Throughout my childhood, many fond memories came to life in my mother’s kitchen during early morning breakfasts, family dinners and impatient post-church lunchtime hunger rumblings. Our family lived in three different houses over the years, with kitchens of various size and color. The one constant I can recall is a set of three non-descript, rustically-decorated ceramic containers always containing sugar, yellow cornmeal and all purpose flour. Of these three basic ingredients, flour went particularly unnoticed on my part, aside from occasional batches of breakfast biscuits or cinnamon rolls. As I grow as a chef, however, I find myself reliant upon it on a daily basis. Flour seems almost paradoxical in that it serves as a very basic ingredient for so many everyday food items, yet is quite complex both in its composition and means of production.
Flour can be produced by grinding corn, potatoes, rice, various nuts, chickpeas, hemp, coconuts, and many other ingredients. In the United States, however, the most widely produced and consumed type of flour is produced by grinding the grain or fruit of the wheat plant. Consisting of endosperm, germ and bran, wheat grain can become different types of flour based on which of its components are included in the grinding process. The endosperm is the body of the seed and contains most of the starch and thusly protein that will be present in the flour. The germ is the embryo inside the seed which germinates to produce more wheat plants. While it too contains protein and many desirable nutrients, germ also contains polyunsaturated fats that cause flour to spoil quickly after production and is commonly removed during the grinding process for storage purposes. Bran forms the husk of the wheat seed and contains a majority of the fiber available from wheat flour. White flour, the most commonly available, requires the removal of the bran and germ to produce the required color and texture. Whole wheat flour contains the entire grain and is prized for its nutritional value, but not appropriate for many culinary applications of flour due its texture and high protein content.
The different types of white flour are categorized based on their protein or gluten content, which determines what they can be used to make. “Gluten” is a direct translation from the Latin word for glue, which is fitting since it gives dough its elasticity. Denser baked goods such as bread and pizza dough require flour higher in gluten to form properly. Cakes and pastries are generally much less dense in texture, so they require flour with much lower gluten levels. The amount of gluten a particular type of flour contains primarily depends on the type of wheat it is comprised of. Certain varieties of wheat naturally contain high levels of gluten and are commonly referred to as “hard” wheat. Other varieties naturally contain low levels of gluten and are commonly referred to as “soft” wheat. Flour producers choose the type of wheat they need for their given application, but also generally have to rely on chemical additives that manipulate both the gluten levels and the color of the flour. For instance, potassium bromate and ascorbic acid is often added to mature the flour and thus strengthen gluten levels. Chlorine, conversely, vastly lowers gluten content and is almost always present in cake flour to ensure its gluten level remains low.
Cake flour contains the lowest gluten levels of any of the readily available flours in the United States. Having a protein content of only six to eight percent, it makes perfect light batter to produce the moist, fluffy cakes everyone loves. Pastry flour has protein levels that fall in the range of nine to ten percent. The upper level of this range slightly overlaps with all purpose flour, but pastry flour has a much lighter texture, making it perfect for pie crusts, crackers, cookies, tarts and even biscuits. All purpose flour has a protein range of nine to twelve percent. Since it falls right in the middle of the range of protein contents available, it can be used for many applications, hence the name. The fact that all purpose flour is produced from a general mixture of the different types of wheat grain makes it more abundant and available to the consumer and much cheaper as well. The only down side to all purpose flour is that it is almost always bleached to remain white since it contains many different types of wheat. This strips away even more of the nutrients already dismal in number from the removal of the bran and germ earlier in the production process. The largest concentration of proteins in the different readily available flour types belongs to bread flour or high-gluten flour. Containing between ten and thirteen percent protein, bread flour is made from strictly “hard” wheat and provides the yeast commonly used in making bread and dough with plenty of food to keep them happy during the proofing process.
I feel like the bread application of flour really brings home the importance of the role it plays in our society. Many people take for granted that the loaf of bread in their cupboard will always be there. That if it runs out or spoils, more is available right down the road. In fact, though, throughout history, and sadly even still today, people line up in the streets and wait for just a chance that they might get a loaf of bread. If they do not, eating may not be an option that day. Wheat crops throughout the world form an irreplaceable link in the food production chain that keeps food on our tables. So when eating that breakfast biscuit or loaf bread with a ham sandwich, take a little time to appreciate the seemingly mundane flour that composes it. Life would not be the same without it.