Flour, merely powdered wheat kernels, is one of the simplest ingredients in the kitchen. And yet, many of us are daunted when confronted by myriad flour options in the supermarket: bleached, unbleached, whole grain, pastry flour, all-purpose flour and more.
Here is a brief guide to help raise your understanding of flour.
What is flour, exactly?
The short answer is that flour is simply dried, powdered wheat kernels. But factors such as which parts of the kernel are used and the maturity and variety of the wheat can have a big impact on the taste, texture and nutrition of flour, as well as how it reacts to heat.
Like other cereal grains, a wheat kernel has three edible parts:
- Bran, a brown layer between the husk and the endosperm
- Endosperm, the high-carbohydrate “meat” of the kernel
- Germ, the small embryo that would grow into a new plant
Types of flour (bread flour, all-purpose, etc) depend on two main factors: the parts of the wheat kernel used and the variety of the wheat (either hard or soft; more on that later).
Whole wheat flour
The difference between white and whole wheat flour is the same as the difference between brown and white rice: Whole wheat flour includes the germ and bran, whereas white flour only includes the pale endosperm of the kernel.
White flour is softer and less sticky when made into a dough. It is sweeter and smoother than whole wheat, and white flours tend to be better for cakes and pastries (see below for more on pastry flour).
Whole wheat flour has a rougher texture and a richer, earthier flavour than white flour. Bread made from whole wheat dough is browner and denser than white bread and bears a more rustic taste, but bread dough made from whole wheat flour can be sticky and beginners may find it difficult to work with.
Nutritionally, of course, whole wheat flour is somewhat better than white, with all of the carbohydrates of the endosperm but also the vitamins and fibre of the germ and bran.
Bleached white flour
Some white flour is treated with a bleaching agent (such as peroxide), which breaks down its starches and proteins, making it softer, smoother and generally easier to work with in cooking, especially dough for bread and pasta. On the other hand, it will have a simpler, more neutral flavour profile with less overall wheaty-ness.
“Bleached” is not a particularly attractive word to describe food. Nutritionally speaking it isn’t that much different to ordinary white flour. If you’re keeping an eye on your diet though it’s best to stick with whole wheat.
Bread flour is made from “hard” wheat, a term used to describe wheat varieties with high amounts of gluten and protein. Bread flour is coarse and absorbent, and bread made from it is thick and chewy.
Pastry and cake flour
Pastry flour and cake flour are two white flours made from soft wheat (low protein and gluten), which makes for softer, fluffier deserts. Pastry flour, common for most wheat-based sweet confections, is usually unbleached, whereas the finer, more delicate cake flour is often bleached and extra-milled, making it perfect for light, fluffy cakes.
All-purpose flour is white flour usually made with a mixture of hard wheat and soft wheat (and comes both bleached and unbleached). This makes it a neutral and practical flour for most culinary needs (hence the “all-purpose” name). Whether for pasta, bread or pastries, it is hard to go wrong with all-purpose flour.
Of course, a loaf of bread, pastry or other confection made with specially-selected flour for the purpose will outshine something made by taking this safe bet. But it is smart to have some all-purpose flour on hand for moments of doubt.
Durum, semolina and 00 flour
These three high-protein flours hold their shape well for homemade pasta, although the taste and texture of the pasta will vary depending on which is used. Durum is a hard wheat flour that makes for strong, chewy dough and more textured and “wheaty” pasta.
Semolina flour uses the same components but has a coarser consistency, making for an artisanal-style pasta that holds sauces well. The very finely milled 00 flour swings the other way, producing super soft and silky pasta.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with rye, oat, barley, rice and other non-wheat grains for traditional wheat-based dishes. These have their own consistencies and flavour profiles – buckwheat, barley and rye, in particular, are far darker and have an earthier flavour than wheat. However, they can be a bit difficult for beginners to use, so try mixing these flours with ordinary wheat flour when starting out.