In the Previous edition of “Food For Thought” we discussed the different types of flour and their uses. Now we immerse ourselves in the particulars of how to cook with flour.
The initial step to working with flour is measuring the amount required for your recipe. Here lies our first pitfall. Many recipes call for volume measurements such as cups. But, because of the compactibility of flour, one cup can weigh between four and five ounces. Depending on the recipe this can significantly alter the results. Therefore, most professional recipes list their flour amounts in terms of weight, e.g., ounces, pounds, etc. If your recipe is based on volume, shall we say one cup, your best bet when filling the measuring cup is to avoid being too gingerly or too forceful, thus aiming for a middle of the road degree of density. Insert the measuring cup into the container of flour, scoop, and then level off the top by scraping a horizontal object (such as a dough scraper or knife) across it.
Note whether the recipe calls for the flour to be sifted pre or post measuring. One cup sifted flour and one cup flour, sifted, are two different animals. The first instruction requires that you sift the flour first and then measure out a cup while the latter requires you measure first and then sift. Again, these two procedures produce flour of different densities and hence different volumes. Sifting is used to create a finer texture in the finished product but is also a superlative means of mixing the other dry ingredients with the flour.
Flour is most often utilized in the production of baked goods, (breads, pastries, pizza, etc), where it is almost always the principle ingredient. Here the goal is usually the development of gluten, albeit to varying degrees. Gluten is the protein matrix created by the combining of certain proteins within flour, (gliadin and glutenin), and water. Gluten is a strong yet elastic network of protein strands that concomitantly instills baked goods with stoutness and the capacity to rise and expand. The more a dough is kneaded the greater the gluten development. Some doughs aren’t kneaded at all, or only briefly as in the case of pie dough. Others, such as breads and pizza dough, require more extensive kneading. After kneading the dough it is customarily rested to relax the gluten somewhat and allow the dough to be rolled into the desired shape.
Flour is also a principle ingredient in batters. Pancakes, crepes, and waffles are the quintessential examples. Being fluid, a batter is obviously not kneaded which is fine since we want limited gluten development in this application.
Flour has other secondary applications in the pastry and baking realm. “Bench” flour is sprinkled lightly on a cutting board to facilitate the kneading of dough and prevent its adherence to the board. Various pastry molds are buttered and sprinkled with flour to allow baked goods to rise unencumbered. Flour is also sometimes added to pie or tart fillings to thicken them.
In the non-baking and pastry world flour takes more of a backseat. But this backseat driver is still vital to the destination. In cooking, flour’s two greatest uses are as a coating for foods, and as a thickener. Starting with coatings, flour can form the basis of either a dry or wet coating. Foods can be sprinkled with flour prior to cooking. When making beef stew for example, dusting the cubed meat with flour prior to searing them adds flavor and texture, and contributes to the thickness of the final dish.
A light coating of flour can also protect more delicate items from overcooking or drying out on the outside. A perfect example is thin fish fillets. A gentle dusting in flour before being pan-fried will produce a delicious gentle texture yet safeguard the fragile fillets from the vigorous heat of the oil. Flour can also be the solitary coating for deep-fried foods. At one restaurant I worked, we made a flawless fried calamari from simply dipping the squid in milk and coating it with flour. Shake off the excess, fry it briefly, hit it with salt and pepper, and you’re in calamari heaven. Or flour can be one of several constituents in a breading. In what’s known as the “Standard Breading Procedure,” food is first dipped in flour, then eggs and then some form of breadcrumbs. As always, shake off the excess flour or the breading may not adhere properly.
Flour is also employed as a thickener. However, it cannot be directly added to liquid based concoctions, such as a stew or a braising liquid to thicken it. The heat will cause the starch granules to seize and you will produce instant lumps. The flour must be prepped first inevitably by mixing it with butter or some other form of fat before introducing it into a dish. Fat inhibits the coagulation of the starch molecules, thus allowing them to disperse into the fluid medium and thicken it without clumping. To do so, take an equal amount of flour and softened butter and knead them together until a pliable, but not melted paste is achieved. This is what the French call beurre manié. To employ beurre manié as a thickener, bring the sauce to a simmer, and whisk it in one piece at a time, waiting for the previous one to melt before adding the next. When all of the beurre manié is incorporated, bring the sauce to a near boil and simmer for three minutes.
You can also cook the flour and butter together first, producing what’s known as a roux. Melt the butter, (or oil, or drippings from a roast) in a skillet or saucepan over low to medium heat; add an equal amount of flour and cook, stirring constantly until the desired degree of doneness. The longer you cook roux the darker it will become. If you do not wish to darken your sauce but merely want to cook out the raw, floury taste of the roux, cook it for just a few minutes. You can add the roux to the sauce or vice versa but they must be at different starting temperatures, (at the very least, one room temperature and one hot). You must also gradually add one to the other and whisk incessantly. All of these steps help prevent lumping.