Kitchen 101: (Almost) Everything you knead to know about flour

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii there. I took a three day weekend from work and it feels like I’ve been on another planet or something. I’m back on planet cubicle and wishing I could blast off again, but duty calls. Or something. I realized that we were overdue for a Kitchen 101 around here, and seeing as the Blogger Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry is this weekend and I’m about to be knee deep in it, I thought I’d give you a little lesson on flour.

kitchen101

For those of us who didn’t grow up around/with prolific bakers, our first introduction to flour was probably good old All Purpose. My mom wasn’t a baker at all. In fact, I was more familiar with the yellow box of Bisquick and the Duncan Hines box than I was real flour, but we did occasionally make a batch of cookies. Sometimes, she would attempt my Granny Bea’s biscuit recipe, too. Generally speaking, though, I would have never known there was more than one kind of flour if I hadn’t spent time in my Granny’s kitchen. She introduced me to Self Rising flour, which is one of two ingredients in her “The Easy Way” biscuits.

Nowadays, even the regular grocery store will probably have a pretty overwhelming list of flours available. Not only will you see all the flours made from wheat, you’ll also find flours made from a variety of other grains and nuts. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to stick to the wheat flours for now. If you are  using alternate flours because of gluten sensitivity or other dietary concerns, my guess is that you probably know more than I do (almost nothing) about how to use them. If you have any specific questions about them that you’d like me to research for another post, feel free to leave them in the comments.  The Bob’s Red Mill website has a ton of good information, though, and they say it a lot better than I could.

Let’s do a quick review of wheat anatomy before we get started. We’ll use this handy dandy little graphic from breadpastry.blogspot.com.

anatomy_of_a_grain_of_wheat

A wheat kernel, the part we eat, is made of three components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Processed flour comes from the endosperm. If you see a flour labeled “whole grain,” this means that the bran and the germ are included.

All Purpose (AP) Flour is the most commonly used flour. As its name implies, this flour can be used in just about anything, from breads to pastries. Nearly all the AP flour sold in the US has been enriched, to add back the vitamins and minerals lost by removing the bran and the germ.

Self Rising (SR) Flour is literally just regular flour with baking powder and salt added to it. It’s great for biscuits (I promise to share my Granny’s recipe with you someday soon!), but because it already has a leavening agent in it, it gives everything bake with it a little bit of a lift. Take note that 11% protein Self Rising flours is the SR equivalent to AP flour, and the ones with 8% protein are the SR match for Cake flour. If you are using a recipe that calls for SR flour and you don’t have any on hand, just add  1 teaspoon baking powder and  1/4 teaspoon salt to each cup of AP flour and combine well before adding to the rest of your dry ingredients.

Whole Wheat Flour, or whole grain wheat flour, is made from the entire wheat kernel. Because bran is included, the gluten development is restricted. Baked goods made with this kind of flour will be denser and heavier than those made with AP flour, so many bakers use a combination of AP and Whole Wheat flour to get the texture they want.

Bread Flour is very similar to AP flour, but it has a higher gluten content. This makes it a better choice for making yeast breads. Why? The gluten helps the dough develop the elasticity it needs to hold on to the gas produced as the dough rises and the bread bakes.

Cake Flour is a much softer, more finely textured flour with low protein and higher starch than regular flour, making it ideal for pastries and cakes because it helps keep the final product tender.

Semolina Flour is the coarsely milled endosperm of durum wheat, a very hard wheat. It has a very high protein content, which makes it the perfect flour for making great pasta. It’s very rarely  used for pastries or breads all by itself, but it can be blended with AP or cake flour. This recipe from MarthaStewart.com is a great example of how to utilize semolina flour in a dessert. I’ve used it (with a few minor edits) and can vouch for it’s deliciousness. It’s still tender because of the cake flour in the recipe, but the semolina flour adds an interesting texture and flavor.

Those are the facts, kids. I hoped that helped sort things out! As I’ve mentioned in a previous Kitchen 101 post, if you have to make a choice about what flour to keep around as a staple, AP flour is the way to go. Any other kind you have on hand really just depends on the kind of baking you do.  If you keep some type of flour around for no other reason, you should have some handy to smear on your face and sprinkle in your hair when people come over for dinner so it looks like you’ve been slaving away all day, even if there isn’t a speck of flour in anything you’ve cooked. 🙂

P.S. I’ll probably remind you again on Thursday, but if you’re interested in learning more about the Blogger Bake Sale or the No Kid Hungry campaign, head on over here for the details.

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