Flour 101 It’s Time!
Hello all you COVID-19 home-quarantine-shelter-in-place-social-distancing bakers! I am so sorry for all of the stress and health concerns we are experiencing right now, but I am also hopeful that some small part of staying at home may renew your interest in baking from scratch. Perhaps it can even provide some much-needed entertainment and stress relief!
That said, the shortage of staple ingredients, like flour (!), at the grocery stores has forced us all to look beyond conventional suppliers, which is probably what landed you here. It has also revealed that even with a large industrial milling system limiting and simplifying the types of flour available – All Purpose, Bread, Pastry, Whole Wheat – there is still much confusion over labeling and use. Add to that the many new regional milling operations beginning to pop up across the country, each using some creative and unfamiliar proprietary names for their flour, and we have a situation here!
Full disclosure Part 1: Most of the terms being used for labeling flour are not actually mandated or regulated by law. Some are, like “Whole Wheat”, but some aren’t, like “Whole Grain”. The FDA has regulations in place, but also general guidelines with expectations, leaving mills and bakers to self-police. Maybe not the best idea. Who doesn’t love a little artistic freedom of interpretation? Combine that with a second layer of confusion being added by bakers who are also taking significant creative license with bread labels and It’s easy to see why there’s so much fog to clear.
Full disclosure Part 2: Where I can educate you on factual FDA policy, I will. Everything else is my personal viewpoint and how I choose to interpret guidelines and label my flour. There have been a few attempts among smaller regional grain movements to find a consensus on how we might differentiate our products from the commercial brands, but as of today, no agreements have been cemented and presented to a large number of us for feedback and/or approval. For better or worse right now, it’s a bit of the wild, wild west!
The Basics (much abridged and abbreviated!)
Commercial Roller Milled Flour
The terms below DO NOT apply to regional stone milled flour
Industrial milling companies make sure you don’t really have to think much about the flour you bake with. To simplify, they categorize your flour choices based on baking strength or protein alone, i.e. higher protein is for bread, middle protein is for most purposes, lower protein is for cake/pastry. That’s your best rule of thumb but read on for more clarification.
Here’s the short list of words you may see on flour labels and what they mean:
Guess what? Almost all flour you will find on the shelves is Wheat Flour, in other words made from wheat! All Purpose Flour, Bread Flour, Cake Flour, Pastry Flour – all wheat!
If you see only these words on a label, here’s what it doesn’t tell you:
-The milling process: whole wheat or refined/sifted
-The type of baking it should be used for
-The type of wheat: generic hard red or hard white, or a specific variety of wheat like Red Fife.
However, manufacturers will always put the names of non-wheat grains front and center on the label, especially critical for the gluten-sensitive such as: oat, buckwheat, sorghum, amaranth, almond, teff, rice…. you get the picture. Gluten Free means NO WHEAT
Organic Wheat Flour
Same as above, except farming and milling are both certified organic. Basically, this tells you nothing about the type of wheat, how it was milled and what type of baking it is suited for. This label means the flour in the bag was milled from certified organic wheat in a certified organic facility and that’s all. Please also read the organic notation for All Purpose flour below.
Whole Wheat Flour
Unless you are buying your flour directly from a business operating a stone mill or perhaps an impact mill (such as a hammer mill), the whole wheat flour you buy at the grocery store is an artificially reassembled product. Any flour that is produced by a roller milling system begins its journey by having all the bran and germ removed to create a white refined flour (more on this in the next post, Flour 102). To make whole wheat flour in that system, missing components are added back in before bagging so that on paper it has been made whole again.
*Please know that purchasing flour directly from a stone mill or impact mill, doesn’t guarantee your flour will be 100% Whole Wheat either. Regional stone mills can and do sift to try and remove bran and germ for a more refined flour. When they do, the flour should not be labeled as “whole”.
Behind the scenes:
“Whole Wheat” is a labeling term that is actually defined and regulated by the FDA, and that definition is very narrow. For any product to use those two words together – whole wheat – on a label, whether flour, bread, frozen waffle, tortilla, or pasta, the ONLY flour that can be listed as an ingredient is Whole Wheat. It shouldn’t be confusing, but it is. Why? Because you will also see clever companies using very similar words that appear innocent but can be misleading on ingredient lists like: Wheat Flour or Enriched Wheat Flour, which sounds an awful lot like a whole wheat right? Wheat flour actually means white flour. The word “whole” is what you are looking for if it matters to you.
*There is a common misconception in the baking community as well.
True or False: A loaf of bread can be called “Whole Wheat” as long as at least 51% of the flour used to make it is whole wheat flour.
FALSE. A loaf of bread can only be called Whole Wheat if Whole Wheat flour is the only flour used. Find more detail on the FDA’s Whole Wheat policy at the end of this post.
All Purpose Flour
All Purpose flour is made from wheat and is milled to completely remove all bran and germ from the wheat berry, leaving only the white, starchy endosperm as the main component of the flour. Depending on the brand, All Purpose flour will have a protein percentage in the range of 9-11%, which in wheat terms is mid-range, giving it great flexibility in how it can be used. Hence, the term All Purpose, meaning you can bake almost anything with it.
You may also see these words
Enriched: required by a government mandate going back to the 1940’s. Removing all bran and germ during the milling process means removing almost all of the nutritional value as well. With bread making up such a substantial part of the American diet, too many people were getting sick due to eating a lot of bread that offered bulk calories but no nutrition. So, mills were forced to add nutrients back into the flour before bagging and selling. You should know that many of the ingredients that make up the “enrichment” aren’t even naturally found in wheat berries and may be petroleum based.
Bleached: bleached = bleached, meaning chemical intervention to make white flour whiter
Unbleached: still a white refined flour, but not chemically bleached
Organic: milled from certified organic wheat in a certified organic facility, HOWEVER, the organic label came along much later than the Enriched label and does not fall under the regulations for enrichment, or adding nutritional value back into the flour post-milling. So, you may be eating organic flour, but with even less nutritional value. Things that make you go hmmmmmm…
Can you use All Purpose Flour to bake bread and pastries? Sure, but industrial flours are designed for specific types of baking performance, so you may not get the desired outcome. In my opinion, most commercial flours are fairly interchangeable, with some commonsense guidelines: You probably don’t want to substitute cake flour for bread flour. As you’ll read below, cake flour is milled from softer wheat varieties that also have weaker gluten strength. The recipe writer will tell you how/if you can substitute. But, could you use All Purpose flour for cakes? Sure. What about using All Purpose Flour or Bread Flour for pasta? Yes. Many recipe developers use All Purpose flour for pizza dough too, for example. Always first defer to what a recipe calls for, but know there is some wiggle room.
What about Whole Wheat All Purpose flour? No. Such. Thing. You won’t see this label on an industrial brand, and you shouldn’t see it on a bag of regional stone milled flour either. All Purpose flour is roller milled and completely devoid of all bran and germ. That is a very narrowly defined expectation (the FDA does officially define particle size and components of industrial AP flour, including “…the flour is freed from bran coat and germ”). No stone milled flour can meet these parameters, no matter how sifted or “boulted”, and will therefore never perform in an identical manner. Bakers, don’t expect regional flours to conform to industrial standards. Smaller scale millers, please find a more appropriate term for your flour.
Milled from wheat, just like All Purpose flour, to remove all traces of wheat bran and germ, but from higher protein wheat, usually 11-14%. For commercial brands, high protein numbers are directly associated with stronger gluten for dough development.
What is the difference between Bread Flour and Whole Wheat Bread Flour?In the industrial world, Whole Wheat Bread Flour is white bread flour with “whole wheat components” mixed back in before bagging. I put “whole wheat components” in parentheses because no one truly monitors exactly what is added back in and when. It is, in theory, a whole wheat flour with a higher protein percentage, which would make it suitable for bread baking. You can choose your own confidence level in how well the industry self-regulates the adding back in of bran and germ.
Can you use Bread Flour and Whole Wheat Bread Flour interchangeably?
No. Recipes that call for Bread flourmean traditional, or White refined Bread flour. Only use Whole Wheat bread flour where Whole Wheat is specifically called for in a recipe.
Behind the scenes:
-We have been trained to think that wheat with a high protein number means it also has stronger gluten. In the industrial world, this is true. It is true because your industrial bread flour is a mathematical equation designed to ensure consistency. Large roller mills buy and blend many lots (purchase groups) of wheat each harvest year and pair them up before milling based on laboratory analysis in order to maintain the protein and performance expectations of their brands.
-This scenario of purchasing and blending different wheat varieties is also possible in smaller regional grain hubs, but it’s more likely you’ll be buying what is called Identity Preservedwheat/flour. Identity Preserved means that only one specific wheat variety like Sonora or Red Fife or Turkey Red etc, has been milled to create that flour, not a blend: its identity has been preserved by not diluting it or mixing it with another type. Many heirloom wheat varieties may have higher protein and nutritional value than modern wheat, but weaker gluten strength. This is one of many reasons why heirloom wheat varieties were replaced by modern ones: they couldn’t consistently achieve the requirements of the Wonder Bread process: high yields, high protein, strong gluten. Regional stone millers should educate you on protein quality, not protein quantity. High quantity does not always equal high quality, which is why even modern wheat varieties have to be blended together at the big mills.
Generally, Pastry flour is milled from soft white wheat varieties with lower protein and gluten strength, with most brands falling somewhere between 8.5%-9.5% protein. A very fine, white flour with absolutely no traces of wheat bran or germ, milled to a very fine particle size. Pastry flour is suited for baking applications where a very tender, soft crumb is the desired result. Unless you have unlimited pantry space, most recipe writers and bakers will tell you that All Purpose flour is a fine substitute for Pastry flour in recipes.
Very similar to Pastry Flour but with even lower protein, around 7%-8.5%, the finest particle size and very white, almost always bleached. Cake flour is suited for very specific types of baking, like high ratio cakes, where the ratio of sugar and liquid to flour is higher. Think of using Cake flour in a manner that reflects its packaging – it usually comes in a box. You shouldn’t really go outside the box and use this type of flour for anything other than delicate cakes.
FDA Whole Wheat Labeling Policy
Here is a link to the official FDA regulations page:
From that page, here is what’s most important:
(a) Whole wheat flour, graham flour, entire wheat flour is the food prepared by so grinding cleaned wheat, other than durum wheat and red durum wheat, that when tested by the method prescribed in paragraph (c)(2) of this section, not less than 90 percent passes through a 2.36 mm (No. 8) sieve and not less than 50 percent passes through a 850 [micro]m (No. 20) sieve. The proportions of the natural constituents of such wheat, other than moisture, remain unaltered.
I was confused when I read the policy and asked for clarification from the Whole Grains Council. At first glance, it seems that “…50% passes through a… sieve”, could imply that the remaining 50% can be discarded. If that were the case, though, it wouldn’t line up with the very next sentence, which is “The proportions of the natural constituents of such wheat, other than moisture, remain unaltered.” So, what does it mean? The first standard the FDA is setting deals with overall particle size of the flour, dictating that a whole wheat flour must still be milled to a fine enough particle size, with a minimum amount of large particles, so that it will pass through a sieve of specific micron size. “The proportions of the natural constituents of such wheat…” means all parts that make up a wheat kernel must be present in the flour. That’s the more critical sentence: all components, meaning the bran, the germ and endosperm, must be in the flour. If sifting or refining were permitted, this could never be the case.
More fun, recreational reading can be had by searching the FDA’s website for whole wheat bread and pasta labeling requirements:
What you will find here is that the labeling standard for whole wheat bread is that all the grains on the label must be 100% whole wheat. There is nothing there about 51%, other than an FDA Whole Grain Health Claim. Under the health claim guidelines, at least 51% of the total weight(not ingredients) of the product must come from whole grain ingredients. Whole Grain, not Whole Wheat. Also, guidelines over at the USDA allow school foods to qualify as whole grain, which is labeled “whole grain rich,” if at least 50% of the total grains in the food are whole grains. Whole Grain – regulated differently than Whole Wheat.
FDA and USDA Whole Grain Labeling Policy
Both the FDA and the USDA have adopted a definition of Whole Grain as recommended by the AACCI (American Association of Cereal Chemists International), which states that a Whole Grain is: “intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis of the grain whose principal components, the starchy endosperm, germ and bran, are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact grain.” It seems like they are saying whole means WHOLE and not part or sifted. However, while the FDA and USDA have adopted this definition, it remains a guideline, not an enforceable regulation.
The Whole Grains Council has a very helpful website if you are interested in exploring more of the finer details of whole wheat and whole grain. This is a particularly useful and concise page worth reading:
Those are the basics of Industrial flour 101. More to follow in the next post, where I’ll factor in the milling process and country of origin.