usually yield some very good results!

    • In Vermont (I don’t know where else), King Arthur flour company makes a bread flour & it is available at Hannaford’s. Good luck!

  8. thank you for your response, I will go with your measurements, and I will let you know how it turned out,again, thank you

  9. Hi –
    I’m having a bit of a pickle. I’m living in Italy (small town in Umbria) and want to make potstickers/Chinese dumplings. I have little hope of finding the pre-made wrappers in a local grocery store so am planning to make my own. The recipes I’ve found call for unbleached all purpose flour. Having spent some time searching the internet, I’m now fairly confused as to whether or not I should look for 00 or 0 here in Italy. Or some other kind? Is unbleached readily available? Many thanks for any guidance you can provide.

    • Hi Jane! I understand your concern! I think the best thing you can do is getting 00 flour, the one you’d normally use for pasta. You should get some very good wrappers with it! 0 tends to be coarser, whereas for making wrappers you need the finest flour you can find. the higher the number, the coarser the flour is (on a scale from 00 to 2). Hope this helps!

  10. Very educational site. Thank you. What is the best flour I can find in North America for crepe making. In France we use mostly flour T55 ou T65. Please advise.
    Merci
    JP

    • Hi Jean-Pierre, thanks for stopping by!
      So, there could be several options depending on where you are. If you have access to asian or Japanese markets, you could try looking for ‘cake flour’ which is super fine flour and perfect for baking fluffy cakes, pancakes and crepes too. Some US supermarkets might stock cake flour, too (try looking in very large stores).
      Otherwise, you could look for ’00’ Italian flour. these two flours, though, are the equivalent of a t45 or t55. For something that is closest to t65, go with plain and simple all purpose flour, which you can find everywhere. Just make sure it’s good quality!
      Hope this helps! :)

    • Hi and thanks for the answer that I only noticed today. It means I’m still on a mission to find the right flour or flour mix.
      Since then I have been trying so many different things, like for example mixing rye flour with pastry flour and all purpose flour all together with variations on the proportions. Results are interesting but the crepes burns way to fast on my French Krampouz comercial “billig”. I need to achieve a crepe not to stretchy at all and the soft Rye flour does help but it burns really fast. By the time I spread it it is already time to turn it and after turning it back again I need to be quick with the filling so the crepe does not burn. It becomes quiet inconvenient when making many crepes at the time. I cannot poor 3 crepes on 3 different billigs. By the time I’m done pouring the 3rd, the first one will be to dark already. So now that you mention I will go after the cake flour and the 00 as well. Would you recommend any flour mixing?

    • Unfortunately every surface works differently and every flour in every country is different, so there is only so much I can suggest… I am very sorry! Can’t you lower the temperature of the pan you are using?

  11. Hi Valentina! I hope you can help me with this recipe. I’ve always loved to eat Krafens,tipical Austrian doughnuts since I was a litle girl.Have found a recipe on Giallo Zafferano website but, requires 350 gr of Manitoba flour and 150 gr of flour 00,I don’t have any of this type Manitoba what can I use instead,our local supermarkets don’t keep this particular flour,which means I have to go to an Italian supermarket and it’s a bit inconvenient for me as I have to go especially to get this type of flour can you suggest a substitude please or something similar.Hope you can bella. Claudia

    • Hi Claudia! So, what you need for krapfen is a high gluten flour. Most supermarkets should sell ‘bread flour’ which is a flour for breadmaking therefore rich in gluten. If you can’t find bread flour anywhere, you can still make them with any white flour you can find, but they probably won’t be as pillowy as they would be with a high gluten flour. I think they should still come out well though! Hope this helps! :)

  12. Helo very interesting, I would appreciate your advice trying to make flat lebanese authentic bread in Canada but can’t find a good mix of flour seems it has high gluten content even I’m trying whole wheat flour with full bran particles still the dough can’t be stretched what would be the way to keep a whole wheat flat bread which is more stretchable ,thanks

    • Hi Sam,
      Canada produces Manitoba flour, which is one of the flours with the highest gluten content…can you try and get this one? try starting with manitoba/canadian flour and adding about 30% whole wheat flour. If the dough doesn’t stretch well even if the flour contains lots of gluten, you probably just need to add more water. Once the dough is kneaded with more water, let it rest for an hour or so, then knead again. Let me know how it goes!

    • Thanks Valentina for ur reply so kind of you, I will try ur advice il let u know the outcome, have a good day

  13. An excellent piece, however I found the term “chemical yeasts” a little odd…these are inorganic carbonate based salts generally referred to as raising or leavening agents and bear no similarity to yeast.

  14. I switched brands of flour for my patries. Now when I sheet out my dough, I keep getting rips in the dough with it sticking to my roller. The dough doesn’t feel sticky & I don’t get any pinholes. Will increasing the water help reduce the tearing. I did not have this issue with the previous brand.

  15. I am still unclear if the 00 flour we purchase here in the UK is the best for use in pastry OR can be used as a substitute AP flour ?

  16. How much of dry yeast is needed for 10kg of pizza dough …. and thanks for the info

  17. Pingback: Some Interesting Baking Sites/Links | Northwest Sourdough - Sourdough Bread Baking Courses

  18. What a great site fast,clear and extremely informative.
    As a novice bread and pizza dough maker I am constantly experimenting for that perfect crust or loaf.
    Now have a much better understanding of flours.
    Thank you Valentina.

  19. Thank you so much! This was informative and to the point, very well organized! Exactly what I was looking for!