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Flour power: different types of flour and their uses

Updated on June 27, 2013
Bowl of flour by Joanna Bourne on Flickr
Bowl of flour by Joanna Bourne on Flickr

Flour is serious business. In the South, biscuit-makers swear by the White Lily brand despite the fact that it’s one of the cheapest on the shelf. Supposedly, it’s light enough to make the fluffiest of biscuits, and no other flours compare. Specialty flours line the shelves of organic grocery stores, tempting bakers with whole-grains and ancient cereals.

While it’s true that all-purpose flour can be used in most baking, the type of flour used can drastically affect the consistency of baked goods, and using the right flour can make all the difference in the world. Cake flour is light enough for the airiest desserts, while heavy, grainy corn flour is a staple of Mexican cuisine.

For some people, choice of flour is of vital importance. Gluten allergies are directly affected by flour--specifically the wheat in the flour--and because of this, people who go on gluten-free diets must specifically avoid wheat products. For gluten-free diets, specialty flours such as corn flour and rice flour are the mainstays of baked goods.

So, what is flour?

When you misspelled “flour” as a kid, you were only half wrong. The word “flour” comes from flower, a derivative of the French word fleur. Because of the way flour is produced, with the wheat being separated from the chaff, the word took on a positive connotation, one of finery and being the best of the best.

Flour is powdery, either coarse or fine in texture. It is made of ground cereal grains, roots, and seeds, and in the modern-day, it is often enriched with folic acid, riboflavin, and other nutrients. Ancient societies milled wheat, and one of the innovations of the Industrial Age in England was a steam mill.

Western society owes a great deal to flour, especially as it is the foundation of baking culture. It is a foremost ingredient in bread and pastries. In Mesoamerica, corn flour, called cornmeal or masa, is used to make tortillas and tamales. In Asian societies, which aren’t as bread-centric as Americans or European, rice is used to make rice flour.

Piggly Wiggly flour bag by afiler on Flickr
Piggly Wiggly flour bag by afiler on Flickr

Even with wheat flour, there are a lot of varieties

If you’ve ever perused the baking aisle, you might have noticed how many types of flour there are. Even excluding specialty flours like masa, rice flour, or flours made from ancient grains like quinoa, there are a lot of options to choose from. These options come from the way the flour is processed.

Unbleached flour isn’t the snowy white of all-purpose flour. Some people believe that bleaching flour is unhealthy, and so flour can be bought milled and unbleached. Bleaching agents are banned in the European Union.

Refined flour and bleached flour are both bleached white, but refined flour has the addition of having germ and bran removed from the mix. Cake flours are often bleached due to the face that chlorine gas, a bleaching agent, oxides starch in the flour, resulting in a thicker, stiffer batter.

All-purpose flour doesn’t including leavening agents; instead, they must be added to the batter by the baker. As a contrast, self-rising flour has leavening agents mixed in the bag--usually agents like baking power and salt--and it works well for scones, biscuits, and other baked goods.

A final type of wheat flour is enriched flour. Due to the processes involved in milling and refining the wheat, a lot of important nutrients are lost. These nutrients can be added back into the final product, resulting in an enriched flour.

Wheat ain't everything!

Wheat flour isn’t the be-all, end-all of flour. If it was, people with gluten allergies would be unable to enjoy baked goods, and a lot of unique flavors would be missing from the world of baking.

Here is a rundown of some different types of flour:

  • Acorns can be ground to make acorn flour. Although the resulting flour is bitter and requires some processing to make it fit for human consumption, Native Americans would often make baked goods with it. Today, acorn flour is used in Korea to make specific dishes.
  • Have you ever eaten Ethiopian food? Ethiopian dishes are served with a spongy bread known as injera. This bread is made with teff flour.
  • Rye flour is used in many European countries, and it is responsible for the dark, earthy richness of pumpernickel bread.
  • Chickpea flour is a staple of Indian cuisine, and it is sometimes used in Italy to make a dish known as farinata, a thin, chickpea-flour pancake.
  • Buckwheat flour is used to make buckwheat pancakes in the U.S. Although the pancakes are much denser than their fluffier, IHOP-style cousins, they are nutty and delicious! Buckwheat flour is also used to make soba noodles in Japan. Both dishes are brown, owing to the color of the buckwheat flour.

If you have gluten allergies, look into the world of specialty flours. While flours behave differently in different recipes, it’s worth some experimentation. Who knows, maybe a rice-flour pancake tastes amazing!

Buckwheat pancakes by StephenLukeEdD on Flickr
Buckwheat pancakes by StephenLukeEdD on Flickr

Other uses for flour

Although flour is primarily used for baking, it can be used in other ways as well. It’s a sauce thickener, and drippings, milk, cheese, and flour can be used to make a creamy sauce known as a béchamel.

When mixed with water, flour becomes gummy and sticky, like a paste. This paste can be used as a nontoxic glue in arts and crafts projects, and flour paste is a vital ingredient in the art of paper-mâché, French for “chewed paper.”

Paper-mâché involves strips of paper, generally newspaper, being coated in a flour-water paste. The strips are then laid over a form and allowed to harden. When dry, the paper is stiff, allowing for a sculpture that's both strong and lightweight.

BrightNest has a list of clever household uses for flour including using it as an avocado-ripener and jar-opener. More ideas can be found on the Mother Nature Network.

Sculpture by Jan Schoonhoven Jr. on Flickr
Sculpture by Jan Schoonhoven Jr. on Flickr

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