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.