Flour - a pantry staple used in pretty much every culture across the globe. Different types of flour have different uses and applications in baking.
We (humans, that is) have been producing flour for at least the last 8000 years. With it, we bake bread, cakes, pastries, pasta, noodles, and even use it to thicken stews, casseroles and make delicious sauces.
In this modern world, you can walk into any grocery store and buy almost any variety of flour our heart desires. We can choose from the different varieties of wheat, rye, corn, rice, almond, coconut, tapioca and even pre-mixed gluten-free blends.
What is flour?
Flour is a powder that is made by grinding down raw grains, roots, seeds, nuts or beans. These ground powders are then used to make a variety of foods.
The English word “flour” is originally a variant of the word “flower” and both words derive from the Old French fleur or flour, which had the literal meaning “blossom”, and figurative meaning “the finest”. The phrase “fleur de farine” meant “the finest part of the meal”, since flour resulted from the elimination of coarse and unwanted matter from the grain during milling.
Wheat flour is made by grinding down the wheat kernels/grains or berries or parts of the wheat grains to create different types of wheat flour and products.
The wheat kernel typically consists of the bran (the outer shell), the germ (the embryo that will go on to produce another wheat flour if we let nature run its course), and the endosperm (the starchy portion of the grain that contains protein).
Gluten refers to the family of proteins found within wheat, rye, spelt and barley. Gluten makes up about 75-85% of the protein found in wheat flour. And the amount of gluten or protein content of a flour largely dictates what the flour is used for (see types of wheat flour below).
Gluten is a wonderful unique protein that has both adhesive (sticky) and elastic properties. The elasticity of gluten can be manipulated, to create soft cakes or denser more chewy doughs for bread, through the addition of ingredients and the way in which the dough or batter is handled.
Ingredients that encourage gluten formation elasticity include water, yeast, salt. Salt not only adds flavour to bread but also encourages gluten formation.
Ingredients that hinder gluten formation (keep doughs and batters tender) include fats (butter, oils, eggs), sugars, and milk. These ingredients coat the gluten strands preventing them from bonding to each other which results in a softer dough.
Of course, mixing and kneading encourage gluten formation, which is why cakes, muffins and other tender bakes are mixed until just combined and bread are kneaded to form cohesive balls of dough.
Types of Wheat Flour
The types of wheat flour available in your country will largely depend on what type of wheat is grown, and what the inherent protein content is of that wheat. Different brands of flour also have different protein contents.
Cake flour - overall, this type of flour usually has a protein content of 5-8%. This low protein content results in light crumbly cakes.
NOTE - Cake Flour in South Africa is closer to plain, all-purpose, or standard grade flour than to cake flour found in the US.
Pastry flour - This flour has a protein content between 7.5-9.5%. This protein content allows the pastry to come together without crumbling, but will still allow for flakiness (flakey and puff pastry) or a more biscuit type crumble (shortcrust pastry).
Plain/All-Purpose/Standard Grade flour (Cake flour in South Africa) - this flour usually has a protein content between 9.5-12%. This is, as the name implies, a great all-purpose flour to have in the pantry and can be made to bake cakes, biscuits, cookies, scones, and even bread.
Bread Flour/Strong Flour/High-Grade Flour (white bread flour) has a protein content between 11-14%. This higher protein content is great for building gluten which results in the stretchy cohesive dough required for yeasted bread. T
Brown Bread Flour has a protein content between 11-14%. Brown bread flour is a mix of white bread flour plus wheat bran.
Wholemeal/Wholegrain flour has a protein content between 11-14%, and is made by milling or grinding together the entire wheat grain- the bran, the germ and the endosperm.
Wheat germ has a high protein content of about 22%, is high in fibre, and is made only from the wheat germ.
Wheat bran has a protein content of around 14-15% and is made from the outer portion of the wheat seed known as the bran.
Speciality wheat flours: I have noticed that in other parts of the world, you can really buy speciality wheat flours aimed at specific types of bakes such as pizza, biscuits, scones, etc. Personally, I do not think that the average home baker really needs these specific flours. However, it may be interesting to experiment using a speciality flour vs the average flour for something you really want to perfect.
Stone Ground flours - these flours are made using more traditional methods of milling the flour, basically by grinding the wheat between stones, like it was back in the day before electricity lit up the world. These flours are thought to be tastier and more nutritious because they usually contain whole grain and are processed at lower temperatures during the milling process. These flours also tend to have a shorter shelf-life than "modern" milled flour.
Roll-milled flour - this is flour that is milled using steel rollers and produces finer flours, as the endosperm is separated from the wheat germ and bran before processing.
Flour Protein Percentages in New Zealand
I compared the supermarket brands of flour available including Edmonds, Woolworths Australia (Countdown), and Pams.
- Standard Grade - 11%
- High Grade - 11.5%
- Wholemeal Flour: 11.6% - 12.5%
Side note - for my non-South African readers, I must reiterate that Woolworths South Africa is a couple of steps above Woolworths Australia.
Flour Protein Percentages in South Africa
- Cake flour: 10%
- White Bread Flour: 10.5%
- Brown Bread Flour (white bread flour with a percentage of bran): 10.9%
- Whole Meal Flour: 11.6% - 12.5%
Rye is typically grown in Eastern, Central and Northern Europe and is usually associated with the cuisines in these areas.
Rye flour contains less gluten than wheat flour and can be very difficult to handle because of the stickiness of the dough when compared to handling wheat mixtures. But adds such a great flavour.
Gluten-free baking requires a blend of gluten-free products to create gluten-free flour, and different types of baking will require different blends of flours to make the perfect bake.
Gluten-free flour typically consists of a starchy component, a structural component, and a binding component. Here are some common flours used in gluten-free flours.
All-Purpose Gluten-Free Flour is typically a mix of rice flour, starches such as potato starch and tapioca starch with a hint of xanthan gum.
Note - the Edmonds All-Purpose Gluten-Free flour is a great option here in New Zealand and I have had great results using this flour in my GF bakes.
Cornstarch (cornflour) is a common starch found in pantries everywhere. This starch is a powder formed by grinding down the endosperm of a corn kernel (maize or mielie). This starch is commonly used as a thickener or added to baked goods for a lighter texture.
Tapioca Starch or Flour is made from the cassava plant. This is usually used in a combination with other gluten-free flours as it is very starchy and sticky in nature.
Almond Flour is made from blanched skinless almonds. This flour adds a light, fluffy, almost cake-like texture without too much flavour.
Oat Flour is made from oats and is used in recipes to add a dense texture. This flour has a mild flavour.
Rice Flour can be either brown or white and is usually used in a blend with other gluten-free flours in recipes for baking. White rice flour has a fairly neutral flavour and is made from white rice. Brown rice flour has more protein, fibre and fat. Sweet rice flour which is made from glutinous rice is a great sticky starchy flour that is perfect for baking.
Coconut Flour is a dense flour made from dried coconut meat. This flour is best used in a blend with other gluten-free flours as it has a very high fibre content and can quickly dry out the batter or mixture you are using.
Chickpea Flour has a strong chickpea flavour and a dense texture. This flour works better in savoury dishes than sweet.
Potato flour is made from whole peeled, cooked, dried and ground potatoes. While potato starch is made from the starch that is washed out of crushed potatoes.
Ok, so what wheat flour do I actually need in my pantry?
The average home baker only needs Plain/All-Purpose/Standard Grade flour and Bread Flour/Strong Flour/High-Grade Flour (white bread flour) in the pantry. These are pretty much the only two flours I use in my regular baking. For Gluten-Free baking, I use Edmond's All-Purpose Gluten-Free mix.
In South Africa, I used to use the Eureka flours for bread baking in particular. They have a great range of flours and would pick mine up at the local co-op.
NOTE - because the standard grade and high-grade flours are so close together in protein content, I have been known to substitute out one flour for the other, depending on what I have in the pantry. However - this means that when baking cakes, muffins, biscuits or pastry with bread flour I am super careful about not overmixing and stimulating gluten formation.
What you usually bake will also dictate what type of flour you use. If bread is your game, then I would probably stick to only having bread flour in the house.
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