Flour Quality  

Third in a Series of Articles

by

Thom Leonard *

Thom Leonard is a baker and writer living in Lawrence, Kansas and working with Farm to Market Bread Company in Kansas City, Missouri.

What of a miller's work most influences the quality of the flour you  buy? Obviously, the cleanliness of the wheat will have a significant effect on the milling process, especially separation. Proper tempering is important, as is the proper adjustment of rolls and bolting screens. But virtually any well-run mill today does all of these jobs exceedingly well.

Blending of flours from different streams also effects flour properties. Patent flour is the "purest" flour from a mill, containing less ash because of less bran and germ residue. Clear flours have more ash, and straight grade is between patent and clear flours, being a blend of all flour streams. 

What determines the actual quality of the flour is, in most cases, the quality of the wheat. To a large degree, the miller determines this quality in selecting the wheat the mill purchases, and in blending the different lots for milling. For each type and brand of flour offered in the company's product line, the miller's main task is to make sure that the composition of the flour and its performance characteristics are generally kept within narrow parameters. A vast array of wheats are available to choose from, and experience, skill, physical testing, price, as well as the standards of the milling company, all affect which lots of wheat will be chosen.

A miller's choices are not unlimited. Wheat qualities are determined by both genetic and environmental factors. The latter include soil condition, crop management, weather throughout the growing season, and storage conditions. It is these environmental factors which are responsible for most of the differences from year to year within the same wheat classes and/or within the same growing regions. Genetic factors present millers with less short-term variation; they know well the characteristics of the major wheat categories. Over the longer term, how genetic factors affect quality is determined by the wheat breeders who develop new wheat varieties. It is these factors which are perhaps the most significant.

Before proceeding any further, we need a clearer understanding of the term "quality." In the context of this subject, quality does not simply refer to "good" or "bad" flour or wheat, but to the fact that wheat and flour possess certain properties or characteristics that contribute to their suitability to making specific types of bread and other baked goods. Quality is relative to what we want to do with the flour.  

A true artisan baker adapts each formula, and the timing of mixing, rest, scaling, molding and proofing, to variances in temperature, humidity and quality of flour. The artisan also knows that there is a smaller window of opportunity to perform each step with some flours. Or that one flour may ferment faster than another. Or that one flour may yield a dough that bakes best if put in the oven when it seems a little under proofed, while another must be pushed to what seems an over proofed stage before it gives its best. This might mistakenly lead us to think that, since every flour has the potential to be a "quality" flour in the hands of a true master, we should be happy with whatever flour is available. 

Reports from members of the 1994 Baking Team USA indicate that the flour they had available to them in France was better suited to all of their needs than we are used to here in America. The team members found French flour to be very user-friendly and forgiving, giving good results even if small mistakes were made in the process. From mixing to proofing, doughs were easy to manipulate; from crumb color and texture to overall taste and aroma, end results were noticeably better and consistent. In their judgment, French flours have better quality. 

Why is this? Do French millers manipulate the wheat to bring out these different qualities? Does the climate produce characteristics better suited to artisanal bread production, or at least artisinal French-style bread production? Has French wheat been consciously or unconsciously bred for those qualities which contribute to good French-type bread? Or have French bread making and wheat breeding co-evolved to the present state? 

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems clear that discussions of flour quality in America must go beyond considerations of what environmental and genetic conditions make available to us today. In terms of quality, we simply may not have available the wheat or flour that we need to make the bread of our dreams. The more important question for Guild members then becomes: Why do we not have our own dream wheat, and what can we do to get it?  

As stated before, wheat breeders play a significant role in the quality characteristics of wheats. The American wheat breeding program has been directed almost entirely in the direction of producing an agronomically successful, healthy crop that produces high yields. A few genetic laboratories develop strains adapted to specific microclimates and resistant to diseases and infestations.  When these strains show promise, they are test milled, test baked, and supplied to industrial bakeries for test baking. New wheat varieties will be released and marketed to farmers only if they show promise of agricultural and commercial success. 

Sometimes marketing trends influence the direction of wheat breeding. This is the case today with Hard White Wheat. Virtually unknown a few years ago, white wheat (actually tan in color) is hard red wheat which is missing the dominant genes for red color. it is being promoted because it does not have the "strong" flavor found in red bran. Whatever its baking qualities, the potential market for white wheat is seen as very large. As a result, almost all genetic research at Kansas State University today is centered on white wheat strains.

The Bread Bakers Guild has commenced a study to delve into at least some of the. issues of flour quality, from breeding to milling. Are there flour characteristics which meet the quality parameters of all artisan bakers? Are these different from those of industrial bakers? Do the wheats and/or milling procedures exist today in America? Does our market potential show enough promise to breeders, farmers and millers if they do not? 

Flour quality is a complex subject, and we must understand from the beginning that what we are likely to learn and accomplish will have inherent and unavoidable limits.

Addendum

  In the years since the above was written, there has been significant progress in the quality of wheat and flour for artisan baking.  Several mills now offer flours specifically for “artisan” breads.  In most cases these actually are different flours, not just the same old stuff in a different bag.  At least one flour company, in conjunction with bakers, has identified existing winter wheat varieties that consistently perform better for artisan breads.  This company has contracted with farmers to grow these cultivars and made flour from them available.  There is talk of packaging and marketing this flour for the home baker, though at present, to the best of my knowledge, it is only available to commercial customers.


*The Artisan thanks Greg Mistell,  Executive Director of the Bread Bakers Guild of America for permission to reproduce this series of article by Mr. Leonard.


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Last Updated on10/23/1999 08:07:22 PM