The (easy to understand) Science of Baking- Flour Power

The (easy to understand) Science of Baking- Flour Power

Hello! Welcome back to our third installment in the easy to understand science of baking! This time we will really be focusing on another star ingredient in baked goods; flour! The structure that binds everything together! Often the central ingredient of baked goods in which to build off of, we are going to delve a little deeper than we have in the past here. Of course, you will find quite a bit of good info at my blog post about kneading but there is still much to be said! I’m going to make a few assumptions in this post namely. Namely; that you know that you have a basic understanding of what gluten is and how it’s formed. If you need a quick run down of gluten (we will go into more detail), check out my kneading posting or ask me any questions you may have! Let’s get started!

Flour with salt and eggs

What is flour (and what are the different types)?

Flour is a grain that comes from wheat. Basically if you imagine a wheat plant, and all the little seeds on top. In each of those seeds or flour ‘berry’ is an outer shell that’s the bran. Then, on the inside you have the endosperm and the wheat germ. If you have just plain-ol-white flour it’s gonna consist only of the endosperm where the bran and wheat germ are processed out. Whole wheat flour uses…the whole wheat (so includes all three parts).

The benefit of whole wheat flour is that it is much, much more nutritious as the bran and wheat germ contain the majority of fiber and nutrients (and is quite a bit more flavorful). That said, there is a benefit to white flour and that comes in the form of consistency and gluten. As the bran and wheat germ cannot create gluten and ultimately the bread won’t rise as well. This is why your wheat breads are often much denser and heartier.

Beyond that, white flour has varying levels of gluten that is usually classified into about four different kinds of flour (with some others).  Let’s look into each of those guys a little further:

All-Purpose Flour

This is the most common flour you’ll see (as the name gives). It has a gluten content of around 8% to 12% (I know that’s a big margin, but no one can seem to agree what the actual percentage is) I would say more often than not though it’s going to be around 11-12%. This is sort of the middle ground for gluten content in flour and thus why it is considered all-purpose. While it has the most universal applications, you certainly don’t want to assume you can use this flour in place of another when a recipe calls for it. And even if the recipe says something along the lines of use either bread or all-purpose, if you can, use the more specific flour.

Bread Flour

You can probably guess what this flour is used for (and the rest of the flours in this list). Bread flours have the largest content of gluten over any other flour. You are looking at around 12-14% percentage wise. All of the gluten will give you more structure. If you are using whole wheat in a bread recipe (you’ll often not want to use more than 2/3 whole wheat) be sure to use bread flour as the extra gluten content can help with rising.

Pastry Flour

On the other end of the spectrum we have pastry flour. This is going to have around 8-9% gluten content. What you can achieve with pastry flour is nice flaky crusts that melt in your mouth. You want enough gluten to have structure but not so much that your delicious dessert becomes tough and chewy. While this is probably the least used flour, if you’re a pastry chef it certainly isn’t!

Cake Flour

Every wonder why you can’t get your homemade cakes to taste just right? Ever thought that the boxed stuff was better? Well here is a big problem I see with homemade cakes, they don’t use cake flour! Cake flour is 7-8% gluten content and this is about as low as your most typical flours come. We want cakes to be very ‘loosely’ sort of attached to each other, that’s how we can achieve such a delicate, soft texture. When you use all-purpose flour all that gluten can make the cakes tough and dry.

Miscellaneous White Flours

There are some other flours you may find perusing your supermarket. For instance self-rising flour is simply all-purpose flour that has baking powder added to it to give it the ability to rise without adding those ingredients. Of course you lose the control of how much rising power your flour has but save some time. (Honestly I never keep this around and if a recipe calls for it just add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt per cup of flour.)

There is also gravy flour that is meant to be used to thicken soups, gravies and sauces. This flour is made to be ultra fine so that you can add it to the soup without needing to make a roux. While it’s good in theory, the process of creating a roux helps remove the ‘floury’ taste you may find if you simply add this without ensuring the taste cooks out. That said, it can be useful in a pinch but I prefer a cornstarch slurry over this nine times out of 10.

Flour with dough on tray

Working with Flour

So one of the most popular applications of flours is…bread (of course right?) and when you make bread you have to knead. Again, check out my post if you need a how-to and why on that. Another use of flour is taking advantage of the starches in it to thicken sauces and soups (which I conveniently have a post about as well!). Another application that pastries, some breads and desserts use is cutting in flour to create a crumbly texture. Dutch apple pie and biscuits would be a few good examples. This is the process of coating flour around teeny tiny balls of butter (or other fat) so that when it’s cooked the fat melts away and cooks these delicious little balls of crumbliness that gives wonderful texture. My butternut squash recipe goes over the technique for this.

When measuring flour for baking, it’s best to find recipes that require you to weigh your flour instead of measuring by volume. Flour is too easy to pack down or have air incorporated so that getting accurate measurements is truly difficult. Any kitchen scale digital or not that can be zeroed out is a perfect addition to a kitchen that I highly recommend. If you don’t have a baking recipe that calls for ingredients by weight it may have instructions like to sift the flour first. Sifting the flour sort of ‘sets’ the flour a certain volume that can be measured more accurately. So be sure to not incidentally pack down and use more flour than necessary!

Pulling dough apart with hands
Pulling dough apart with hands

Conclusion

Flour is a great ingredient to be knowledgeable about and I hope this guide helps you in that regard. If you have any questions about any recipes rather mine or not I’ll be sure to give in my two-cents. I hope you can try out some recipes with your new found knowledge and prove them to be a success! Share this guide to anyone you may know and help them out. I hope to get some baking related recipes up soon to apply a bit of our knowledge! Thanks for reading! 🙂

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