Flour, made by milling grains such as wheat, rye, and corn, is the baker’s most essential, most basic ingredient.
The type of grain and the way the flour is milled help determine its defining characteristic: the amount of protein it contains. The protein, present in wheat flours, and in very small amount in rye and oat flour, forms what we call gluten. It is what makes the dough elastic when kneaded.
You can control the amount of gluten by the type of flour you use and how much you manipulate the dough or batter before baking: Kneading rigorously is recommended for yeast bread. Stirring the ingredients briefly instead of kneading is recommended for quick breads and cakes. It produces a mixture with little gluten and a tender crumb.
A variety of flours are used in baking. The most common are described below:
All-purpose (plain) flour: A mixture of both hard and soft wheat is the most common flour on the U.S. market. All-purpose flour is available bleached (chemically treated) and unbleached. Bleaching makes the flour whiter and increases the flour ability to hold sugar and water, while the unbleached flour tends to contain more protein and has a more agreeable flavor.
Bread Flour: is milled exclusively from hard wheat and is high in protein. This is the kind of flour you will use for example in the making of baguettes.
Cake (soft-wheat) Flour: made from soft wheat, is milled more finely than the other wheat flours and is low in protein and high in starch. It is generally the best choice for delicately crumbed cakes and similar baked goods. It has to be sifted prior to use to aerate it and to remove any lumps.
Semolina Flour: is made from durum wheat with the bran removed. It is used in some Italian breads (Ciabatta, Cocodrillo…) and desserts and to keep breads from sticking to the baking sheet. Look for a fine grind for baking (cornmeal).
Whole-wheat (Wholemeal) Flour: is ground from whole-wheat berries. It retains all three parts of the grain: the endosperm, the bran, and the germ, and therefore contains more vitamins, minerals, starch, and fiber than other flours ground from only the endosperm. It is lower in protein than all-purpose flour and gives a dense bread with a nutty, sweet flavor.
Corn is the source of many different product used in baking.The dried kernels are ground into cornmeal of different textures, from fine (also known as corn flour) to coarse. Stone ground corn meal has a nuttier flavor than fine or medium-grind cornmeal.
Silky, powdery cornstarch is ground from the heart of the kernel and used as a gluten-free thickener. I use it also to lighten up the flour in my cakes when I don’t have cake flour. The rule goes: ¾ of all-purpose for ¼ of cornstarch.
Oats: they can be ground into flour for bread making. However, being very low in gluten, you will have to combine it with wheat flour to make bread and other raised baked goods. Old- fashioned rolled oats are common in cookie and muffin recipes. They are interchangeable with quick oats in many recipes, although the old-fashioned are preferred for their superior texture. Instant oats and steel-cut oats are best for eating as cooked cereal. Oat bran is used to add flavor, texture and nutrients to yeast and quick breads.
Rye Flour: milled from rye berries, is low in protein. There are three different kinds of rye flour: dark, light and medium. Rye flour gives a distinctively flavored, dense, more rustic and earthy bread than wheat flour. Coarse dark rye flour is sometimes labeled Pumpernickel flour.
Chestnut Flour: After harvesting, chestnuts are dried then milled into flour. Being gluten-free, it can be used combined with all-purpose flour in bread making or any raised baked item. The rule goes: 30% chestnut flour for 70% all-purpose flour, or more depending on anyone’s palate. It can be used alone when making either sweet or savory crepes and tart crust. Enhances the flavor of chocolate, hazelnuts, almonds and chocolate.
Buckwheat Flour: Buckwheat is a fruit. The flour is made from the grains of the fruit. It’s gluten-free and therefore can be used alone when making bread. Because of its bitterness, it is common to combine buckwheat flour to other flours, such as wheat or potato flour.
It can be used alone in making crepes, pancakes, blinis, Japanese Soba and Pasta (mixed with semolina). It can be stored for only two months.
*Photo: Left to right, from top left: Ol-Fashioned Rolled Oats, Rye Flour, Semolina Flour, Cake Flour.