This is the first of a two-part article about flour. We begin by delving into the different types of flour and their distinguishing characteristics, and conclude by examining the myriad of ways that flour can be employed in cooking.
In its broadest sense, “flour” can refer to any finely ground meal from a variety of grains or starch-based foods such as wheat, rice, potatoes, corn, rye, etc. But for the purpose of the present discussion we will focus on the most common flour, namely wheat flour.
Flour is most often utilized in the production of baked goods, (breads, pastries, pizza, etc), where it is almost always the principle ingredient. There are different types of wheat flour and the most important differentiator is protein content. Certain proteins in flour, gliadin and glutenin to be exact, when mixed with water produce gluten. Gluten is the strong yet elastic network of protein strands that simultaneously imbibe baked goods with backbone and the capacity to rise and expand. Baked goods are leavened by the release of carbon dioxide, emitted by either yeast cells or chemical reactions such as the ones produced by baking powder. They inflate the dough much like pumping air into a balloon.
The higher the protein content of the flour, the greater its structural integrity and hence, the stouter the resulting dough. Bread flour, as its namesake implies, is best for making breads. At the other extreme, cake flour is lowest in protein and ideal for delicate items like cakes where a tender texture is imperative. In the middle is all-purpose flour, well suited to an array of baked goods that do not necessitate a dough at either extreme.
Next are bleached and unbleached flours. Freshly milled flour has a yellowish tint that gradually whitens with time as oxygen alters the protein molecules. This can be accomplished sooner with chemical additives. American food neurotics have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “chemical” and immediately get on the bandwagon about the evils of bleached flour. This is despite the fact the US Food and Drug Administration and even the World Health Organization have found the bleaching of flour to be a safe procedure. Flour also contains oxidizers which improve the quality of its gluten development.
One of those agents, potassium bromate, has also been vilified by the witch-trial mentality of American food culture. But this witch hunt is equally fruitless. Potassium bromate converts to a harmless salt during baking. Unfortunately paranoia cannot be cured with reason so now many millers have switched to ascorbic acid to oxidize their flour. Ascorbic acid?! Sounds like a chemical! Oh my God! Indeed it is. It’s vitamin C. So relax and put the stake away.
Another type of flour is stone-ground flour. Standard flour is ground with steel rollers which create heat and can destroy vitamins. Stone-ground flour, as its name implies, is ground with stone rollers which generate less heat and thus deplete less nutrients. Self-rising flour is all purpose flour with baking powder added, thus saving the cook the step of adding a leavener. It is used to make quick breads and battered items like pancakes. Quick breads, such as biscuits or muffins, are breads that are risen with a chemical leavener, as opposed to yeast, and do not require kneading or rising time. Instant flours, such as Wondra, are pre-cooked and then dried. This gelates the starch granules and renders them more permeable to water. This in turn allows the flour to be added directly to cold liquids to thicken them whereas regular flour would immediately seize and clump. Note the emphasis of the word cold. All flours, even instant, can clump when added to hot liquids.
Finally we come to whole wheat flour. Whole wheat, or more specifically fiber, is another one of those “miracle” substances that many individuals believe will save them from a host of maladies. But before I set out on my own witch hunt, aimed at my old nemesis the demon of irrationality, let’s discuss what whole wheat is.
A wheat kernel is comprised of the endosperm, germ, and bran. The endosperm makes up 83 % of the kernel and is the storage vat for the plant’s starch. It contains the majority of the kernel’s protein, carbohydrates, iron and B vitamins. All white flours are made from the endosperm. The germ is the sprouting section of the kernel and is high in B vitamins and trace minerals. It also contains fat. The germ is not included in making traditional white flour because the fat will go rancid sooner than the other components and thus shorten the flour’s shelf life. The bran is the outer coating of the kernel, is high in fiber, and also contains protein and B vitamins. While regular white flour is produced solely from the endosperm, whole wheat flour includes the endosperm, bran, and germ.
Health pundits laud whole wheat products primarily because they contain more fiber (but also more vitamins and minerals). Fiber has been alleged to ward off an interminable list of ailments. Americans have been deluged with prescriptions to increase their dietary fiber. Yet despite this inundation, the truth of the matter is that the jury is still out on the extent of fiber’s benefits. There are a number of unresolved issues. First, there is no one fiber but different kinds of fiber. Assumptions about one form of fiber can not be generalized to others. Second, the supposition that fiber is not digested and thus plays a role in colorectal health seems to be partially flawed. Recent findings are revealing that more fiber is digested than once thought, thus punching holes in the indigestible-colon-cleaning theories. Continuing, there is also a lack of solid proof of a link between fiber and some of the diseases it is thought to prevent. And finally, the problem with all miracle cure substances is that one’s risk of contracting any particular illness is a function of multifarious factors. No one nutrient is the linchpin in anybody’s biochemical destiny. I am not asserting that fiber and the foods from which it hails are nugatory, but, the fervor with which Americans jump on the bandwagon about the latest panacea never seems to match the reality of the claims.
Even if whole wheat flour is better nutritionally, that doesn’t mean white flour is inimical to your health. As outlined, it too contains nutrients and the fears regarding its additives are unwarranted. Nevertheless black and white thinking tends to persist. Rather than perceiving white flour as healthy and whole wheat flour as healthier, white flour becomes impugned.
Flour is a magnificent substance and indispensable in the kitchen. It forms the building blocks of some of our most sumptuous culinary creations. Freeing yourself of the unnecessary anxieties surrounding it will allow every fiber of your being to fully enjoy it.