Types of Flour and Uses
Most of the bread you eat (in fact all commercially produced bread) is made with dried or fast action yeast made in factories. Before this was possible though the only way to capture the yeast was to create a sourdough. To do this you simply mix water and flour, and leave to stand. With a bit of luck you will have captured the natural yeasts in the air and they will become active within your mixture. Simply add to your dough and it will start to prove!
What different types of flour are there?
Flour is what most of you think makes your bread, cakes and pastry. You can use it to thicken sauces, dust and clean surfaces and even in non edible pastes.
There are many uses for flour and many different types, strains and species of grain from which we extract different types of White, Brown and Wholemeal Flour, each with its own purpose.
The aim of this article is to pull you out of your shameful ignorance and inform you which is which, where it comes from, what it is for and how healthy or not it is. It is not an inexhaustible list, but covers the main types that you are likely to come into contact with on a regular basis.
White Flour - White flour is purely the 'Endosperm' (insides) of the grain. The bran and germ is filtered away after the grain is ground. The Endosperm is nutritionally far inferior to the rest of the cereal grain and high in carbs.
Wholemeal (or wholewheat) - This is the 'whole thing' as the name suggests. The Bran (outer skin), endosperm, germ and brush. The whole grain is ground together and unfiltered. This is much better for you as the nutritionally rich Bran and Germ are present in the final product.
Brown - Brown flour is a bit of a mystery; even to professional bakers. Do not mix it up with wholemeal. Many products are simply white flour dyed, in fact a lot of brown flour is dyed. Sometimes it has the Bran and Germ and is more finely ground, though this must be done electronically, creating higher temperatures and taking much of the nutrition out! Most artisan bakers tend to avoid brown flour for the reasons given above.
What does Stone Ground mean? - It means that the grain has been ground traditionally, literally using a slow rotating stone, this can be powered via electricity, a motor or as traditional a water mill! Stone ground flour is usually more expensive, as though it is better for you the process is longer and much less efficient than industrial milled flour.
Wheat Flour is what most of us think of when we see cakes being baked and what most of us eat in our daily bread. Wheat is actually a type of grass which produces grain as its seed. This seed we grind up into a powder we call Wheat Flour.
Historically Wheat originated in Africa and only began to spread throughout the globe through trade during the time of the early Egyptians. They did use Wheat in Egypt but they used many different cereal grains in their food production and there is little evidence of it being a preference. Wheat reached Europe well before the Romans, though they seemed not to use it in their bread. Wheat has in fact only really reached such high usage recently! In many Eastern European countries Rye is favoured over Wheat still!
Types and Uses
Plain - This is what most people think of when they think of flour! Plain flour has a low protein and gluten content and therefore is not used in traditional bread baking. Rather it is suited to use in biscuits, pastry, cakes and cooking where releasing gluten is not desirable.
Self Raising - This is simply plain flour mixed with a proportion of raising agent such as baking powder, you can simply add this to plain flour yourself to make your own self raising flour. unfortunately this may also include 'anti caking' agents and why would you want them in your traditional delicious baking?
Strong - With a High protein and gluten content this is the flour most commonly used in bread baking. The gluten released in kneading allows the air bubbles (made by yeast) to regulate during proving.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a miracle agent found in many things including flour. As you knead dough gluten is released and when enough is released it comes together in strands, holding the flour and the moisture together, allowing bakers to create stable shapes when they make bread without a tin. It also helps the yeast create regular air holes when proving dough and a regular crumb structure when baked.
Other Flour Fypes
Rye - Rye flour is similar to Wheat and historically was widely grown across the ancient world, and certainly by the very earliest human settlements. It was probably the most widely used bread flour in the world until more modern times.
With less gluten than Wheat it is not used commercially anywhere near as often as its cousin. The taste of Rye is markedly different to wheat and many prefer it, meaning artisan bakers still use Rye in Specialist Bread recipes. Particularly Eastern European Countries including Russia use Rye and the people there particularly enjoy Rye Sourdough.
It is mostly available in wholemeal form.
Spelt - Spelt Flour was very important to the Romans, and remained the main flour crop throughout most of the dark ages. It does contain gluten but at fairly moderate levels, allowing it to be used mostly in low gluten baking recipes.
It is ideal for people who can tolerate some gluten, but not for those who need gluten free food. Another thing it has going for it is that it contains only a quarter of the fat of wheat and can be considered a 'health food'
Barley - Another historical staple in Europe, Africa and Asia. Barley is often associated with beer or animal fodder more often than flour. It is certainly one of the earliest domesticated flours and is mentioned in the old testament. It contains less than half of the gluten of wheat with the same amount of fat, so like Spelt and Rye; makes a denser bread. It is rarely used in cake baking, but often used in cracker and biscuit production, especially in Scotland. It has a mild taste quite different again from the other flours mentioned here.
In particular the Vikings were great users of Barley Flour in their Breads.
It is mostly available as a part wholemeal flour as the 'hull' (similar to Bran) is not easily chewed and not very digestible.
Non Cereal Grain Flours - You can in principal create flour out of anything you can stick in a blender. For example; Chestnut Flour, Rice Flour, Potato Flour, Hemp Flour, Corn Flour and the list can go on.
There is little or no gluten in these flours so it will not be used in yeast bread production. The main use for flours like these are in Tortes and other cakes where often beaten egg whites provide the air bubbles and help to create a light texture.
Bread, Cakes, Biscuits
Very High Gluten Content
Sourdough, Traditional Breads
Almost exclusively available as a wholemeal flour
Low Gluten Cakes, Biscuits
Can be used in Bread production and is low in fat.
Fermented alcohol recipes, Bread
Unavailable as a wholemeal flour