~ Flour Facts: All-Purpose, Bread, Cake and Pastry ~
As the holiday season approaches, family bakers everywhere will be purchasing flour to make their signature breads and sweet treats: pies for Thanksiving, cookies for Christmas, cakes for New Years, etc. There are savory ethnic treats too. For example: My family's Eastern European noodles and pirogi, and, Joe's Italian family's pasta and pizza. Savvy bakers with heritage recipes will be purchasing more than one type of flour to accomplish all of these with ease!
A well-written recipe will specify the type of flour required to produce the best results, and, I'd rather not bake something than substitute different flour. Why? Unlike cooking, baking is a precise science. It is a series of chemical reactions that occur based upon a list of weighed and/or measured ingredients. The words "smidgen", "pinch" and "dash" have no place in the baking world. The moment you grasp this, you can embrace baking. And don't let the words "precise science" scare you too much. If you've got a precisely-written recipe and follow it, you'll find baking is easy!
When baking: never underestimate the power of flour!
Buddhist monks discovered gluten in the 7th century. The monks, who were vegetarian, were trying to find a substitute for meat. They discovered that when they submerged dough in water, the starch washed off and what was left was a meat-like, textured, gummy mass containing protein.
Every flour has a different gluten content. Gluten is the Latin word for "glue". By itself, gluten is a tough, elastic, chewing-gum-like protein found in foods processed from wheat, barley and rye. It gives elasticity to dough, helps it to rise, keep its shape, and, gives the end product its signature texture.
Gluten is the natural protein that remains when starch is removed from wheat grains.
Depending upon whether the flour is milled from hard wheat, soft wheat or a combination, what time of year the wheat is harvested, and how long it is aged, the protein content can vary slightly:
All-purpose flour has a protein/gluten content of 10-12%
Bread flour has a protein/gluten content of 14-16%
Cake flour has a protein/gluten content of 7-8%
Pastry flour has a protein/gluten content of 9%
Flours with low protein generate less gluten. Flours with more protein generate more gluten. If you want a light and airy cake, choose flour with the least protein. If you want a flaky pie crust, choose flour with slightly more protein. If you want dense, chewy bread, choose flour with the most protein content. Trust the name on the bag or box of the flour: all-purpose, bread, cake and pastry!
Here's a look at the flours I keep on hand and stored in airtight containers in my pantry:
All-purpose flour: Is designed for a multitude of uses (cookies, quick breads, biscuits and cakes, as well as a thickening agent in many culinary applications). It is a mixture of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. It comes bleached and unbleached, which can be used interchangeably, but, unbleached flour contains more natural taste. Millers bleach their flour for more than cosmetic reasons. Flour must be aged to to strengthen its gluten content, keeping unbleached flour in the warehouse for several months. Flour processors discovered they could cut the storage expense by artificially aging it by bleaching it with chemicals. It is worth mentioniong that King Arthur all-purpose flour has a higher protein level than other brands, so, it is no surprise that many bakers, like myself, prefer it to other brands.
Bread flour: Is designed mostly for yeast breads and some pastries. It is an unbleached, high-gluten blend (99.8%) of hard wheat, a small amount of malted barley flour (to improve yeast activity) and vitamin C (to increase the gluten's elasticity and the dough's gas retention). The high gluten content causes the bread to rise high and gives it its signature shape and texture.
Cake Flour: Is designed for making tender cakes, cookies, biscuits and pastries that do not need to stretch and rise too much. It is made from soft wheat, which gives it its fine texture.
Pastry Flour: Is designed for making particularly tender cakes and pastries, and, holding together the buttery layers of flaky doughs like croissants, puff pastry and pie crusts. It is very similar to cake flour, but its slightly higher gluten content adds additional elasticity to dough.
Self-Rising Flour: This is all-purpose flour that has baking powder and salt added to it. Use it in yeast bread recipes in place of all-purpose flour by omitting salt, and, in quick bread recipes by omitting salt and baking powder. Because it contains baking powder, it has a shortened shelf life (expiration date), so, if you don't use a lot of it, it's best to purchase it as-needed.
Granulated Flour: This is all-purpose flour formulated to dissolve quickly, without clumping, in hot or cold liquids. It is used mainly as a thickener in sauces, gravies and other cooked mixtures, but, in a pinch, it can be substituted for regular all-purpose flour when baking.
High-Gluten/Vital Wheat Gluten Flour: Made from a protein found in the wheat berry, this is an additive/gluten-booster for all-purpose and weaker flours. Boosting the gluten content is important when baking certain types of bread: rustic loaves, like French baguettes and Italian ciabatta, which require a long rising time to achieve the desired airy holes in their crumb and a chewy texture; breads made with coarse, whole grain flours and/or cereals, which contain little gluten on their own, and; flatbreads like focaccia and some pizza doughs.
"00" Flour: This is an Italian flour designed for pasta and pizza. The "double zero" does not refer to the protein content, it refers to its powdery-fine texture, which in Europe is how they categorize flours (with "2" at one end of the spectrum and "00" at the other). Its protein content is 11-12%, similar to all-purpose flour, which gives doughs just enough, but not too much, stretch. With only a slight difference in texture, all-purpose flour is a perfectly acceptable substitute for it.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)