Flour Descriptions & Definitions

Quaglia of the Instituto Nazionale della Nutrizione in Rome, Italy (1) informs us that when the wheat cultivated in Canada [Manitoba], and the US is milled, the result is strong flour characterized by elevated insoluble protein (gluten forming) content and diminished starch content. By contrast, when the wheat cultivated in Italy, France, England, and partly in Australia, is milled, the result is weak flour characterized by elevated starch content and a diminished insoluble protein content.  Consequently, duplicating European bread using American and Canadian flours may be an exercise in futility unless the baker, whether at home or in a commercial bakery, understands the physical and chemical characteristics of the flours available to him or her and adjusts his or her formulas and recipes accordingly. 

Exact US equivalents for European flours do not exist.   Different categories are used in each country as universally accepted nomenclature does not exist in this field.   A clear and concise description of the differences in flour in France and the US can be found in a text authored by Bilheux, Escoffier, Herve, and Pouradier (2).  The discussion lends itself as much to the description of the characteristics of Italian flour as to French.   To wit:

"Flour: There are many types of white wheat flours, each having its own particular characteristics. Although the recipes in this book were originally based on French flours, we have tried to find the best possible substitutes for the flours called for in each recipe; but keep in mind these are meant to be substitutions and in no way are they to be considered direct correlations.

In France, [Artisan Note: In Italy as well] flour tends to be softer and lower in gluten and protein than in the United States.  Flour milled from soft wheat does not have the elasticity required for breads. Therefore the French wheat is sometimes milled with hard wheat imported from the United States or Canada. This makes it difficult to duplicate the same flour in another country.  Flour in the United States with similar specifications as flour in France may respond very differently when used.  This does not mean, as many frustrated bakers have thought in the past, that wonderful French breads are out of reach outside of France. Though identical results are difficult to recreate in another country, equally good bread can be achieved.  We recommend that the reader try different brands and types of flours available to find the flour that works best for them ...

Below are descriptions of various types of white wheat flours available in the United States.  The germ and bran are removed from the kernel when white flour is milled, even though they contain nearly all the fiber and B vitamins; they are removed because they also negate the elastic properties of the gluten, which is so vital to the texture and crumb of the bread.  The flours discussed here are milled from soft spring and soft winter wheat, which are generally grown in eastern states, and hard spring and hard winter wheat, which are grown in the northern Midwest and Canada.   Soft flour contains 8.4 to 8.8 percent protein, 0.44 to 0.48 percent ash, 1 percent fat, and 76 to 77 percent starch. Hard flour contains 11.2 to 11.8 percent protein, 0.45 to 0.50 percent ash, 1.2 percent fat, and 74 to 75 percent starch.  The higher protein found in hard flour indicates a higher level of gluten, which results in a more elastic, better-textured bread. The ash content is the quantity of ash resulting after burning a given amount of flour. The lower the ash content, the higher the quality of the flour. The hard wheat flours most concern the bread baker.

In the United States, the improver azodicarbonamide is often added to flours to mature them. It is activated when the flour is mixed into the dough. This helps strengthen the gluten and consequently improves the elasticity and rising of the dough. Natural maturing takes from two to three months.

Straight flour is considered a good flour to use for bread making.  It is 100 percent extraction flour.  The extraction rate is the amount of flour obtained from wheat after milling, when the bran and germ are removed, leaving the endosperm, which contains most of the protein and carbohydrates.  For example, based on 100 pounds of wheat, approximately 72 pounds of flour remains after extraction; the other 28 pounds is used for feed.   The entire 72 pounds or 100 percent, of the remaining flour is straight flour. Straight flour is used to make patent, clear, and low-grade flours.

Patent flour is the purest and highest-quality commercial wheat flour available.  Patent flour is made from the center portion of the endosperm.  Patent flour is classified inWheatKernal.jpg (12482 bytes) five categories, depending on the amount of straight flour it obtains.  Extra short or fancy and first patent flours are made from soft wheat and are used for cake flours. Extra short or fancy patent contains 40 to 60 percent straight flour. First patent flour contains 60 to 70 percent straight flour.  Short patent flour made from hard wheat is the most highly recommended commercially milled flour for bread baking, it contains 70 to 80 percent straight flour. Medium patent flour contains 80 to 90 percent straight flour and is also excellent for bread baking, as is long patent flour, which is made with 90 to 95 percent straight flour.  It is up to the baker to determine which of these flours best serves his or her purposes.

Clear flour is the by-product of straight flour that remains after patent flour is removed.   Clear flour is graded into fancy, first clear, and second clear.  Clear flour is darker in color than the other flours previously mentioned, as it is made from the part of the endosperm closest to the bran.  Fancy clear flour, milled from soft wheat, is used to make pastry flour.  First clear, milled from hard wheat, is often blended by the baker with low-gluten flours to lighten the texture of breads such as rye or whole-wheat yet maintain the deep color desirable in such breads.  Second clear flour has a very high ash content, is very dark, and is not generally used for food.

Stuffed straight flour is straight flour with some clear flour added.

The following types of flours are made from some of the flours discussed above.  They are often named by their application rather than how they are milled.

Cake flour has the least amount of gluten of all wheat flours, making it best for light, delicate products such as sponge cakes, genoise, and some cookie batters.  Made from extra short or fancy patent flour, milled from soft wheat, cake flour often comes bleached, which gives it a bright, white appearance. In this book, flours are assumed to be unbleached unless otherwise indicated.

Pastry flour also has a low gluten content, though it contains a bit more than cake flour.  Made from fancy clear flour, a soft wheat flour, it is used for making tart and pie doughs, some cookie batters, and muffins.

All-purpose flour is made from a blend of hard wheat flours or sometimes a blend of soft and hard wheat flours.   All-purpose flour varies throughout regions in the United States; blends are often determined by the flours available and the cooking styles of the area.  It is called all-purpose flour because it is intended for most baking needs for general household use, not commercial use, where having several different flours, each used for a specific purpose, is feasible.

High-gluten flour is milled from hard wheat and has an especially high protein content, making it high in gluten.  It is often blended by the baker with other low-gluten flours to give them more strength and elasticity.  It is also used for particularly crusty breads and pizza doughs. It does not darken the color of the final product, as does clear flour."

The information that follows reviews a variety of sources in an effort to present information relevant to the flours used in bread baking.  One purpose that we hope  to serve by including the detailed and technical sections that   follows is to more clearly describe the properties of flour found in the US and in Italy, and to assist interested readers in developing insights into the complexity of our task --- making and baking breads.   We have included this because a number of visitors to The Artisan have requested an in depth discussion of flours.  Such a discussion is pbbga_Gif.gif (5747 bytes)ointless without the technical details.  Unfortunately much of the test information necessary to understand the flour with which you may be working is not provided by the manufacturer. It should be.   The  Bread Bakers Guild of America is attempting to remedy this situation.  Should you wish to join in this effort, log onto their site (Click on the logo at Right)  and let them know.  It is important for the baker, whether a home or a commercial baker,  to realize that the information is available at the mill.   Perhaps if more of us demanded this information we would not have to bake breads in what amounts to "the dark".