That flours ain’t flours has been forcibly brought home to me recently and in my endeavours to find out more, I have discovered that the mere housewife who does not want to buy her flour in 20kg bags is very poorly catered for, particularly in Queensland.
Flour is the ground meal from wheat and other grains including rye, barley, oats, corn and rice. All have been used to make bread for thousands of years and until the latter part of the 19th century, all grains were milled between heavy millstones, which ground the whole grain. These days, flour, especially wheat flour, is milled using high-speed metal rollers. These rollers extract the outer husk (bran) of the wheat and the germ (the plant’s embryo), leaving just the central part of the seed, the endosperm. The bran and the germ can be returned to the flour to give wholemeal flour.
White flour is made from the endosperm only and it is this endosperm that contains all the gluten-forming proteins. Flours with different gluten levels are made from different varieties of wheat. Strong plain flour is milled from so-called ‘hard’ wheat varieties with a high gluten level. ‘Soft’ wheat varieties have a low gluten level and the flour milled from them is far more ‘tender’ than that milled from ‘hard’ wheat.
Strong flour is sometimes referred to as baker’s flour or bread flour, although this is not strictly true, as there are stronger flours than that needed to make bread. However, the extra protein is particularly important in bread making. The kneading of the dough develops the gluten network necessary to trap the gas given off by the yeast. The trapped carbon dioxide stretches the gluten fibres further and the dough rises. This gluten web sets during cooking and a firm well-aerated bread is produced. If there is insufficient gluten in the flour, the gluten network cannot be established and the rising does not take place. The extra protein in strong flour also helps the flour absorb more fat and liquid without the mixture ‘splitting’. Strong flour can contain as much as 15% gluten, whereas baker’s flour usually contains around 11 – 12%.
In America soft flour is widely sold as ‘cake flour’. In Australia we are not so lucky. Self-raising flour is (supposedly) soft flour with baking powder (a chemical leaven) added. The baking powder takes the place of the gluten, giving self-raising flour the tender properties of soft flour with the rising properties of strong flour. However there is so little difference between the gluten levels in plain and self-raising flour in Australia there is no point at all in buying self-raising flour.
Plain white flour is sometimes known as ‘all purpose flour’. It is a mixture of hard and soft flours, the proportions in which they are mixed determining the gluten level of the flour. This varies quite significantly from brand to brand. It is a ‘compromise’ flour, being neither really suitable for bread making with too low a gluten level, nor for good cake making with too high a gluten level.
Wholemeal flour, despite common belief, is neither ‘less refined’ nor ‘less processed’ than plain flour. It is processed to white flour and in most cases, the bran only (not the germ) is mixed back into the flour. Similarly, ‘stone ground’ flour (which, I am assured by one of Defiance’s ex-millers, is not, and never has been stone ground) is processed to plain flour and some bran is added. Such flours have more dietary fibre than white flour and are less white in appearance. They are better for you, but ‘less processed’ they are not. Because of the presence of the bran, the gluten content (in grams per 100grams of flour) of such bread is lowered. Breads made with such flours will naturally be heavier.
The most common misconception regarding flour is that most flour is bleached. Bleaching is a process in which a chlorine gas is passed through the flour at some stage of the milling process to whiten it. Most, if not all flour sold in Australia is unbleached. One home economist from Allied Defiance even went so far as to tell me it was illegal to bleach flour and has been for thirty years. Some mills do still bleach flour but it appears that they do this largely for export to Asia where snow-white flour is considered superior.
No flour mill in Australia produces bleached flour for the domestic supermarket market, so if you are buying flour from the local shop you can be confident it is unbleached. White flour actually whitens naturally with age.
So can you get away with just one ‘all purpose’ flour in your pantry? Well, in theory, yes, provided you have the necessary additives. If you are making bread or pizzas you will need gluten flour to increase the gluten content of plain flour (of which more later). If you want to make cakes or scones, you can convert plain flour to self-raising flour by adding baking powder. In fact, if the baking powder is added just before baking it is more effective and the cream of tartar is less likely to leave a bitter taste in the flour as it can, especially if the flour is old.
Can you get away with just baker’s flour in your pantry? Again, in theory, yes. Maggie Beer seems to manage it brilliantly, though I am told that unless she has an extremely deft touch with her blender, her cakes may be just a tiny bit heavier than necessary, and even a little chewy.
Alternatively, you can convert plain flour to baker’s flour by adding 3 teaspoons of gluten flour to every 500g of plain flour. (Or 1 teaspoon of gluten flour to 1 cup of plain flour.) Note that gluten flour is NOT baker’s flour. It is gluten extracted from the flour during the milling process. It has a protein content of 69.5g per 100g of flour. (Compare this with 12g per 100g flour for Defiance brand baker’s flour.) Gluten flour is sometimes available in the health food section of supermarkets and usually from health food shops.
If you wish to convert baker’s flour to plain flour, you simply use less. For every cup of plain flour you wish to use, fill a cup with baker’s flour and then remove 1 tablespoon. Proceed as if you were using plain flour.
To convert plain flour to self-raising flour, add 4 level teaspoons (a teaspoon measure is more accurate than a teaspoon) to every 250g of plain flour and sift together twice to ensure they are blended.
As for me… Well, I suppose I will continue to buy 5kg bags of baker’s flour just for making pizzas and souffles. Who knows, perhaps one day I will make bread? I will continue to have a jar of gluten flour in the cupboard just in case my baker’s flour has too many moths in it to be usable. I will continue to buy Defiance brand plain flour out of some misplaced loyalty to Defiance flour which now belongs to a multinational company and because it has a nice middle-of-the-road gluten content of 10.8%.
I will not be buying self-raising flour, but will now add baking powder to plain flour when I want to make a cake or bake scones. I may even buy some White Wings brand plain flour because it has a gluten content of only 9.6% and therefore should be better for cakes than Defiance plain flour.
Oh! I nearly forgot the wholemeal flour which I use for some biscuits, the oatmeal and the fine oatmeal, the ground rice and rice flour, the Italian ground rice and the cornflour for Chinese cooking and of course the Fielder’s wheaten cornflour for other things. Perhaps I should get some rye flour?
It is now late 2008, and I am very pleased to say that a new flour brand has recently appeared on the shelves of some of our bigger supermarkets. This is Anchor brand “Lighthouse” special purpose flour. There are two plain flours: Cake, Biscuit and Pastry flour with a gluten content of 8.5g per 100g, and Bread and Pizza flour with a gluten content of 11.0g per 100g. Whilst the latter is not quite as strong as Defiance’s baker’s flour at 12.0g per 100g, it does come in 1kg packs, not 5kg ones like Defiance’s. (Even stored in plastic tubs, my baker’s flour always ended up full of moths before I could get even half way through it.) However, I have already made twice-cooked gruyere cheese soufflés with the Anchor Bread and Pizza flour, and they were wonderful and didn’t even threaten to split!
Even better still, Anchor brand “Lighthouse” self raising flour has a gluten content of 8.2g per 100g making it a true “cake’ flour. (Compare this with both Defiance and White Wings self raising flours at 9.5g per 100g.) Needless to say, I am changing my allegiance from Defiance to Anchor, (and go back to using self raising flour), even if it means that I have to go to Coles or Woolworths to get them!
But, do I use soft or strong plain flour for gravy, for fish and other batters, or do I continue to buy a middle of the road plain flour for just these everyday eventualities? Oh dear!