Flour 101

Flour is flour is flour. Ground up wheat. And wheat is wheat is wheat. Right?

No! While using the right flour will not guarantee perfect bread (no one thing can guarantee that, after all), a very wrong flour might all but guarantee a flop. When choosing a basic white flour suitable for most bread baking, there are a few things to look for.

What’s not helpful are the labels “Bread Flour” and “All-Purpose Flour.” There is no standardization for these terms, and some flours designated “all-purpose” may be preferable to some “bread flours” for most bread baking (especially “artisan” hearth breads). On the other hand, some so-called “all-purpose” flours are definitely not. You’re much better off looking at the characteristics of a flour rather than its name.

But in case you just want to cut to the chase, I’ll give you the bottom line up front. Here’s a list of flours that I have known and loved:

  • Central Milling Organic Unbleached All-Purpose. This is the flour I currently use. I buy it at Costco in 20-lb. packages. I believe many Costcos nationwide, and perhaps other club stores, carry it.
  • Giusto’s Golden Haven. I haven’t seen it in stores but I have a natural foods store that will special-order it for me. Giusto’s is based in San Francisco and I don’t know about availability in other areas. Organic.
  • Heartland Mill UBAP (unbleached, unenriched, malted “All Purpose”). I have ordered this directly from the Heartland Mill website. Unfortunately, exorbitant shipping charges prevent me from continuing to use it. Maybe it is available locally where you live. Organic.
  • Gold Medal Harvest King (alternatively labeled “Better for Bread” in some parts of the country). It is widely available in supermarkets. Non-organic.

What makes these flours wonderful?

First, the type of wheat the flour is milled from is very important.  Wheat is classified by hardness: soft, hard, or durum; and by color: red or white; and by season: winter or spring. So you can have, for example, soft red winter wheat or hard white spring wheat. In general, the best flour for the kind of bread I like to bake is milled wholly or predominantly from hard winter wheat (red or white, although most white flours are made from red wheat — how’s that for confusing?).

Hard wheat has more and better gluten-forming proteins than soft wheat. Gluten is important, of course, because it’s what gives bread its structure and allows the dough to rise. Hard wheat is great for bread, while soft wheat is better for cakes, pies, or anything where a very tender texture and little gluten is desired.

Winter wheat (so-called because it is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer, thereby covering winter in its growing season) actually has less protein than spring wheat (planted in early spring and harvested in late summer). So why is it better for bread? The quality of winter wheat protein gives it better fermentation tolerance, meaning the gluten will last longer at its peak extension (stretch) before starting to break down or overstretch and collapse. This makes it more suitable especially for breads that have relatively long fermentation times, as do most of the hearth breads I bake.

There’s another reason more protein is not always better. More protein means more gluten, and more gluten means a tighter and chewier bread. This may be desirable for pan sandwich breads and bagels, but for most lean hearth breads where you want a more open crumb, a more moderate level of protein is best. I look for a flour that has between 10.5% and 11.5% protein. This is lower than many flours labeled “bread flour.” (King Arthur Bread Flour, for example, has about 12.8% protein; it’s milled from spring wheat.)

I also look for a flour that is malted. Malting is the addition of sprouted grain, often barley. Sprouted grain contains a high level of enzymes that break down starch into simple sugars that yeast can use. When there are not enough enzymes, the dough will ferment too slowly; too many and the fermentation will be too rapid. Malted flour is almost surely “enzymatically balanced,” i.e., the miller has added the proper amount of sprouted grain to make it suitable for most bread baking. Unmalted flour can be unpredictable. Most non-organic white flours are malted, but many organic ones are not.

I never used bleached flour for bread. Bleaching removes pigments that not only make for a nice creamy (as opposed to stark white) crumb color, but add to flavor as well.

I  would also never use bromated flour. Potassium bromate is added to some flours to improve gluten strength and fermentation tolerance. However, it is recognized as a carcinogen; bromated flour is banned here in California and in some other states and countries.

You can usually tell from a flour’s label whether it is malted, bleached, or bromated, but it may not be as easy to determine the type of wheat and protein level. Calling the milling company can give you those answers quickly.

For the curious, there’s quite a lot more to know about flour. The new book from SFBI, Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas, has an entire 30-plus-page chapter on flour technology!

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    Thanks for this post; that’s really useful information that will apply in the UK too (we’re fortunate enough to often have the protein content listed on the label but not the type of wheat, so I’ll be making some enquiries!)

  2. says

    Oh my, and here I thought protein levels were a sure way of determining which flour to use… Here in Europe every country has different kinds of flour, I’ve given up on figuring out what kind to get for what. My friend Tanya tried to research Swiss flours here, and there is interesting information in the comments section. One person gave another reason why winter flour is better than spring flour.

  3. says

    Tanna, the book is everything you ever wanted to know about bread and pastry. I think you’ll like it, especially now that you’re friends with baker’s percentage ;)

    Laura, I should have said that everything I wrote applies to flours in the US — I don’t know about flours that are available in Europe and how much of my info applies to them. So proceed at your own risk! Protein content is sort of listed on flours here but it’s in the form of grams of protein per 30 gram “serving” of flour, but as it’s rounded to the nearest whole gram it’s not very accurate.

    Astrid, ditto the above. Also, as mentioned by a commenter on the post you referenced, protein content of French flours is calculated differently from US flours. A flour listed at 11% protein here would be listed at something like 12.8% protein in France. But I understand that French bakers actually use flour that’s around 10.5%, calculated the French way, so it would be something like 9% calculated the US way. It’s all too confusing for me; God help me if I ever move to France.

  4. Angela says

    You know, I just looked on Central Milling’s website to see if they might say where their flours are carried (it doesn’t, the website is VERY basic), and it looks like they were bought in 1997 by Giusto’s. So it makes sense that you love both flours!

  5. says

    I have just received Advanced Bread & Pastry in the mail and it really is an excellent resource. I saw the gray pear shaped bread in it with the stencil and immediately thought of this blog (you posted one that had an apple on it).

  6. Abbey says

    I live on the East Coast and I have lobbied at our Costco to carry something other than ConAgra’s bleached (and possibly bromated, I can’t remember) Hotel and Restaurant flour, or ConAgra’s High-Gluten flour. I order from another store bags of KA’s Artisan Flour (which is the same as their a-p) to use, or KA’s High-Gluten flour. I can’t figure out why Costco would carry high-quality everything else but sell such crappy flour. I’m sure this is not the point you were trying to make, but it is something to mention the next time I’m at Costco.

  7. says

    Aparna, certainly wonderful bread can be made with a variety of different flours!

    Angela, Bay Bread, an excellent bakery in SF, is also a partner in Central Milling, according to the Bay Bread website.

    Jeremy, you do not need a guru.

    Jude, we made that bread in the SFBI whole grains class. Like my apple sourdough, it also has buckwheat flour in it, which gives it its gray-brown color.

    Abbey, I’m not sure how Costco makes their decisions about what to carry but more than once I have been disappointed to find that they have discontinued something they’ve carried for a long time. I try to keep stocked up on flour for that reason (among others).

    maybelle’s mom, I’m glad you found it useful.

  8. says

    I’ve got to save this post, Susan. It is truly enlightening. The number of flours out there can be mind-boggling. Last week I bought a different brand of AP flour because my regular one was sold out, and the pizza dough I was making came like lead. So you’re right. They’re not all the same.

  9. says

    Susan, I don’t know if this was a factor in your leaden pizza dough, but flours absorb water differently so when you switch flours be prepared to adjust the water to achieve the right dough consistency.

  10. Melinda says

    Hello, Susan-
    I just discovered this wonderful site. Thanks for it. I’d like to contribute something about judging the protein content of flour. I’m new to bread science, but not to bread-baking. Concerning estimating protein content, Daniel Leader’s book, BREAD ALONE (1993), tells us on page 43, concerning packaged all-purpose flours: “Be sure the analysis is for 4 oz. . . some brands give the [protein] analysis for only 2 px, so you must multiply that number times two to get the correct percentage”. Lately I’ve been using all-purpose flour distributed by Wheat Montana, which I get through a local buying club. The label gives the figure “4 gr.” for a serving size of 1.1 oz. [call it 1 oz.]. Thus, the figure for 4 oz. would be 16 grams. I think I have this right.
    I thought this might be useful to someone. It would be easy to see the figure “4″ and assume that’s the protein content of the flour!
    I hope to visit this site often!
    -Melinda in the North Carolina mountains

  11. Tracy Goode says

    Personally, I love White Lily All-purpose flour when I bake bread. Yes, it’s bleached, and yes, it’s a soft wheat, but it has never failed to make a great loaf of bread and a lovely dough to work with.

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