One of the best ways to save money, avoid added sugars and preservatives, and be self-sufficient is to bake your own bread. And since flour is the main ingredient of most breads, it is valuable to know a little about the choices among flours.
There are a lot of different flours on the market today, available everywhere from a big-box store to health food stores and co-ops to local grist mills. Like with most products, there is a wide variety in quality and price, and there are a lot of factors that can be considered.
I use several different types of flours. My personal preference is to lean toward the least possible processing and the most local flours available, and to buy in bulk when I can in order to keep the costs manageable.
My everyday go-to is white flour which is touted as “never bleached” and “never bromated.” I am fortunate to live in a region of the country where this flour is readily available in 50-pound bags at a low price.
Other flours I use frequently are locally grown and milled whole wheat and “extracted” whole wheat. Stay tuned for more information about words like “bleached” and “bromated” and “extracted” as they relate to flour.
To round out my baking, I mix in some specialty flours. Rye, spelt, oat, kamut, graham, semolina, buckwheat and cake flours, along with cornmeal, add variety to the flavors and textures of my baked breads.
What Is Flour?
Although my flour cabinet is full and diverse, there are plenty of selections I do not keep on hand. Flours ground from rice, nuts, soy, legumes and even potatoes exist, and are preferred by many people for reasons that include health requirements, dietary restrictions and environmental concerns.
First—what is flour, really? The meaning can be broadened to include almost any plant milled or ground into a powdery substance, but most people think of wheat and other grains when they think of flour.
Wheat flour comes in lots of different variations that differ from one another due to either the type of wheat used or the process used to mill the wheat.
The part of the wheat used for flour, called a kernel or berry, consists of an outer covering called the “bran,” a starchy inside called the “endosperm,” and the tiny sprouting section called the “germ.” White flour is made from using only or mostly the endosperm, while whole wheat flour uses all or most of the berry.
Wheat cultivars are diverse around the globe, according to the climate in which they are grown and the culinary habits of the people eating them. In North America alone, wheat variations include those which are higher or lower in gluten, grow in far northern climates or more temperate areas, and are best for everything from pasta to cake.
There are a lot of classifications of flour, and those who are passionate about it tend to throw around terms like high gluten, protein percentages, bread flour, cake flour, sifted flour, bromated, bleached, and extracted. It can all get pretty confusing for anyone just starting out with home bread baking projects. But don’t let that put you off. The real truth is, you don’t really need to know any of that stuff in order to be successful at making your own bread. You can buy ordinary white all-purpose flour at whatever level of quality fits your budget and turn out delicious bread.
But making your own bread is similar to other hobbies and passions—once you have the basics down, it is fun to step up the intensity and play around with possibilities. And with bread-baking, one of the most fun and rewarding ways to do that is to learn about flour.
White, Whole Wheat and Gluten
One of the main delineations among flour types is white versus whole wheat. Only, it’s not really an either-or, but instead more of a continuum. Some flour is very white, using only the endosperm and processed until the flour is soft and fine, while flour on the opposite end of the spectrum uses 100 percent of the wheat berry and is coarsely ground. In between are many increments. Extraction flour, for example, is whole wheat flour in which much of the coarser bits of bran have been sifted out, yielding a final product that is more nutritious than regular white flour but lighter than conventional whole wheat. White whole wheat is another mid-range flour, which is whole wheat flour made from a lighter-colored and milder-tasting wheat berry.
Next, consider gluten. Gluten is simply a natural protein inherent in wheat and some other grain flours. It’s the stuff that makes bread dough chewy and stretchy. If you bake bread for someone whose digestive system cannot tolerate gluten, you will need to find alternatives. But for the rest of us, gluten provides nutrition and allows us to work up doughs and batters into the consistency we like.
Flours vary in overall protein content, ranging from high-protein whole wheat and bread flour to low-protein cake flour. The latter is not typically used in yeast breads but is often called for in recipes for muffins and other quick breads. The best bet is to use all-purpose flour, which is mid-range in protein—unless the recipe you’re using specifies otherwise.
Bleaching and bromating are simply chemical processes used by some companies. Bleaching is just for color—although unbleached flour is also white—and bromating is intended to enhance dough rising, but neither are necessary and both are potentially mildly toxic.
Most people are aware of differences in taste and texture between grains. It comes as no surprise that buckwheat flour or rye flour or cornmeal taste and feel very different from wheat flour. But once you start experimenting with artisan wheat flours, you will find a discernable difference among different cultivars of wheat, as well.
The best way to experiment with grains is to start out with a basic recipe and ease into alternatives little by little. Add a little rye or oat flour and see how it changes things, or cut a little more robust whole wheat into an otherwise bland white loaf to see if it livens things up. One of my favorite grains is spelt, which adds a rich nutty flavor and a nice speckled color to white breads. I also like to add oat flour—which can be homemade with rolled oats and a food processor—or light rye to some recipes.
Flour can get expensive, especially if you try to keep all those types of flour on hand. Even as much as I use in my household—where 100 percent of our bread is homemade—it can be challenging to keep it cost-effective and loss-free.
When it comes to storing flour, the cooler the better. Here’s how I do it: I keep my go-to white flour in a 22-quart bin in the kitchen. About half of a 50-pound bag will fit into my bin at a time, and I store the other half in a bin in my cool cellar until needed.
I buy my whole wheat flours by the 50-pound bag, as well. When I make a purchase, I divide it out into five-pound bags and often split the 50 pounds up with one or two other bakers, which saves us all money. I store my share in tightly sealed plastic bags inside a heavy-duty zip-top bag in the freezer. Because whole wheat flours contain the entire wheat berry, which can make them subject to faster spoilage—and also because I go through them more slowly than white—I keep only five pounds in my kitchen at a time. Freezing works well, but beware of condensation on the outside of the bag. When you take it out of the freezer, set it on the countertop unopened for a day or two to allow all of the moisture on the outside of the bag to evaporate completely, to avoid getting any of it into your flour. When it is completely dry, I pour the bagful into a plastic container for storage in my flour cabinet.
Most of my other flours come in 3- to 5-pound bags, but because most of them are locally produced and availability can be iffy, I stock up in fall. I store these in the freezer, as well, in heavy-duty zip-top bags, being sure to keep condensation out when thawing and taking care to rotate my supplies.
Whatever kind of bread you and your family prefer, there is sure to be a flour which is perfect for the job.
What advice would you add about flour? Share your tips in the section below: