The lowdown on flour

Flour is a baker’s workhorse. It’s a staple of the bakery and fundamental to most baked goods. And with the UK bakery industry making 12 million loaves of bread and 10 million cakes and biscuits every day, we’d be lost without it (source: UK Flour Millers).

Because it's such a fixture in the bakery we can sometimes take flour for granted, so today we thought it might be nice to take a fresh look at our old friend.

First, back to basics. What is flour?

The broadest definition of flour is any powder made by grinding grains, roots, beans, seeds or nuts (see how flour is made here). That means that there are dozens of niche flours made from ingredients like coconuts, soya, almonds and rice. In the UK bakery industry though, our go to is wheat flour. Testament to that is that the UK produced 4 million tonnes of wheat flour in 2019 and most of that (69%) was for bread making.

Whilst flour typically means ground wheat, not all ground wheat is the same. The first difference between wheat flours is which parts of the wheat grain they include - endosperm, germ and bran. If the flour contains 100% of the grain then it is ‘wholemeal flour’, if some bran is removed it is ‘brown flour’ and if everything but the pale endosperm is removed, it is ‘white flour’.

After the level of refinement, the second difference between flours is in the protein content. When wheat flour is mixed with water its proteins interact with each other to form gluten. It’s this gluten level which determines whether our bakes are airy and chewy or hard and crumbly (for an in-depth accessible article on gluten see here). This means that it’s essential to choose the right flour with the right gluten level for your desired bake.

Flour made from wheat varieties with a high protein and therefore gluten content is known as ‘hard flour’. Hard flour has a gluten content of 12 – 14% and makes an elastic, chewy dough whose crumbs hold together when baked. Flour made from lower protein wheat varieties is called ‘soft flour’.  Soft flours have a gluten content of 5 – 9% and make bakes with a finer, crumblier texture.

But what about bread flour, cake flour, 00 flour and all the other varieties?

Well, each miller has their own preference for how they refer to the different hard and soft varieties they produce. Some call their hard flours just that but most call it ‘bread flour’ or ‘strong flour’.  Few refer to soft flour as soft flour preferring instead to use terms like ‘cake flour’, ‘pastry flour’ or ‘biscuit flour’ (with the name indicating the end use the gluten content is best suited for).

The other thing you might see in a flour name is a reference to how finely it is milled. For example, flour well suited to pizza dough may be labelled ‘00’ using the Italian flour grading system which classifies flour as 00 (the finest), 0, 1 or 2 (the coarsest). In the UK there is no standardised scale so the label ‘00’, ‘fine’ or ‘extra fine’ will often be used.

Another variety of course is self-raising flour. However, the ‘self-raising’ bit refers not to the flour itself but to what’s been added – baking powder (and sometimes salt). This baking powder is a leavening agent which causes carbon dioxide to be released into the batter, creating bubbles which increase the volume and lighten the texture of the bake.

And of course, whilst wheat may be the dominant base for flour in the UK but there’s a growing consumer trend towards gluten-free or low-gluten products. That’s where non-wheat flours come in. Varieties such as coconut flour and soya flour offer a gluten free alternative to wheat.

So it turns out that our old-friend flour is quite a complex character with many nuances. Why not explore something different in your bakery?

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