Flour for Baking: Know Your Label Lingo
When it comes to cookies, cakes, pies, and breads, it usually begins with wheat flour. Your choice of flour can make a world of difference in the lightness and texture of your baked goods. So knowing what to look for on the label is key.
Gluten-free flours are a topic all their own, and we’ll cover that soon in this column. If you are using gluten-free flour, however, the best formula for baking is to mix flours, such as amaranth, sorghum, rice, and tapioca flours. Stay tuned for a full scoop on gluten-free baking.
Flour Basics: Wheat flour consists of protein (gluten), carbohydrates (or starch), and, in the case of whole-wheat flour, fat. The protein content is what’s most important, as the higher the protein, the more solid and sturdy the baked good. Protein content can range from 5 to 15 percent. Moisture content is also an issue, and the government standard calls for no more than 15 percent moisture. (Make sure to store your flour in a cool, dry cabinet in a sealed container.)
Hard and Soft Wheat Flours: You’ll hear flours referred to as hard or soft, terms that are based on the protein content. High-protein flours are hard (such as whole-wheat flour), and are used for breads and other yeast-risen products. Soft flours have less protein and are best for cookies, pie crusts, and cakes.
Whole-Wheat Flour: The whole kernel of wheat is used in making this flour. The result is a high-protein hard flour with higher fiber and more nutrients than white flours. Whole-wheat flour is better suited to breads than it is to cakes and pie crusts, where the result may be a tough crust or a heavy cake.
Bleached vs. Unbleached: Bleached flour has had whitening agents added and is referred to as refined flour. And yes, bleaching means it’s done with chemicals such as chlorine dioxide and calcium peroxide. Bleaching makes the flour white, but it also oxidizes the surfaces of the flour grains, which assists in developing the gluten. What that means, in practical terms, is that a bleached flour helps baked goods, such as cakes, pancakes, and pie crusts to be “fluffier.” Although bleaching does occur naturally when, over time, flour is exposed to air, chemical bleaching speeds up the process. Unbleached flours are great for yeasted baked goods, such as breads, rolls, and pizza crusts. Some people claim there is an acid aftertaste from bleached flours, so also let your taste be your guide.
Enriched Flour: When flour is milled and prepared, nutrients are lost. Enriched flour has returned those nutrients, which include iron and B vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine) to the flour.
All-Purpose Flour: The most common flour, it’s a blend of soft and hard flours, with an 8 to 11 percent protein (gluten) content. At that rate of protein, it can be used for most of your baked goods. But you may want to treat yourself to cake flour for a more tender texture in your special cakes, or, for breads, try a harder flour (specifically a bread flour) when you’re baking loaves that you want to be extra chewy or dense.
Cake Flour: This soft, ultrafine flour has the lowest protein content (8 to 10 percent), and has undergone a special chlorination, or bleaching, process that increases the flour’s ability to hold water and sugar. The result is a cake that will set more quickly and rise nicely.
Bread flour is the protein powerhouse, with 12 to 14 percent gluten. Therefore it’s a harder flour, and is unbleached. You can’t ask for a better flour to bake yeasty breads and rolls.
Pastry Flour is more of a specialty flour (one you won’t typically find at your supermarket). With a 9 to 10 percent protein (gluten) content, it’s harder than cake flour and softer than all-purpose. Pie crusts, cookies, and quick breads are light and flaky when pastry flour is used. But don’t use it in yeast breads.
Now that you’ve got the right flour, get baking!