Meet the Flours – Wheat Flours

Preheat your ovens and grease your baking pans! The holiday baking season is upon us.  Most baking requires the use of flour.  Did you know that your flour choice can make a big difference in what you bake?

Once upon a time, the typical American pantry included a single canister of all-purpose flour which was used for all baking and cooking needs. Today, consumers have many choices.  Supermarket shelves host a variety of wheat and non-wheat options reflecting increased consumer interest in health, culinary skills, and ethnic cuisines. 

Flour is defined as the finely-ground, sifted meal of grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and vegetables.  While the term is broad, it is important to note that each kind of flour offers a different nutrition profile and its baking qualities will vary.  In this blog, flours made from wheat will be explored with a future blog demystifying non-wheat options.

All-purpose, unbleached all-purpose, bread, cake, pastry, whole wheat, white whole wheat, self-rising, instant (Wondra), high-fiber (Flourish), gluten (Vital Wheat Gluten) and semolina are just some of the current wheat flour offerings at the supermarket.  Each flour has its own distinct qualities ranging from the variety and genetics of wheat used, protein content, and how finely it’s ground.  Each factor affects the way it acts once made into a batter or dough. To determine which type of wheat is the best match for a recipe, it’s important to understand how the variety, color, and protein content (hardness) affects the flours that they produce.

Here’s a breakdown of the differences to help the home baker determine which sack of flour to reach for.

Wheat Varieties.  American farmers grow wheat varieties that are grouped into six major classes–hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard white, soft white, and durum. The first five account for 95% of wheat used in baking and cooking with the remaining 5% in the durum category.  Winter wheat has a relatively low protein content (10-12%) while spring wheat yields a higher protein content (12-14%).  Wheat varieties are commonly blended to create the desired protein content of a particular product.  The color of wheat—red or white—refers to the color of the bran and affects the taste and appearance of baked goods. Red wheat contains tannins that provide a more robust flavor and a reddish color. White wheat yields a milder flavor and a light color. The difference in the two is only relevant to whole grain flours which contain the bran; taste and appearance is not affected by refined flours where the bran is removed during processing. 

Wheat Hardness. Wheat flours contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten, when mixed with water, forms an elastic framework which allows batter or dough to stretch and expand when a leavening agent is added, producing a gas, causing baked products to rise.  The various types of wheat flours contain different amounts of gluten based on the hardness of the wheat, the most crucial factor in selecting a wheat flour. Hard wheat has a higher protein and gluten content (11-15%) than soft wheat (5-9%), meaning hard wheat has more capacity for gluten development than soft wheat. For this reason, hard wheat is best suited for doughs that require a strong gluten network and produce an open, chewy crumb, while soft wheat, with its lower gluten strength is more suitable for more delicate pastries and cakes with a tight and tender crumb. Further, the time of harvest affects the protein content.  Winter wheat has a relatively low protein content (10-12%). Spring wheat has a higher protein content (12-14%), and is often ground to make bread flour or is blended with winter wheat to produce an all-purpose flour. Different brands are blended in slightly different ways [1] so it is not a given that the protein content of one label is the same as the next. Further, most labels do not include the gluten forming content; an exception is King Arthur.

Type of Wheat FlourProtein ContentDescription and Uses
All-Purpose  Unbleached All-Purpose9-12%Refined blend of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. Milled with only the endosperm— not bran or germ. Used for baking, thickening and breading. Usually sold pre-sifted. Some fortified with calcium and vitamins A or D. Bleached and unbleached all-purpose flours can be used interchangeably.
Bread12-14%Refined flour made from hard wheat and a small amount of barley flour. Very high gluten content. Used for bread making. Bread and all-purpose flour can be used interchangeably in a 1-to-1 ratio with different texture outcomes.
“00”12-13%Finely ground Italian flour used for pizza doughs; similar to bread flour but finer
Cake
Pastry
7-8%
8-9%
Fine-textured refined flour made from soft wheat. High in starch. Used for tender cakes and pastries.
Self-Rising8.5%All-purpose flour with added salt and baking soda. Convenience product not generally used for yeast breads. Leavening action of baking soda can diminish if stored too long.
Whole Wheat
White Whole Wheat
11-15%Whole-wheat flour is made from hard red spring or winter wheat, which has a nutty, hearty taste. White whole-wheat flour is made from hard white spring or winter wheat, which has the exact same nutritional value of whole-wheat flour, but because of the variety used, has a milder flavor and paler color. Either provide more fiber and nutrients when used in place of or mixed with all-purpose flour. Makes a heavier, heartier bread and baked good. Have a shorter shelf-life than all-purpose flour. 
Instant (Wondra)10.5%Instant flour is a low-protein, finely ground wheat flour that has been pre-cooked and dried. While other flours can seize up and clump when heated or stirred into liquid and must be cooked to get rid of its raw taste, instant flour instantly dissolves in liquids and won’t form lumps.  Great for gravies and sauces.  Should not be used for baking.
High Fiber (Flourish)N/A        All-purpose flour rich in prebiotic fiber to support digestive and immune health. A non-GMO flour made from high amylose wheat provides five times more fiber than traditional all-purpose flour with fewer net carbs.  Has the same look, taste and texture of all-purpose flour. Water adjustment may be necessary in some recipes. Performs very well across a wide range of baking applications.

Gluten
(Vital Wheat Gluten)
6 5-80%The natural gluten protein found in wheat with most starch removed. A small amount added to yeast bread recipes improves the texture and elasticity of the dough. Also a staple used as a binding agent for meat dishes and meat substitutes (seitan).
Semolina13%Generally coarsely-milled, refined hard durum wheat flour. Used for pasta, couscous, gnocchi and puddings.

Wheat Flour Substitutes. One should always use the type of flour a recipe calls for to insure the best baking outcome.  Substitutions can be made when a given ingredient is not available.  Here are some common substitutions from the UNL [2]:

Type of FlourAmountSubstitute
All-Purpose Flour1 cup½ cup whole wheat flour plus ½ cup all-purpose flour
Cake Flour
Pastry Flour
1 cup
1 cup
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1:1 ratio for all-purpose for pie crust and similar pastries
Self-Rising Flour1 cup1 cup minus 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour plus 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt

Wheat Flour Safety.  Wheat flour is a raw food. During growth, it is exposed a variety of harmful bacteria like Salmonella, and E. coli. The Food and Drug Administration advises that one never eat or taste raw flour, dough, or batter.  Cooking or baking is the only way to be sure that foods made with flour are safe by heating the flour high enough to kill harmful bacteria.

Sources:
Choose the Right Flour When Baking, Brenda Aufdenkamp, UNL Food, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Flour Power: Learn about Different Kinds of Flours, Roberta Larson Duyff, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Flour Protein Content by Type and Brand, philpom, Kumdoguru.com
Flour Q&A, JoEllyn Argabright, K-State Research and Extension, Rawlins County
Types of Flour:  A Guide, Kristina Razon, Serious Eats.com


Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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