Who doesn't love the Great British Bake Off? Vegged out on the couch, cuddled up with the kittens, I'm always inspired by these enthusiastic amateur bakers creating stunning works of art. As they speak about the relative merits of strong vs weak flours, I look longingly over at my Kitchen Aid, ready to bake some magic!
My kitchen aid gives me the archiest of arched eye brows in return. Unused, unloved, those layers of dust on my mixer didn't appear overnight. There's the having to stand up part, and the pretending I'm measuring while tossing random amounts of stuff in a bowl part, and the burning my tongue on too hot-from-the-oven pastries, and really baking is so much work. My struggle is real. Defeated, I usually curl back up and cuddle with the kittens, hoping grandma gets my psychic vibes to pop some fresh cookies in the oven.
I'm weak. Weaker than the Great British Bake Off's weak flour. And honestly what is weak flour? How may I become strong as the strongest flour (spoiler warning: Gluten My Hero)?
I can't get you off the couch, but I can answer all the questions you never knew you had about the power of flour!
Quick Bites: tl;dr
Let's be real, while your attention span is probably longer than mine, we both are ready for a warm cup of tea and another episode of The Great British Bake Off.
Flour Categories: Weak, All Purpose, & Strong
The more gluten the stronger the flour.
The stronger the flour, the more chewy and structured.
- Light, fluffy, and crumbly texture
- Perfect for scones, pie crust, and cakes
- Low Gluten Content (7% - 9%)
- Look for flour labeled 'Cake' or 'Pastry'
All Purpose (AP) Flour
- A good balance between flaky and chewy.
- Appropriate for most baked goods like cookies, brownies, and muffins.
- Medium Gluten Content. It should be in the 9% - 11% range
- Chewy with great structure
- Perfect for pizza or bread
- High Gluten Content (12% - 14%)
- Look for flour labeled 'Bread'
What is in Flour?
- Protein: The most important thing you can influence as a home baker. Generally use the protein content and gluten interchangeably. The higher the protein content, the more gluten in your flour, and the more tough / chewy your baked good will taste.
- Type of Wheat: Hard, Soft, or Durum. Hard wheat leads to strong / high gluten flour. Soft wheat leads to weak / low gluten flour. Durum wheat kernels are very hard and great for semolina / pasta.
- Planting Season: Winter or Spring. Winter wheat is grown in temperate climates and takes about 9 months. Spring wheat is grown in cold Northern states and takes about 5 months between sowing and harvest. Winter wheat is ideal for long fermentations, like croissants and breads, and is often hard.
- Ash Content: Identifies the amount of bran / minerals left after milling. The name comes from the test used to identify ash content and not actual ash in the flour. The higher the ash, the more fermentation activity you will have, requiring you to reduce the amount of yeast used. If your ash gets too low, your dough is not very elastic. Almost everything you see will be in the 0.47 to 0.52 range.
- Falling Number: Identifies how active enzymes are within the flour. You need enzymes to help breakdown the complex starches and proteins in flour into simpler and tastier molecules. Generally you're aiming for somewhere in the 250 to 350 sec range. Less than 200 sec is generally only useful for mass produced rapid breads, the stuff that isn't very good. Over 350 sec will result in bread that takes a very long time to ferment with less flavor. You may see Malt or Fungal Amylase added to help correct enzyme activity.
- Moisture Content and Additives: This topic could go on for days, but generally only consider these if you have a specific reason to. Moisture content can change significantly depending on climate and storage conditions, so the number from the mill (legally no more than 14%) may be very different from when you're ready to bake.
In case you're interested, you can view an example Flour Product Spec Sheet. This is the spec sheet for the primary flour we use at Squarz. For croissants and puff pastry, we're looking for a winter wheat that can stand up to a long fermentation, a hard / strong flour at 12% protein that gives great structure to the final product (you want to see those layers!), a bit higher ash / mineral content to encourage fermentation, and a little bit of malt to help keep our falling number / enzyme activity around 250 sec.
What is Gluten
Gluten is a pretty cool love story. We talk about it as a single entity, but it's actually two different proteins, glutenin and gliadin, that work together to impart it's magical abilities. Random fact, most people are ok with glutenin; however, if you have celiac diseases, your immune system is probably reacting negatively to gliadin.
Do you remember your High School Chemistry classes? Neither do I, so here's a quick refresher. Molecules are made up of atoms strongly bond together through covalent bonds. All the atoms in a molecule feel super cozy together because they're sharing electrons. To separate an atom from it's molecule take a giant zap of energy. It's like when you're lounging in bed feeling hygge on a rainy Sunday morning. You don't want to get out of bed! It takes a cats wet nose in the ear and a paw to the face to peel you away from that warm cozy bed!
The two proteins in gluten aren't bond together strongly in the beginning. They're like that cute fling you keep running into. If conditions are right, you're both up to chill, but you're not going to get too attached! Right?!? Ok, maybe one of us got a little bit more attached and my heart was broken, but glutenin and gliadin do a much better job of keeping it casual. At least in the beginning.
Both proteins have parts of them that hate water (hydrophobic). When you add a liquid to your flour those sections of the protein try to find each other and huddle together. There's a few other things that help the two proteins aggregate (hydrogen bonds, ionic bonds, etc.), but the thing to remember is their connection is super loose. They're still at the tender stage of their relationship.
As you continue to mix and knead your dough, glutenin and gliadin start lining up side-by-side and make some real connections, the covalent bonds from earlier. These deeper bonds, called disulfied bonds, need a little help to form with a reducing agent like oxygen. As a bakery trying to make something magical, your job is to help control the number of bonds developed, which will chat about more below.
These stronger disulfied bonds are awesome! Not only do they prove true love conquers all, but they give your baked good structure. Rather than baking a flabby pool of starches and fat, you can start making something that stands on its own. Not only does it look great, but now you have something to eat with texture, so it tastes great!
Influencing Gluten Development
Different types of baked goods require varying amounts of gluten development. Sometimes you want a moist tender cake that just falls apart. Sometimes you want a hearty piece of bread you can tear into. The number of disulfied bonds you let form between glutenin and gliadin directly influences the final structure and texture. Below is a few ways to influence gluten development, but basically this is the first responsibility of a good baker and the list is long. Flour and environmental conditions will always vary, but a baker has to figure out how to create the same quality product each time.
- Flour Strength: The easiest way to change the amount of gluten developed is to change the amount of protein (glutenin and gliadin) you start with. If you have a high protein ratio (e.g. 14%), you have a lot more glutenin and gliadin around to start forming disulfied bonds and create gluten.
- Mixing / Kneading Time: Glutenin and gliadin need a bit of help to find each other and start forging their relationship. The more mixing you do, the easier it is for these two strangers to find each other.
- Fats: The more enriched your dough, e.g. the more butter or oil, the harder it is for the glutenin and gliadin to get cozy and find each other. More fat means less gluten.
- Water Ratio: The more water, the easier it is for glutenin and gliadin to find each other. Increase your water ratio to increase gluten development.
- Temperature: Disulfied bonds, while usually catalyzed, do require a bit of energy to form. Higher temperatures add to the required activation energy.
- pH: Disulfied bonds as a catalyzed enzymatic reaction, develop best in a pH range of 5 to 8. Make the pH very basic or acidic and you're more likely to have a loose crumbly final product.
- Mineral Content: Using flour with a high ash content or hard water adds minerals to the dough which makes gluten development easier.
- Autolyse: A simple but incredible way to increase flavor, gluten development, and so much more just by lightly mixing your flour and wet ingredients and then letting them rest for up to 60 minutes.
- Dough Conditioners: Commercial bakers and home bakers to a lesser extent, have access to a range of natural and chemical oxidizers and reducers that impact gluten development. These are beyond this post, but just reach out if you're curious.
What Makes a Good Flour Brand
- Consistency: Are you always getting flour with specs consistent with your expectations (or within a narrow range). Inexpensive brands will often source from multiple mills and attempt to blend until they get something that mostly works. A good analogy is Starbucks with coffee beans or cheap blended wine. Wheat is alive. It will always vary from farm to farm and season to season. A good mill carefully monitors incoming wheat and makes changes throughout the milling process.
- Starch Damage: Damaged starch absorbs significantly more water than whole starch. Milling will always damage your starch, but the specific milling process and attention to equipment maintenance will have a huge impact on the level of damage. Consistency is a virtue, but starch damage will naturally change between each batch of flour, so it's important to tweak your liquids each time you make a recipe.
- Protein Quality: This largely depends on which farms the mills source their wheat. To compensate for changes in protein quality, give your flour more time to age and change the mixing time of your recipe.
- Add a little Vital Wheat Gluten (VWG) when you need to convert your AP Flour into a strong flour. As a rule of thumb, add about 1 tsp of VWG per 100 grams of flour to increase your gluten content by 2.5%. If you want to do the calculations to get a precise answer, you can assume VWG is about 75% gluten by weight.
- White Lily is a wonderful brand of flour, mainly found in the Southern United States. Because it is a spring flour it generally has low amounts of gluten relative to other AP Flours (e.g. 9%). If you can get some, I recommend trying it out in your favorite recipes to compare the difference in taste and mouth feel.