Here comes fall!! Well, officially it IS fall, but this week finally ushered in cooler air, overcast days and a little extra humidity. HOORAY! It's my favorite season and I'm ready to start baking and pulling my sweaters out of the back of the closet. In honor of the season change and the upcoming holiday season, I thought that today we could talk about flour. It seems so simple, but there is actually a lot to know about this baking staple.
Flour: Simply put, flour is a powdery product made by grinding grain. Coarse grinds often referred to as “meal”.
The most common “flour” is made of ground wheat. Other grains, seeds, legumes and nuts can also be used to make alternative GF flours.
In addition to the type of grain used, flour also varies depending on what part of the grain is retained during the milling process. This may include the endosperm, bran or germ.
· Endosperm: This is the starchy center of the grain, which contains carbohydrates, protein and a small amount of oil. Most simple white flours contain only this portion of the grain.
· Bran: The outer husk of the grain, known as bran, adds texture, color, and fiber to flour. Bran gives whole grain flours their characteristic brown color and rough texture.
· Germ: The germ is the reproductive epicenter of the grain and is a concentrated source of nutrients. Flour that retains the germ during the milling process will contain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
· Gluten: Gluten is a protein found naturally in the endosperm of wheat. It gives strength, elasticity and a characteristic chewy texture to yeast breads, pasta, and pizza dough.
Among grains, wheat flour is unique because it has the potential to produce gluten, a protein that imparts strength and elasticity to dough and influences the texture of baked goods. The gluten content of flour depends on whether the flour is made from hard or soft wheat; hard wheats are higher in protein than soft wheats, and thus produce more gluten. Most flour is a mixture of hard and soft wheat.
Because the production of flour isn’t standardized, flours from two manufacturers may use different milling procedures and consist of different blends, which will produce varying results in the kitchen. For example, all-purpose flours sold in the southern region of the United States contain a higher proportion of soft wheat, good for making the light, airy biscuits that are popular there. In northern states, by contrast, the preference is for breads rather than biscuits, and the all-purpose flour used in breadmaking contains a higher proportion of hard wheats.
Wheat flour can be broken down into “Wheat” or “White”, then further broken down into sub-categories.
Since roller milling separates the bran and the germ from the endosperm, the three components actually have to be reconstituted to produce whole-wheat flour. (The germ and bran are visible in the flour as minute brown flecks.) You may also find it called graham flour in the supermarket.
Because of the presence of bran, which reduces gluten development, baked goods made from whole-wheat flour are naturally heavier and denser than those made with white flour. Many bakers combine whole-wheat and white flour in order to gain the attributes of both. Whole-wheat pastry flour is also available.
For stone-ground whole-wheat flour, the kernels of wheat are crushed between two heavy, rotating stones, so that the bran and germ remain. Because oil in the germ is released during this process, stone-ground flour is more susceptible to rancidity. Nutritionally, there is no difference between stone-ground whole-wheat flour and roller-milled whole-wheat flour.
Refined white flour consists of the ground endosperm of the wheat kernel. White flour is popular because it produces lighter baked goods than whole-wheat flour and has an unequaled ability to produce gluten. When the bran and germ are removed from the wheat kernel, vitamins and minerals are decreased, along with dietary fiber. Therefore, most white flour is enriched to replace some of the missing nutrients. If a flour has been enriched, the label will say so. There are many types of white flours, including:
· All-purpose flour (plain, white): Made from a blend of hard and soft wheats, this type of flour has a “middle of the road” protein and starch content that makes it suitable for either breads or cakes and pastries. All-purpose flour is available pre-sifted. This aerates the flour to make it lighter than standard all-purpose flour. However, all flour, whether
labeled pre-sifted or not, has a tendency to settle and become more compact in storage, so the benefit of pre-sifting isn’t always apparent.
· Bleached flour: When freshly milled, flour is slightly yellow. To whiten it, manufacturers could let the flour age naturally, but most choose to speed up the process by adding chemicals, such as benzoyl peroxide or acetone peroxide, to bleach it. This process gives the flour more gluten-producing potential, but naturally aged flours develop more gluten as well.
· Bread flour: This is made entirely from hard wheat. A high gluten content helps bread rise higher because the gluten traps and holds air bubbles as the dough is mixed and kneaded. It’s also available in whole-wheat form.
· Bromated flour: Some manufacturers add a maturing agent such as bromate to flour in order to further develop the gluten and to make the kneading of doughs easier. Other maturing agents include phosphate, ascorbic acid, and malted barley.
· Cake flour: Finer than all-purpose flour, cake flour is made entirely from soft wheat. Because of its low gluten content, it is especially well suited for soft-textured cakes, quick breads, muffins, and cookies.
· Durum flour: Since it has the highest protein content of any flour, durum flour can produce the most gluten. It is frequently used for pasta.
· Farina: Farina is milled from the endosperm of any type of wheat, except for durum wheat (which is milled to make semolina; see below). Farina is primarily used in breakfast cereals and pasta.
· Gluten flour: Made so that it has about twice the gluten strength of regular bread flour, this flour is used as a strengthening agent with other flours that are low in gluten-producing potential.
· Instant flour (instant-blending, quick-mixing, granulated flour): Instant flour pours easily and mixes with liquids more readily than other flours. It is used to thicken sauces and gravies, but is not appropriate for most baking because of its very fine, powdery texture and high starch content.
· Pastry flour (cookie flour, cracker flour): This flour has a gluten content slightly higher than that of cake flour but lower than that of all-purpose flour, making it well-suited for fine, light-textured pastries.
· Self-rising flour: Soft wheat is used to make this flour, which contains salt, a leavening agent such as baking soda or baking powder, and an acid-releasing substance. However, the strength of the leavener in some flours deteriorates within two months, so purchase only as much as you need to use during that period. Self-rising flour should never be used in yeast-leavened baked goods.
· Semolina: This is the coarsely ground endosperm (no bran, no germ) of durum wheat. Its high protein content makes it ideal for making commercial pasta, and it can also be used to make bread.
A variety of healthy, gluten-free alternatives to regular or wheat flour exist for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or those avoiding gluten for other reasons. Be cautious when going full GF unless prescribed by a medical professional. Once going GF, it can be difficult to go back to eating gluten as sensitivities to gluten may develop. It is not necessarily healthier to go GF as gluten is often replaced with fat, sugar and preservatives. If you choose or require gluten-free flour, be sure to compare the nutrients, taste and recipe composition before making your flour choice.
Many gluten-free flours require recipe adjustments or combinations of different types of gluten-free flours to create a tasty end product. Be sure to evaluate your recipe.
· GF Flour: Can consist of a single GF Flour or a blend of mulitple GF flours. Check the label to see what the best application may be and if it will work for your recipe. If using it for baking make sure it included xanthum gum or another binding agent that mimics gluten - otherwise you'll end up with baked goods that just crumble.
· Almond Flour: Almond flour is one of the most common grain- and gluten-free flours. It’s made from ground, blanched almonds, which means the skin has been removed. One cup of almond flour contains about 90 almonds and has a nutty flavor. It’s commonly used in baked goods and can be a grain-free alternative to breadcrumbs. It can typically be substituted in a 1:1 ratio in place of regular or wheat flour. If you are baking with this type of flour, use one extra egg. Note that the batter will be thicker and your end product denser. Almond flour contains many minerals, including iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. It’s also a good source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fat. However, its fat content increases its calorie count to 640 per cup, which is 200 calories more than wheat flour.
· Buckwheat Flour: Buckwheat may contain the word “wheat,” but it is not a wheat grain or gluten-free. It belongs to the family of pseudocereals, a group of grains that are eaten like cereals but don’t belong to the grass family. Buckwheat flour provides a rich, earthy flavor and is good for baking quick and yeast breads. Due to its lack of gluten, it tends to be crumbly in nature. To make a quality product, it can be combined with other gluten-free flours like brown rice flour. It contains a variety of B-vitamins and is rich in the minerals iron, folate, magnesium, zinc, manganese and fiber. Buckwheat flour is also high in antioxidants, specifically the polyphenol rutin, which has anti-inflammatory properties.
· Sorghum Flour: Sorghum flour is made from an ancient cereal grain that has been grown for more than 5,000 years. The grain is naturally gluten-free and considered the fifth most important cereal grain in the world. It has a light color and texture, as well as a mild, sweet flavor. Considered a heavy or dense flour, it’s often mixed with other gluten-free flours or used in recipes requiring small amounts of flour. The sorghum grain is high in fiber and protein, which can help slow sugar absorption. It also contains an abundance of the mineral iron, as well as antioxidants that help you fight inflammation.
· Amaranth Flour: Like buckwheat, amaranth is considered a pseudocereal. It’s a group of more than 60 grains that were once considered a staple food in the Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations. Amaranth has an earthy, nutty flavor and tends to take on the flavor of other ingredients. It can replace 25% of wheat flour but should be combined with other flours when baking. The best use of this type of flour is for making tortillas, pie crusts and bread. It’s rich in fiber, protein and the micronutrients manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and selenium. These nutrients aid brain function, bone health and DNA synthesis.
· Teff Flour: Teff is the world’s smallest grain and is 1/100 the size of a kernel of wheat. It comes in a variety of colors, ranging from white to red to dark brown. Light colors have a mild flavor, while darker shades are more earthy in taste. Teff flour has traditionally been used to make injera, a fermented, sourdough-like Ethiopian bread. It’s now also used for other foods like pancakes, cereals, breads and snacks. It can be substituted for 25–50% of wheat or all-purpose flour. Teff flour is high in protein, which promotes a feeling of fullness and can help reduce cravings. Its high fiber content can help manage blood sugar, decrease appetite and aid weight loss. What's more, it contains more calcium than any other grain and is the only ancient grain containing vitamin C.
· Arrowroot Flour: Arrowroot flour is a less common gluten- and grain-free powder. It’s made from a starchy substance extracted from a tropical plant known as Maranta arundinacea. It's a versatile flour and can be used as a thickener or mixed with almond, coconut or tapioca flours for bread and dessert recipes. If you want a crispy, crunchy product, use it on its own. This flour is rich in potassium, B-vitamins and iron. Studies have shown it may stimulate immune cells and boost immune function.
· Brown Rice Flour: Brown rice flour is made from ground brown rice. It’s considered a whole-grain flour and contains the bran, germ and endosperm. It has a nutty flavor and can be used to make a roux, thicken sauces or prepare breaded foods, such as fish and chicken. Brown rice flour is often used to make noodles and can be combined with other gluten-free flours for bread, cookie and cake recipes. This flour is high in protein and fiber, both of which can help lower blood sugar levels and reduce body weight. It’s also rich in iron, B vitamins, magnesium and manganese, as well as plant compounds called lignans. Research suggests that lignans help protect against heart disease.
· Oat Flour: Oat flour is made by grinding whole-grain oats. It gives baked goods more flavor than all-purpose flour and results in a chewier, crumblier texture. Baking with oat flour will likely make your end product more moist. Due to its lack of gluten, some ingredients will need to be adjusted to create light and fluffy baked goods. Oats contain a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which has numerous health benefits. This fiber can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, as well as blood sugar and insulin levels. They’re also rich in other nutrients like protein, magnesium, phosphorus, B-vitamins and the antioxidant group avenanthramides.
· Corn Flour: Corn flour is a very finely ground version of cornmeal. Cornmeal is made from the whole kernel, including the bran, germ and endosperm. It’s commonly used as a thickener for liquids and can be used to make tortillas and breads. Corn flour comes in white and yellow varieties and can be combined with other gluten-free flours to make pizza crust. It’s high in fiber and a good source of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These two plant compounds act as antioxidants and can benefit eye health by decreasing age-related macular degeneration and reducing the risk of cataracts. It’s also high in vitamin B6, thiamine, manganese, magnesium and the antioxidant selenium. Corn is from a different branch of the grass family than gluten-rich wheat, barley and rye.
· Chickpea Flour: Chickpeas are part of the legume family. Chickpea flour is made from dry chickpeas and is also known as garbanzo flour, gram flour and besan. Chickpeas have a nutty taste and grainy texture and are popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. Chickpea flour is used to make falafel, hummus and the flatbread socca. It’s a good source of fiber and plant-based protein. These nutrients work together to slow digestion, promote fullness and manage body weight. Chickpea flour is also high in the minerals magnesium and potassium, both of which play a positive role in boosting heart health.
· Coconut Flour: Coconut flour is made from dried coconut meat and offers a mild coconut flavor. Its light texture yields similar results to regular flour and is good for baking breads and desserts. Note that coconut flour absorbs a lot more water than regular or almond flour. It’s high in the saturated fat lauric acid. This medium-chain triglyceride can provide energy for your body and may help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol in combination with the flour’s fiber content. Research suggests its fiber content may help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, as it does not cause them to spike.
· Tapioca Flour: Tapioca flour is made from the starchy liquid extracted from the South American cassava root. This flour is used as a thickener in soups, sauces and pies and has no discernable flavor or taste. It can also be used in combination with other gluten-free flours in bread recipes. Aside from carbohydrates, tapioca flour provides little nutritional value in the form of fiber, protein or micronutrients. In fact, it's considered inferior to other whole-grain, gluten-free flours and often thought of as empty calories. One health benefit of tapioca flour is its resistant starch content, which functions like fiber. Resistant to digestion, this starch is linked to improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar levels, reduced appetite and other digestive benefits.
· Cassava Flour: Cassava is a starchy root vegetable or tuber native to South America. It’s also known as yucca. In contrast to tapioca flour, which is made from a starchy liquid extracted from the cassava root, cassava flour is made by grating and drying the whole root. This flour is gluten-, grain- and nut-free. It’s most similar to white flour and can easily be used in recipes calling for all-purpose flour. It has a neutral flavor and is easily digestible. It’s also lower in calories than coconut or almond flours. Cassava flour consists of mostly carbohydrates. Similar to tapioca flour, it also provides resistant starch, which has a variety of digestive system benefits. Some research suggests that the resistant starch content in this type of flour may help lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. Note that processing the cassava root may decrease the levels of resistant starch present in the flour. Because cassava flour can be used alone in food products, it’s less likely to be contaminated.
· Tigernut Flour: Despite its name, tigernut flour is not made from nuts. Tigernuts are small root vegetables that grow in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Tigernut flour has a sweet and nutty flavor that works well in baked goods. Its sweetness allows you to cut back on the sugar quantity in your recipe. Note that it’s slightly coarser than white flour and likely results in products with more texture. One-fourth cup packs 10 grams of fiber, which can help lower cholesterol. Tigernut flour is also rich in healthy monounsaturated fat, iron, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins E and C. Newer on the gluten-free market, few companies produce this flour. The risk of gluten contamination is low, as tigernuts are not grain based.