Thursday, October 11, 2012

What's In A Name? Flour Does Not Smell As Sweet

At some point, we've all discovered that the same food can have different names.  The name for soda (or pop or tonic or soft drinks or...) is a big one in the US, and everybody thinks that everybody else's regional dialect has a silly name.  I personally believe that calling all sodas "Coke" is just plain ridiculous.  This snippet of a real conversation I heard in a diner illustrates my point:

"I'd like a Coke."
"Sure, what kind?"
"A 7-Up."


It's not just soda, of course.  A milkshake in New England is (or used to be) a blend of milk and flavored syrup and not a blend of milk and ice cream.  That is a frappe - except in Rhode Island, where it's a cabinet.  I learned about frappes ten years ago, which is also when I figured out what the name "frappuccino" was supposed to mean: frappe + cappuccino.  Nobody has explained why a coffee chain that's from Seattle is naming things using a strictly New England regional name.

There's also regional brand name differences, such as Edy's/Dreyer's, Best Foods/Hellmann's, and Arnold/Oroweat.  Then there's differences in names between countries that supposedly speak the same language.  In the UK, cilantro is called coriander and zucchinis are courgettes.  We have also borrowed a lot of words in English and have ended up changing the meanings: in Italy, peperoni are bell peppers and salame piccante means pepperoni (the American version).

But some food name differences are important and really don't mean the same thing.  Take the word "flour": in the US, flour generally means wheat flour and any other type of flour is called "plant flour" to indicate what plant it was made from.  However, there are many different types of wheat flour and you shouldn't use a different type unless you know how to adapt a recipe for substitution.

The key difference between wheat flours is the amount of gluten.  Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat and other relatives, such as rye and barley.  It helps dough to rise and keep its shape and makes the dough elastic, which is why bread is chewy.  In general, savory dough recipes use flours with more gluten and sweet dough recipes use flours with less gluten.

There are six classes of wheat in the US (durum, hard red spring, hard red winter, soft red winter, hard white, soft white), and the types of flour they produce are different.  Not surprisingly, the hard wheat types are best for yeast breads and the soft types are best for pastries.  Durum is the hardest type of all, and is used to make pasta.

This is what your bread started out as.
Wheat Flours

All-purpose flour: the most commonly used flour.  It is made from a combination of hard and soft wheat, and can be used in a wide range of baked goods.  Almost all all-purpose flour sold in the US is enriched, meaning it has had iron and four B-vitamins added to it (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid).  These essentially act as inert ingredients and have no effect on the color, taste, texture, or caloric amount of the flour.  All-purpose flour has 8% to 11% protein/gluten.  When a recipe calls for "flour" without any modifiers, it means all-purpose flour.

Cake flour: made from soft wheat.  It has the lowest protein content of any wheat flour (8% to 10%).  It can be used in most types of baked goods.  It has a higher percentage of starch and less protein than bread flour, which keeps baked goods tender.  Cake flour is chlorinated, where the flour is bleached to make is slightly acidic.  Cake flour is less likely to collapse after rising in recipes with a high sugar-to-flour ratio, and is sometimes used in quick bread and muffin recipes.  If you don't have cake flour, you can substitute bleached all-purpose flour with two tablespoons removed for each cup used (and you can replace the two tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch if you want a texture similar to cake flour).

Bread flour: made from hard wheat with the second highest protein content (13% to 14%).  It is best for yeast breads because is has more gluten strength.  It is usually unbleached and may be conditioned with ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C) to increase volume and create a better texture.  Bread flour is generally milled wholesale for baking companies but you should be able to find it in grocery stores.

Self-rising flour: a type of all-purpose flour that has salt and leaven added.  One cup of self-rising flour contains 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  When it is used in recipes, less of a leavening agent is needed than if all-purpose flour was used.  It is also known as phosphated flour.  You should not use it in recipes with yeast.  You can make your own self-rising flour by mixing 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.  It is difficult to substitute self-rising flour for all-purpose flour unless the recipe has at least 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt that can be left out to account for the extra in the self-rising flour.

Pastry flour: made with soft wheat and is about halfway between all-purpose flour and cake flour.  It is intended for making pastries but can also be used to make cookies, cakes, and some breads.  It is not recommended for use in yeast bread recipes.  It has a protein content of 9% to 10%.  Pastry flour is generally not available in grocery stores but may be found in specialty stores.  You can mimic pastry flour by mixing 2 parts all-purpose flour to 1 part cake flour.

Whole wheat flour (aka whole meal flour in the UK): milled from the entire grain, including the bran.  This flour has more fiber and nutrient content than white flours.  Although it has as much gluten as all-purpose flour, the bran reduces gluten development.  Recipes using whole wheat flour tend to be heavier and denser than recipes using white flours.  Bakers can add gluten or mix in all-purpose or bread flour when making yeast breads.

Semolina: made from durum wheat, the hardest wheat type.  It has the highest protein content of all wheat flours (13% to 15%).  Semolina is used to make pasta but not bread.  Durum wheat is also used to make couscous.  Note that semolina flour is finely ground durum wheat and semolina meal is coarsely ground durum, and used as a cereal.  When other grains are ground like semolina, they are called by their names as well: corn semolina, rice semolina.

Stone ground flour: whole wheat flour that has been milled using an old-fashioned stone mill (i.e. crushed between two big rotating stones).  There is no nutritional difference between stone ground flour and regular whole wheat flour.

Specialty Wheat Flours

Gluten flour: made from hard spring wheat to have a high protein level (12% to 14%).  It is usually mixed in with low-gluten wheat flours or non-wheat flours to increase the gluten level and produce stronger breads.

Graham flour: coarsely ground whole wheat flour, named after Dr. Graham of graham cracker fame, who advocated for the use of whole wheat flour in the late 1800's. 

Durum flour: a byproduct of semolina flour, it is used to make noodles.

Instant flour: formulated to dissolve quickly in liquids.  Generally used in sauces and gravies, instant flour may be difficult to find in grocery stores.  Gold Medal sells their instant flour product as "Wondra".

Organic flour: nutritionally the same as normal flour, organic flour must follow USDA regulations to be labelled organic.

Other Wheat Products

Bran: the outer layer of the wheat kernel.  It holds most of the fiber and nutrients of the wheat grain.  
Bulgur (aka bulgur wheat): the whole wheat kernel is soaked and cooked, and a small portion of the bran is removed.  It can be reconstituted and used as a meat extender.

Cracked wheat (aka kibbled wheat): the whole wheat kernel is cracked into small pieces but not cooked.

Crushed or rolled wheat: these are a type of whole wheat product made by milling cleaned wheat at a higher moisture level.  The wheat is flattened instead of ground.  Crushed wheat is usually thicker than roller wheat, and less flour is released.  Crushed and rolled wheat is usually used in multi-grain breads.

Farina: is made from coarsely ground hard wheats (except durum) and is used to make hot breakfast cereals.  In the US, it is colloquially known as Cream of Wheat.

Wheat germ: the innermost part of the wheat kernel.  The germ has a lot of vitamins and minerals and is usually added to baked goods to increase nutritional values.  It also contains oil, and is what can cause whole wheat flour to go rancid.

Non-Wheat Flours

For people with a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, anything made with wheat flours is not an option.  The good news is that non-gluten options are becoming easier to find in the West.  More unusual non-wheat options include amaranth flour, buckwheat flour (no relation to wheat), arrowroot flour, teff flour, coconut flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, and almond flour.  The easiest non-gluten flours to find are corn flour, potato starch (flour), almond flour, and rice flour.  You can buy almond meal at Trader Joe's and grind it up in a food processor to make almond flour.  Many of these non-wheat flours are standard ingredients in non-American or non-Western cooking and can easily be found at grocery stores or websites that specialize in those cuisines.

Unfortunately the names of some of these flours aren't consistent.  Corn flour is not the same thing as corn starch in the US, but in the UK the names can be used interchangeably.  Masa harina is a finely ground corn flour that is used in Mexico to make tortillas.  Be careful - corn flour and corn meal are not the same thing at all.

Potato starch and potato starch flour are not the same thing.  Potato flour is made from the entire potato minus the skins.  It is generally used by Jewish cooks during Passover.  It cannot be substituted for wheat flour as a thickening agent.  Some people can taste a potato aftertaste.  Potato starch (flour) is made from the starch extracted from potatoes.  This is what is used for thickening sauces, as well as in soups, stews, and pies.  It does not have a potato aftertaste.  It can also be found in many Scandinavian recipes.

Rice flour comes as either white or brown (just like rice).  You can buy it at Asian grocery stores.  White rice flour is sweet and when substituted for wheat flour in baked goods, less sugar is needed.  Mochiko is also called glutinous rice flour because of the high starch level, not because it contains gluten.  

There are actually several different types of sweet rice flour.  In Japan, there is mochiko: 餅粉(もちこ) and shiratamako: 白玉粉 (しら たまこ).  The difference is in the milling process.  Mochiko makes mochi that is more sticky, less rubbery, and dissolves quicker than mochi made with shiratamako.

Wheat-Alternative Products That Contain Gluten

Grains that are relatives of wheat may not contain as much gluten as wheat, but for many people, any gluten at all is a serious problem.  There are a lot of products that are marketed as "wheat alternatives" that are not gluten free.  Bulgur, semolina, durum, farina, and couscous are all made from the wheat grain but the labeling generally does not state that outright.

Barley and rye are related to wheat and contain gluten.  Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye that is quite nutritious but contains more gluten than rye.  Spelt flour is often suggested as a wheat alternative, but it is made from triticale (triticum aestivum var. spelta).  Spelt should be used when somebody has a wheat allergy but is not glutent intolerant.  Malt is usually derived from barley and contains gluten, unless it comes from another grain (like corn).  In the US, ingredient lists usually have to say which grain malt is derived from. 

Storing Wheat Flours

Most wheat flours will store for at least several months if kept in a tightly sealed container in a cupboard or cabinet.  Flour will store for longer periods or time (up to one year) if kept in the refrigerator.  Be sure to let flour come to room temperature before adding it to a recipe if you keep it in the fridge.

Realistically, many people keep flour in the bag sitting in their cabinets for years.  All-purpose flour will keep a long time if it is not exposed to moisture.  The easiest storage method is to buy a large tupperware and empty a bag of flour into it, seal it tightly, and leave it either in a cabinet or in the fridge.  Whole wheat flour will turn rancid if kept for too long because of the oil.  If you don't use whole wheat flour very often but you need it for a recipe, buy the smallest bag you can find and store it in a smaller tupperware.  Don't use it if it's more than a year old. 

Links To More Information On Wheat, Gluten, and Flour

  1. Baking reference: Type of flour
  2. What's Cooking America: Types of flour
  3. 15 types of flour
  4. Wheat Foods Council PDF on types of flour

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