Flour Fundamentals

We get asked a lot about flour, so I figure we could dedicate a little time to chat about this widely used but often misunderstood ingredient. You may look at our online selection, and get a bit overwhelmed with what to choose for what style of baking, so let’s try to clear that up.

There is so much I could talk about in this article, like genetics, and all the different grains, but for the sake of brevity, we are just going to focus on wheats, as that is the most common. We’ll have a chat about specialty flours at a later date

A bit of history

Most modern wheat stems from emmer wheat, which was domesticated around the same time as einkhorn wheat and found in the Jordan valley and the Damascus basin from around 10 thousand years ago. Jared Diamond, in his book “Guns Germs and Steel”, traces the spread of cultivated emmer to the “Fertile Crescent” around 8500 BC, reaching Greece, Cyprus and India by 6500 BC, Egypt shortly thereafter. By 5000 BC wheat had made it to Germany and Spain. By 3000 BC, wheat had reached England and Scandinavia, from there it spread further, finally reaching China 1000 years later.  Using flour for bread making can be traced to the early Egyptians with their use of oven technology, developing baking into one of the first large-scale food production industries.

The different wheats can essentially be broken down into 3 main categories: ancient, heritage and modern. Ancient wheat is loosely defined as wheat that was used by ancient civilizations, including einkorn, emmer, khorasan and spelt. Heritage wheats are those that haven’t undergone any hybridisation since the 60s. From the 60s on, we get to the modern wheats, which account for more than 90% of the wheat under commercial cultivation. The pivotal moment in the creation of modern wheat was the introduction of the dwarf gene in the 50s. Beyond making the plant shorter, the dwarf gene also increased the thickness of the stem allowing modern wheats to withstand their increased seed mass, which came as a result of cultivars continually being selected for yield as well as the proliferation of nitrogen-based fertilisers.

Anatomy of a Kernel

There are two ways of milling flour; by stone or by roller. Before we can get into the why and the how of milling, we need to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of a wheat kernel. 

The wheat kernel is the seed of a wheat plant once the outer hull is removed. The kernel consists of three main parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Obviously, there is a whole lot more going on in there, but let’s keep it to what the different components mean to our flour.

The outside of the kernel is the bran, this is where you get all your fibre. On the inside we have the endosperm, which makes up the most of the kernel – this is where the carbs and proteins live and provide food supply to the germ, which is the innermost part and contains all the nutrients and fat.

Stone Milling

Stone milled flour mills grind the whole kernel (the bran, endosperm, and germ) with a stone usually made of granite. As a result, the flour tends to be more fibrous and flavourful, as it contains all the fats and nutrients. However, because of the inclusion of the germ (which contains fat), stoneground flour is significantly more perishable than roller-milled flour. This is also largely due to the stones that can increase the heat of the grain, especially compared to that of stainless steel rollers. 

After grinding most of the commercial mills will then sieve out the larger pieces of bran to create a consistent flour. This ensures bakeries don't need to alter their workflow by adjusting kneading times or altering their hydration.

Roller Milling

Roller milling flour separates each part of the kernel before grinding. Then, depending on the end product, the mill may discard the bran and germ (white flour) or add them back in with the endosperm (whole flour). Some mills may include another step after milling, including bleaching (not in organics) or enriching the flour to replace what was taken out during the milling process (things like niacin, riboflavin, folic acid etc). The reduced fats and oils mean that roller milling tends to be more shelf-stable as well as having more protein by volume (provided the germ and the bran haven’t been added back in of course).

The Importance of Protein

When we talk about protein in flour we are talking about gluten. Gluten are a type of structural protein, they have elastic properties. Gluten build the structure of bread. This allows your loaf to hold air and give your loaf a chewy and elastic texture. There are two proteins in wheat flour, glutenin and gliadin. The glutenin contributes to the strength and elasticity of your dough and the gliadin contributes to the extensibility (stretch).

Before you knead your flour and water into a dough, the proteins are randomly arranged. Once you start to knead the dough, the wet gluten interlink with each other and form a web. The longer you knead the more links are formed and the tighter your dough will get. This web (or matrix) is also formed when the wet dough is left alone (the autolysing) as well as during bulk fermentation. This matrix helps to trap the carbon dioxide exhaled by the yeast, trapping it within the gluten matrix, a bit like air in balloons; this is what makes your dough rise. Next to kneading and time, gluten development is influenced by the amount of water (both amount and quality), temperature and the addition of other ingredients (salt, milk, oil) as well as other chemicals and additives (enzymes, conditioners).

Different flours have different levels of protein (called protein count in the biz) and are measured in percentage (%). As a general rule, the higher the protein percentage (or stronger the flour), the more elasticity you will get out of your dough, which is fantastic for things like bread, pastry, and pasta; but not so good with cakes and biscuits. Higher protein also means you can add more water to your dough (hydration) and still maintain dough integrity.  Hydration level affects:

• Texture – The higher the hydration level of your bread, the softer the texture will be, and the more open the crumb will be (i.e. bigger holes inside).

• Crust – Sourdough bread crust tends to be quite thick and hard, but a higher hydration sourdough has a thinner crust that stays crispy for longer.

• Flavour – Higher hydration loaves tend to have a more developed flavour of mild sourness, whereas lower hydration gives a more acidic ‘vinegary’ sourness.

• Appearance – The higher the hydration of your loaf, the less amount it is likely to rise because the dough is a lot more slack. (You can choose to bake it in a loaf tin if you wish for a taller loaf that still has the benefits of a high hydration bread).

You might be tempted to think that when it comes to bread baking, the more gluten the better. But as with everything in life, nothing is that simple; there is an optimal level of protein. What you choose will depend on the type of baking.

If bread dough contains too much gluten, it can spring back, making it difficult to work with and resulting in a bread that is tough and has lower volume and a compact crumb. This can be adjusted by altering your hydration and increasing your resting time between needing and/or folding.

Lack of gluten can result in a dough that will have trouble maintaing its shape and will need the help of a tin; so no more batards, panés or baguettes.

Basically, look at your protein count on your flour and adjust your baking to suit.  

So, which flour should I choose?

For people that dabble in a bit of everything – Plain flour (commonly referred to as All-Purpose) will do everything reasonably well. The plain flour we stock is on the lower side of protein (around 9%), which means it will do cakes really well, and bread ok. If you want to make a soft sandwich loaf or perhaps a fluffy naan, then it actually does quite well. If you want to use it in sourdough or a pizza base, you will need to keep your hydration below 65%, or it will struggle to keep up. 

Another flour that surprised me as an allrounder is our roller milled spelt flour. It has a high protein count at 14%. This is most likely due to spelt having higher gliadin: glutenin ratio than wheat and therefore doesn’t form as strong gluten matrix and isn’t as strong. 

The rest of the flours we stock tend towards the bread-making end of the spectrum with protein counts of 12% and above. So, your choice will come down to flavour, fibre content and taste. I am a big fan of having a bulk amount of roller milled wheat flour (either heritage or baker’s), as it stores better and has a nice high gluten content (around 13%). Then I mix in a small about of other types of whole stoneground flours that I want to add some fibre and flavour. I usually mix at 60-70% roller milled to 30-40% whole flour to get my desired result. Doing it this way means I don’t have to store too much of the volatile stoneground flours but I always have some flour on hand.