Wheat Flour Basics – Types & Terms Galore

When I was growing up, my mom had a set of kitchen canisters like those pictured below, and there was only 1 canister for flour.  Although flour can be made from a variety of grains and nuts (think rye flour, almond flour and even more obscure types like spelt), I’m sure she didn’t think of having any flour but wheat.                                                                                                      

Fast forward from the Mad Men chic kitchen I grew up in to my own 2012 overstuffed pantry.  After making bread earlier this week, I counted my wheat flours and found 7 different types on hand.  What’s all this variety about?  In short, 3 words – health and custom design. 

Healthy Flour Choices

Whole wheat vs. white whole wheat flour - Whole grains are healthier than processed grains.  Processing makes flour lighter, but it also strips out vitamins and fiber.  And the less processed the grain is, the healthier it is for you.  Whole wheat and white whole wheat flours are made from the whole kernel of wheat.  Whole wheat uses red wheat and white whole wheat uses a white type of wheat.  Both have a nutty taste and their texture is relatively dense when baked, with white whole wheat being milder tasting and less dense when baked than “regular” whole wheat.  In contrast, processed white flour uses only the inside of the wheat kernel.  The process of taking off the darker outer (bran) layer of the kernel makes white flour taste and look lighter.  Tip: Researching for this post, I learned that its best to refrigerate or freeze whole wheat flour because the oils found in the germ of whole wheat (and processed out in white flour) turn rancid at room temperature after 1-3 months.  Whole wheat flour lasts 6 months in the refrigerator and 12 months in the freezer.  

whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour, and processed white flour

From left - whole wheat, white whole wheat & processed white flours.

Can you get the health benefits of whole grain wheat without changing the taste of recipes that call for white flour?  Typically, if a recipe does not specify whole wheat flour, it calls for white flour.  How much whole wheat you can substitute for white in a recipe is a matter of personal taste – experiment with various proportions and see what works for you, keeping in mind that the greater the proportion of whole wheat you use, the healthier the result will be.  

In my experience, the taste will change dramatically if you substitute all regular or white whole wheat for white flour.  I substituted ⅓ white whole wheat for white flour in my #Baketogether boule and thought the substitution worked well.  King Arthur recommends up to a 50% substitution and in this conversation with noted professionals including Rose Berenbaum and experienced amateurs, bakers had varying approaches to this question. 

What type of flour should be used if a recipe does not specify?  All-purpose white flour is the standard. It is sold in unbleached and bleached form.  The bleaching process uses chemical agents to brighten the color of the flour, which has a slight yellow cast if unbleached.  If iron and B-vitamins are added, the flour is labeled “enriched.”

Custom Designed Types of Flour

What do I mean by custom designed flours?  Even all-purpose flour can be treated or changed for a specific purpose.  For example, it can be pre-sifted, ground more finely to mix more easily as a thickening agent in sauces (e.g. Gold Medal “Wondra” flour), or include baking powder and salt, which makes it “self-rising.”  Note: I had never come across self-rising flour until I got Nigella Lawson’sHow to Be a Domestic Goddess” in which many of the recipes call for self-rising flour. 

The higher the protein content the flour, the more elastic the dough.  Bread flour has the highest protein content, with all-purpose next, followed by pastry and cake flours.  Cake flour is more finely ground than pastry flour but they have the same protein content.  Both make more tender products than all-purpose and bread flours. 

There are lots of other specialty flours.  Check pasta labels and you will likely see references to durum and semolina flour.  Durum flour is made from hard wheat and semolina is the inside or endosperm part of the durum wheat kernel.  Alone or mixed with other flours, they make excellent pasta.  For other custom designed wheat flours see the King Arthur guide to that brand's “signature flours”; for types of baking flour (including non-wheat varieties), see this list.

Now that I’ve mixed white whole wheat and bread flour in my recent bread in my boule, I’m going to try different flour combinations when recipes call for all purpose.  What flour(s) are you going to try on your next baking adventure?

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