A Fennel Orange Salad

from my Cookbook

'Naturally Vegetarian'

How to make Fresh Pasta: The Basics and the Dough

Making fresh pasta at home is a very rewarding experience. I find that all preparations that demand a little more of your time than usual are. This is why pasta was usually made in every Italian home on Sunday mornings, when everyone was off work and could dedicate the whole morning to it, often engaging kids and relatives in the process. Some of my fondest memories involve my mom and grandma making pasta on Sundays for 10 to 15 people, and us kids helping (or messing) around.

And – no matter how good the pasta you buy can be. Nothing compares to the pasta you make yourself.

It is not a complicated process, but it does require attention and sticking to some basic rules. There are a series of little details that will make or break your pasta. Most of all, though, what you need is practice. Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts are not great. Time and practice will turn you into a wonderful pasta-maker!

I would like to be exhaustive, but nobody likes looooong posts. Therefore, I will start with this article with a focus on the dough, and then write a second one specifically about the tools for cutting and shaping. I will go in-depth for every singular kind of pasta, making them for specific recipes along the way, with tips for pairing with sauces.
Here we go!

THE INGREDIENTS

No ingredient list has ever been simpler.
Every 100g of flour will make pasta for one hungry person or, in the case of stuffed pasta, for two.
300g of flour will serve 4.

BASIC DOUGH
(Good for any kind of pasta, and for dough that will have some coloring agent added to it)
For every person, you need:

  • 100g of ’00’ Flour (or 30% Semolina and 70% regular flour)
  • 1 Egg
  • Water, in case you need it.

RICH DOUGH
(Good for stuffed pasta)

  • 150g ’00’ Flour
  • 150g Semolina Flour
  • 2 Eggs
  • 4 Yolks
  • Water, in case you need it.

VERY RICH DOUGH
(This dough will get you an extraordinary texture for pasta like tagliatelle, pappardelle and tagliolini, which will be very ‘meaty’ and with a bite, gorgeous for picking up sauces)

  • 300g ’00’ Flour (or 30% Semolina and 70% regular flour)
  • 1 Egg
  • 7 yolks
  • Water, in case you need it.

EGGLESS DOUGH
(Used especially with alternative flours)

  • Flour, or a mix of flours of choice (keep flours with gluten to at least 60% of the total amount)
  • Lukewarm water, as you need to incorporate all the flour into the dough
  • A little olive oil, to help with texture.

Consider that:

  • You might need the tiniest amount of water to help incorporate all the flour flour, depending on the quality of your ingredients. But the hardened bits of flour that will inevitably form do not count! Scrape those off the board and toss them. Wait until you kneaded for at least 5 minutes before adding water.
  • The classic recipe does not call for salt. Homemade pasta was usually paired with very rich condiments, and, especially if you are making some kind of stuffed pasta, you will see it is not necessary at all. Still, if you find it necessary, add a pinch.
  • You might add a tablespoon of olive oil (in 300~400g flour) to help make the dough smoother.

THE FLOUR
if you read the post about flours, you might have gotten an idea of how things work. Pasta needs the finest flour available (in this case, Italian ’00’) which also needs to have a decent gluten content, or it will be impossible to roll out. ’00’ flour is so finely milled that it almost resembles talc – which is perfect to get the most supple dough.
This is the only case in which using ’00’ flour will really make a difference. So, if you can and want, definitely go ahead and look for it – you can also buy it online. But if you are just starting out, all-purpose will do the trick. You could try mixing in a 10% pastry flour, for texture.
Some people like to mix in some semolina flour to add texture and color. If you want to try, you could mix 30% semolina and 70% regular flour. Some others even use 100% semolina, but that produces a very, very rough pasta.
If you find that you love making homemade pasta and make it often, definitely try a ’00’ flour, and see how things change.
It is always best to sift your flour, to avoid any lumps and unwanted bits of stuff.

THE EGGS
We are using ‘large’ eggs, here, weghing about 70g each. If using smaller eggs, you might need more.

USING ALTERNATIVE FLOURS
if we avert our sight from tradition and technique, mixing more wholesome flours into your pasta is a great idea. Some of the most loved pastas in Italy are made out of spelt, buckwheat, chickpea and chestnut flour. Alternative flour pasta can also be made without eggs, like in the case of Ligurian pasta.
All these pastas, though, are still made by mixing flours, as the low (or absent) gluten content in some flours would make it impossible to stretch. If you are using a flour with gluten – like farro spelt or whole wheat, you could substitute all of it.
Keep in mind that you might need a higher hydration for these flours. Keep some water on hand.

Mix for alternative flours

  • 30% semolina
  • 30% flour of choice
  • 40% ’00’ flour.

Or

  • 30% flour of choice
  • 70% ’00’ flour.

For gluten rich alternative flours

  • 30% ’00’ flour,
  • 70% flour of choice.

GLUTEN FREE PASTA
I am not an expert on gluten free pasta, but if you are making pasta out of a 100% gluten free flour, adding xanthan gum will probably do the trick. I will deepen my knowledge and probably dedicate a chapter to gluten free pastas in the future!

THE DOUGH
The texture you want in your pasta is smooth, supple, and velvety. the kneaded dough shouldn’t feel dry or too hard, but rather soft and it should leave a sensation of humidity in your hands. Do not worry if it’s not perfectly smooth or elastic after you kneaded it, as the dough will fully develop after resting. It needs to rest at least an hour on the counter, or you could make it the night before and store it in the fridge. After resting, it needs to be re-kneaded for at least 10 minutes.

WORKSPACE AND METHODS FOR ROLLING IT OUT
The ideal workspace is a nice, large wooden board. A spacious marble countertop will also work, but working on a rough wood surface will give you the best texture: porous and slightly wrinkly, so the pasta will absorb the condiment incredibly well. There are specific boards for pasta, which are purposely left with a rough surface.

If you’re working on wood, flour the board every time you feel the pasta is about to stick. When you’re done, scrape all the bits and flour with a scraper and clean it with a damp towel. This is the board used for pasta in Italy. You can find something similar online or in many kitchen supplies shops.
(Tip: do not get the reversible ones. the edges would be an obstacle for the rolling pin)

If working on marble or steel, just clean the surface well before you start, to avoid any bits and crumbs of sorts that might ruin your dough.

Rolling the dough with a rolling pin
Rolling out the dough with a rolling pin will get you the best results. The reason why homemade pasta is so good and absorbs condiments so well is because you work wood-on-wood, which creates an amazing rough texture. Using the rolling pin requires practice: one needs to work fast and efficiently. If you’re too slow the dough will dry out, and if you’re imprecise it will be thicker in some spots and thinner in others. But worry not! after 3 or 4 times you will improve greatly, and you will start to really understand how things work. Start with no more than 3 eggs worth of dough, for practice.
Ideally, you will need a pin like this.

Rolling the dough with a machine
Unfortunately, cold steel will not get you the same results as wood, but a machine is still a great way to make pasta if you’re shorter on time, space and patience. I have never used one, but I am pretty sure every machine comes with detailed instructions.
GENERAL TIPS

  • Avoid working where there are air drifts or in windy places. The dough dries out very easily, and it’s impossible to work with a dried out dough.
  • Knead your dough for at least a full 10 minutes. You can’t compromise on this! The end result will really depend on how you kneaded the dough.
  • Always allow the dough to rest for at least an hour, either covered with a damp towel or sealed in a ziplock bag, to retain humidity. During resting time, the dough ‘relaxes’ and the gluten has time to stretch out. If you’re only using a piece of dough at a time, or making stuffed pasta like cappellacci or other formats that require pre-cutting your dough and not letting it dry (unlike tagliatelle), keep whatever dough you’re not using well covered.
  • Add a pinch of salt or a bit of oil to your preference. If you have a rich sauce, definitely skip the salt.
  • Always sift your flour.
  • If making stuffed pasta, always prepare the stuffing before hand, even the day before.
  • Non-stuffed pasta formats will need to dry after cutting. You don’t need to have one of those ‘hangers’: just use a floured tray, and leave your pasta there to dry. Spread it evenly and flour it to prevent sticking. Do not pack it together!

All right, let’s get to work!

How to make Fresh Pasta

Tools you’ll need

  • All the ingredients for the kind of dough you want to make;
  • A wooden board and rolling pin, or a flat metal or marble surface and a pasta machine;
  • Damp towels for keeping your dough from drying;
  • A long, flat knife for cutting;
  • Cutting wheels and other tools, depending of the kind of pasta you want to make;
  • Trays For arranging your finished pasta;
  • Extra flour, water and oil.

KNEADING

  1. On your clean workspace, arrange the shape in the ‘fontana / fountain’ shape: make a mound of flour and dig a hole in the center. Break the eggs into the hole, and add the oil, if using.
  2. Either beat the eggs with a fork, or start working with your hands. You should incorporate the flour into the eggs a little at a time, so that no egg spills onto the board. Start kneading. If there is flour you can’t incorporate, add a bit of water. Do not flour the board unless the dough really sticks too much. There will probably bits of hardened flour that you can’t incorporate…don’t add water to incorporate those! Just scrape them off the board and toss them. Only add the bits that are still soft.
  3. Knead the dough, using your own body weight and the heels of your hands. The dough wants the warmth of your hand, and stretching and applying pressure to the dough will help develop gluten. Knead until the dough elongates, then fold it upon itself, turn it around, and start again. Do not push the dough on the board – rather, take it from the bottom, and push it forward (kind of like the technique for folding egg whites). Once it starts to really come together, slam it a few times onto the board, to help develop gluten even better.
  4. After 10 minutes, you should have a supple ball of dough that is not too hard. It should be a bit floppy when you hold it, and feel humid. If it’s too hard, add water by the teaspoons until you reach the right consistency. It’s ok if it’s not completely smooth: it will acquire a velvety texture after resting.
  5. Put your dough in a ziploc bag and allow it to rest for at least 1 hour.
  6. Once rested, take it back and knead it again for 5 minutes. At the end, you should have a very smooth ball of dough, ready for rolling.
Dough Kneading

From upper left: 1; 2; 3; 4

ROLLING WITH A ROLLING PIN

I realize that explaining, no matter how well one might do it, does not compare to actually showing how it’s done. While I prepare my own, I looked for a couple of explicative videos: This one demonstrates pretty well the technique I use. This other video is a bit long and the girl here uses a different technique, but I really encourage you to watch this!

  1. Shape the dough into a ball and flatten it out on the board with your hands. Start rolling it from the center and going outwards, and constantly rotating it. Do not roll it like you would pie dough! Start from the center, and work your way outwards. This will get you a round, even sheet of pasta. (img. 1)
  2. Once it gets large enough, put the rolling pin on the upper edge of the dough, and roll that upper edge around the pin. (Img. 2) Put both the heel of your hands on the center of the dough, and ‘swipe’ them outwards. Do this quickly, rolling downwards until all the dough is rolled around the pin. This quick ‘swiping’ motion is what stretches the dough. Apply the right amount of pressure to stretch it out, but don’t be too harsh.
  3. When all the dough is rolled around the pin, rotate it 90˚ and quickly roll the pin on the board, so that one edge of the pasta goes ‘slap!’ Unroll it, flour if needed, and repeat, always rolling from the center outwards. (Img. 3)
  4. Once you can see the board through the pasta, it is about ready. You should roll the dough thinner for stuffed pasta, and coarser for regular pasta. (Img. 4)
  5. Your pasta circle is now ready for shaping!

 

How to roll pasta with a rolling pin

From upper left: Img 1; 2; 3; 4.

SHAPING

Shaping is a very wide subject. I will dedicate another post to tools used for shaping and more tips, as well as other posts about the single formats. in the meantime, here are a few pointers:

  • TAGLIATELLE, TAGLIOLINI, PAPPARDELLE AND OTHER LONG SHAPED PASTA:
    Once you have your round dough, roll the upper edge like parchment paper, flouring often, until you get to the middle of the circle. Do the same with the lower edge. Using a flat knife, cut ribbons of pasta of the desired thickness. Count 20 to 30, depending on the thickness you’re cutting: that makes one pasta nest, and roughly one, one and a half serving. un-roll the ribbons, lightly slap them on the board to fully un-roll them and shape them into a nest, that you can leave to dry on a tray.
  • STUFFED PASTA: Cut squares or circles of pasta, stuff them and close them as per the recipe you’re using. A quicker technique for ravioli is to brush half your sheet of pasta with egg wash, spread a layer of stuffing evenly, and fold the other half over it, closing the edges. You can then shape your ravioli with this tool and cut them with a wheel.

DRYING
Stuffed pasta does not need to dry, but other formats do. Drying time largely depends on temperature, climate and humidity level. It might be ready after 10 minutes in the summer, or after 1 hour in a foggy day. Just feel it: when it actually feels dry, well, it’s ready. Simple as that.

STORING

  • If cooking straight away: Prepare a large pot with plenty of water. Bring it to a rolling boil (lid on), and add a handful of coarse salt. Boil the pasta for about 5 mins, or until it floats to the surface. Thinner formats like angel hair might even need just 3 minutes. If you have a large amount, cook in batches: if you overcrowd the pot it won’t cook properly and it might stick. I do not find necessary to add oil to the water, but go ahead and add a tablespoon if you wish.
  • If freezing: arragne your pasta in a tray, without crowding it too much. Put the tray in the freezer as is, and once it’s fully frozen you can transfer it to a ziploc bag. You mustn’t thaw it beforehand when you want to use it – just dump it in your pot of boiling water straight from the freezer. Once the pasta is out of the freezer or it has been thawed, it cannot be frozen again.

And that is it for now. There is a recipe involving stuffed pasta coming very soon. I hope you try making pasta and have fun!

Flouring the pasta

 

Baking basics – Understanding Flour, Part 2

Here I made a list of various kinds of flours used in baking and pasta making. It is a very approximate summary, and I encourage you to do further research on each kind of flour to better understand their nutritional properties. Still, this list serves as a good sum-it-up to navigate the vast sea of baking ingredients.

The calorie amount indicated here is an approximate to get the idea of how the flours compare to each other. Always check the package you buy for the precise nutrient content. (I buy my flour from a local mill. Ha!)

GLUTEN FLOURS

White Wheat Flour
Kcal per 100g: 345
The classic white flour, which has been stripped of all nutrients. Its gluten content is optimal for general baking, but it can vary a lot depending on the kind of wheat, milling process, and many other factors. It can range from 7% protein content for cake flour, to 13-14% protein content for strong bread flour. See part 1.
Whole Wheat Flour
Kcal per 100g: 319
Whole wheat flour has a good percentage of iron, calcium, vitamins and fiber, as well as extra protein, all coming from the outer bran. the problem with whole wheat is that many manufacturers will sell you regular white flour with added bran, so make sure you buy flours obtained by milling the whole kernel, and from an organic source. Also, keep in mind that whole wheat is not like multigrain.
Farro Spelt Flour
Kcal per 100g: 335
Even though it is less rich in gluten than regular flour, it is really appreciated in all sorts of baking because of its nutty, delicate and pleasant taste. It is one of the best nutritionally: it contains precious B and other vitamins, easily digested proteins, as well as good minerals like manganese and magnesium, which help keeping healthy bones, a healthy intestine and ease premenstrual syndrome.
Oat Flour
Kcal per 100g: 385
Oat flour is very calorific, also thanks to its high protein content (16g against 10-11 in other grains). It contains, though, very little gluten and a lot of cellulose, Which makes it unsuitable for bread making unless combined with other flours in small percentages. It is, though, very rich in fiber, linoleic acid (a good fat), B vitamins and it is one of the cereals with the lowest glycemic index. It is known to reduce cholesterol and improve overall intestinal activity. Oat flour can also be found in gluten-free form.
Rye Flour
Kcal per 100g: 318
Despite its low gluten content, it is widely used for bread making and produces the thick, dense bread we all know (and probably like). Its high fiber content kind of makes up for the lack of gluten, absorbing water and holding everything together. It is a nutritionally precious cereal, as it is rich in vitamins PP, E and B and minerals. Rye is known to promote healthy bowels and elastic arteries, which helps a lot in the prevention of cardiovascular issues.
Barley Flour
Kcal per 100g: 357
Barley is also very low in gluten, but when mixed with other flours it produces a very good tasting bread. It has a low glycemic index, it is very filling and relatively low in calories, which makes it a great addition to most diets. It is very high in fiber.
Kamut® Flour
Kcal per 100g: 359
Kamut® is actually the name of the firm that first deposited the trademark for a kind of organic wheat called Triticum Turgidum ssp. Turanicum, which is cultivated in the United States. It is also known as Khorasan. Since it is organically cultivated and has never undergone any manipulation, it is known to have slightly better nutritional values than regular wheat and to be easier to digest.

Flours

From the left: chestnut, Farro, Chickpea, Brown Rice, Oat and Millet Flours.

GLUTEN FREE FLOURS

Millet Flour
Kcal per 100g: 373
Millet is a very nutritious grain loaded with magnesium, manganese and other minerals, which makes it helpful in the prevention of heart disease. It is also a good source of fiber.
Buckwheat Flour
Kcal per 100g: 330
Buckwheat is rich in flavonoids, antioxidants that make this seed helpful in lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Much like millet, it also helps to keep a healthy heart and it has a good fiber content.
Quinoa Flour
Kcal per 100g: 390
Quinoa is a seed, surprising for its incredible nutritional value. It is one of the few plants which is complete of all amino-acids, therefore providing a rather high quality protein. It also contains healthy fats like oleic and alpha-linolenic acid, all heart-healthy monoinsaturated fats. Furthermore, it is a good source of Vitamin E tocopherols, folate, calcium, and antioxidants. Definitely go ahead and read more about this wonderful seed.
Amaranth Flour
Kcal per 100g: 360
Much like quinoa, amaranth has so many health benefits that I encourage you to further your search online. But to sum it up here: high vitamin (including B like riboflavin and folate) high minerals, and a protein profile very similar to that of quinoa.
Teff Flour
Kcal per 100g: 360
Coming from Ethiopia and Eritrea, Teff is a very ancient nutrient packed food. It is the leader in calcium content, and it is always whole as it is too small to process. Much like amaranth and quinoa, it is high in protein.
Sorghum Flour
Kcal per 100g: 360
Sorghum is an African plant that produces tiny grains and has a mild, bland flavor. It is relatively high in protein and iron, but its really high fiber content can actually make it a bit difficult to digest. In fact, sorghum absorbs an incredible amount of liquid, which could make its transition in the intestine a litte more difficult in high doses. Keep this in mind when using it in baked goods.
Corn Flour
Kcal per 100g: 354
Corn meal and flours have always been used by poor italian farmers to provide nutritious meals, often in the form of polenta. Same thing happened in other parts of the world – an example being American grits. The most finely ground is called ‘fioretto’ in Italy and is widely used in the north to prepare cookies and baked goods. Corn is a good source of iron, zinc and fiber. It also contains carotenoids, which break down in vitamin A and boost blood cells production.
Rice Flour
Kcal per 100g: 362
Rice flour can be found in white, brown and ‘glutinous’ forms (‘glutinous’ coming from ‘glue’, or sticky. It doesn’t mean it contains gluten). Sticky white flour is used for sweets and many asian desserts. Brown rice is a source of fiber, and rice bran has always been used in japan to help keep a soft, healthy skin. White rice flours are still going to be white flours stripped of all their nutrients, but the brown version still offers all of the benefits of a whole grain.
Soy Flour
Kcal per 100g: 367
Sure enough, soy is a food surrounded by a lot of controversial opinions. But soy flour is indeed rich in protein, iron and calcium. Some studies have shown that it can potentially reduce cholesterol levels and interact with the female body, helping pre-menopausal symptoms. It comes in full fat and de-fatted for, the latter containing slightly more protein and calcium.
Chickpea Flour
Kcal per 100g: 315
Chickpeas are a real power food, starting from their fiber content, which is about 12g per every 100g. They are, like other legumes, very rich in protein and iron, as well as manganese,magnesium and other minerals. They are also amongst those foods that can help reduce cholesterol thanks to their antioxidants, which include folates.
Chestnut Flour
Kcal per 100g: 325
Even though they classify as nuts, chestnuts are more similar to starchy foods like sweet potatoes. They are lower in fat, but, like their relatives, they are a good source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C and folates. They are especially rich in oleic acid, a good fat known to aid lower cholesterol, and in fiber, providing about 8g per 100g.
Almond Flour
Kcal per 100g: 565
Almonds are just plain awesome: They have the highest protein content amongst nuts along with peanuts, they are full of vitamin E (which is why almond oil is used for pregnant women’s skin) calcium and magnesium. Their monounsaturated fats are the kind of healthy fat that help reduce cholesterol. Careful with the calorie count, though.
Coconut Flour
Kcal per 100g: 660
The calorie count might be high here, but coconut is indeed a great food. It has a skyrocketing vitamin E content, an antioxidant that can help keeping healthy hair, skin and heart. Its fat is mainly lauric acid, which is easily absorbed by the body, and is even present in mother’s breast milk. Coconuts are also known to be antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial.
Flax Meal and ground seeds
Kcal per 100g: 450
Flax meal is made of flax seeds ground into flour. When seeds are ground into meal, they become so water absorbent that they can be sometimes used as egg substitute in vegan baking. Only add a small percentage to your baked goods and consider that you might have to increase the water amount indicated in your recipe.
Flax seeds go through the intestine untouched in their whole form, so flax meal is a great way to benefit from the amazing nutrients of these seeds: They are high in fiber, protein, vitamins (especially all of the B family) and full of precious fats, especially Omega-3 Alpha Linoleic Acid, which, along with flax antioxidants, help prevent many kinds of disease. Definitely read more about these precious seeds!

STARCHES

Starch is a kind of glucose-rich carbohydrate. Starch is present in many foods, but in order to isolate it, it is necessary to get starchy foods through several chemical processes. This makes them, of course, foods with very poor nutrition. Forthermore, starches should not be eaten raw, as they are very difficult to digest. But starches can also be a good help in the kitchen, and small amounts can be used as thickening agents and in baked sweets to improve texture. Starch sugars and modified starches, though, are added to many processed foods and should be avoided as much as possible.

Starch can be extracted from:
Tapioca
Potato
Sweet Potato
Rice
Corn
Cassava
Taro
Arrowroot
Kudzu
Yams
And many other less common plants.

I strongly encourage everyone to deepen their knowledge about starches and their possible helath concerns. Avoiding any kind of starch in processed foods is a great start to improve overall health!

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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