FLOUR: An Overview

Let’s talk about flour…the wheat variety! The other day I was chatting with some friends about the different types of flour you can buy and they seemed floored that there even existed anything other than the typical “all purpose” and “whole wheat.” I’ll admit, it can be super confusing, especially with all of the different choices and packaging out there. Did you know that farmers in the U.S. produce over 1.9 billion bushels of wheat every year? So let’s break it down:

The science behind wheat

Wheat comes from a wheat plant which produces wheat berries. A wheat berry looks like a small kernel (think about the size of a kernel of corn) and is divided into three parts bran, germ and endosperm.

  • Bran– This is the fiber and the shell of the wheat berry. When broken down it creates tiny jagged shards that give milled wheat a brown color. It makes up about 13% of the wheat berry and contains most of the mineral content of the kernel.
  • Germ– A small part of the inside of a wheat berry which contains all the fat, protein, vitamins and flavor and makes up about 3% of the wheat berry.
  • Endosperm– This makes up the majority of the wheat berry, about 84%. It is composed of starch and protein. If the label on your bag does not say “whole wheat”, your flour will be made up of only the endosperm. It is light in color and mild in flavor.

The milling process

Wheat berries can also be purchased and ground at home…with a manual or electric wheat grinder.

When the wheat berries arrive at the mill, moisture is typically added to toughen the bran and soften the endosperm, making it easier to separate the two. The berries are then ground and sifted multiple times and the resulting flours are separated. At this point, flour made from the endosperm goes through an enriching and/or bleaching process (which gives it a bright white color and results in some flavor loss). Whole wheat flour is created by mixing the ground bran, endosperm and germ.

The role of Gluten and Enzymes in Wheat and the Bread Making Process

The holes in the bread are from the gas captured by the strands of gluten.

Wheat flour produces excellent bread primarily because of the proteins that produce gluten. Wheat produces a larger amount of gluten than rye, spelt, barley and many other flours you may have heard of. This allows it to hold more gas and produce a light and airy bread. Another important part are the enzymes in wheat. They break down the complex sugars in the endosperm into simple sugars that yeast love to feed on. Yeast multiply and produce gases that are then captured by the gluten strands, which is what allows bread to rise–pretty cool, right?!!

Different Types of Wheat Grown in the U.S.

The United States grows six main types of wheat. Below is a quick summary of these and their best uses. 

Hard red wheat– Hard red wheat has both spring and winter varieties:

  1. Hard red winter: accounts for 40% of total U.S. wheat production and is used mainly in making bread flour. It is planted in the fall and harvested in the summer of the next year. It has around 10-13% protein content and is primarily used for bread baking.
  2. Hard red spring: accounts for 20% of total U.S. wheat production and is grown in the Northern plains. It has a shorter crop season and is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. It has high protein content, 12-15% and blends well with other lower-protein wheat. It is used in bread baking ie: artisan breads, bagels, pizza crust, etc… 

Hard white wheat (both spring and winter varieties)- This wheat is primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest but also a few other northern states. It accounts for 10-15 % of wheat grown in the U.S. It has a mild flavor, a high protein content and is used for whole wheat breads, some noodles, crackers, cereals, etc… The protein content is 10-14%.

Soft red wheat- This is the wheat I buy from our local mill in Kentucky. It accounts for 15-20% of the wheat grown in the U.S. and is grown in more humid states, along the Mississippi River and other eastern states. It has a lower protein content at 8.5-10%, which means it can have trouble holding the structure of a loaf of bread and is perfect for flat breads, cakes, cookies, crackers, pancakes, quick breads and pastries.

Soft white wheat- This wheat makes up 10 % of US wheat production and is grown primarily in Pacific Northwest (also a few places in Montana). It is used in pastries, biscuits, crackers, snack foods, Asian noodles and bakery products. The protein content is 8.5-10%.

Durum wheat- This is a very hard wheat. It’s grown in the Northern Plains and desert areas of Arizona and California and makes up 3-5% of total U.S. wheat production. Semolina is another name for the flour that is made from durum wheat. It has a high gluten content (12-15%) and is used primarily for pasta. The gluten that forms when durum wheat flour is mixed with liquids is not elastic like other wheat flours, so it is often used in combination with other flours.

What do protein percentages have to do with it?

The amount of protein in flour helps determine if the flour would be good for baking breads or better for batters/cakes/pastries. You will often hear of higher percentage flours called “hard flour” or “strong flour” and lower percentages of protein referred to as “soft flour.” The protein in the flour; gliadin and glutenin, turn into gluten when liquid is added. Higher protein flour produces more gluten strands which trap the carbon dioxide, creating the beautiful bread dough. The gluten also provides enough structure to hold a loaf of bread as it rises. Lower protein flours, or “soft” flours don’t create as much gluten when the proteins are mixed with liquid, and are not as good for baking bread.

Are you still with me?! That was a whole lot of background information to get to this main question! 

What does this mean for me at the grocery store? What are the different types of flour?

All Purpose Flour- This is the flour I’m sure most of us are familiar with at the grocery store. All purpose flour is a blended wheat flour composed of hard and soft wheats. It can range in protein content but is basically a good flour for all baking purposes. Often all purpose flours have been bleached and are composed of only the endosperm, which means they are not as nutritious as a whole wheat flour. I always have all purpose flour on hand because it can be used for almost anything.

Whole Wheat Flour: Whole wheat flour has all of the nutrients from the wheat berries; bran, germ, and endosperm. Look carefully at the types of whole wheat flour listed above to decide which one to choose. Many people like the flavor of white whole wheat flour (mild) while others prefer a heartier red whole wheat flour. Always choose a hard whole wheat for your yeast breads or mix some of the flours together with a high protein percentage. For pastries and quick breads choose a whole wheat flour with a lower protein percentage. 

A little visual on some of the types of flours.

Whole wheat flour is the most nutrient-rich flour available and often the least processed. Whole wheat flour can go rancid if left on the shelf too long because of the germ in the flour. Keep your whole wheat flour in the freezer to keep it fresh if you don’t think you will use it up within a month. I used to grind my own wheat berries and I would always freeze my extra flour.

One more note: once milled, the bran in the whole wheat flour has sharp edges that cut the strands of gluten which form in the dough. This is why whole grain bread can be more dense and shorter than bread made with white flour. To help compensate for this, you can add more water or some vital wheat gluten to give the finished loaf more chew and spring.

Bread Flour– Bread flour has a protein content around 13%, which helps create more gluten and more rise. It can come in white and whole wheat varieties, and dough made of bread flour holds together well. You do not want to use bread flour in baked goods that you want to be light and airy.

Cake Flour- This is a very delicate white flour with a low protein content (usually 7-8%). It is usually bleached and can make a very fine-textured crumb and a good rise in cakes and sometimes cookies. To make your own cake flour you can substitute 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in every cup of all purpose flour and sift them together before using.

Self-Rising Flour– This is a combination of all purpose flour, baking powder and salt. Many people like to use this for biscuits, though I prefer to make my own (1 cup of all purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt). 

And there you have it…probably more information than you wanted to know about flour! I hope this helps you figure out what flour will work best for your recipes. If you really want the freshest of the fresh flour, find a local mill or grind your own wheat berries. In my opinion there’s nothing better than freshly milled flour, other than freshly baked bread of course!

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Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Have you ever had Great Harvest bread? I remember going as a kid to their bread counter and enjoying a giant slice of bread slathered with butter. My favorite slice was always their honey whole wheat bread. I’ve loved it since first bite…the hint of honey, subtle nutty flavor of the wheat and the tender crumb. 

When I started making my own bread I wanted to find a recipe that could conjure all of the same feelings when I sank my teeth in. Through trial and error I landed on this recipe. I love it for the simpleness of the ingredients (only SIX). It makes delicious toast, sandwiches, breadcrumbs and an even healthier alternative to french toast. 

When I make this recipe, I always make 5 loaves of bread. I use my Bosch mixer, which can handle big batches. Making extra loaves gives me the flexibility to share a loaf, snack on a loaf and freeze a few loaves for later consumption. I don’t buy bread at any local grocery stores. This recipe has become my routine and is so quick to make once you get in the habit. I’ve listed the recipe for you as a small batch yielding 1 loaf or as a big batch yielding 5 loaves. You can adjust the recipe as you need to for your family size and purposes. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Recipe Notes: I recommend using a machine for kneading the dough if you make a large batch. If you have a KitchenAid mixer and want to make a large batch, check the total cups of flour your mixing bowl holds before using this recipe. You may want to adjust the smaller recipe to fit in your KitchenAid (double or triple it).

This recipe relies heavily on the taste of your whole wheat flour. Choose a whole wheat flour you love the taste of and your bread will be incredible. I use hard white wheat flour from our local mill. If you can find a hard red wheat, you may like mixing that with a white wheat for best flavor/results. 

The vital wheat gluten is a big reason why this bread is so tender. It helps soften the “coarseness” of the whole wheat flour. I buy a big bag on Amazon because I make this recipe A LOT.

Honey Whole Wheat Bread

Yield: 1-5 loaves 

Time: 15 minutes mix, 2 hours rise, 37 minutes bake (about 3 hours)

Ingredients

One loaf of bread

  • 1 ¼ cup warm water
  • 1 Tablespoon instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼  cup honey
  • 1 ½ Tablespoon vital wheat gluten (this helps softens the crumb–you can try leaving it out but it won’t be as soft)
  • 2½-3 cups whole wheat flour

5 loaves of bread (I make this in my Bosch mixer)

  • 6 cups warm water
  • 4.5 T instant yeast
  • 5 t. salt
  • 1 cup honey
  • ½ cup vital wheat gluten (this helps softens the bread crumb–you can try leaving it out, but it won’t be as soft)
  • 13-15 cups whole wheat flour 

Instructions

1. Mix the warm water, yeast, honey and salt together. Add half of the flour, then the vital wheat gluten and then the rest of the flour. You are looking for readiness of dough as you add your flour. If the dough can form a ball when you roll it between your fingers and is still a little bit sticky (that’s okay), then you know you can stop adding flour. Knead the dough for 5 minutes (mixer), 10 minutes by hand.

2. Let the dough rise in a warm place for about an hour or until doubled in size. Turn it out onto a workspace and separate into loaves (if making more than one loaf).

Beautiful dough ready to separate into pans; a bench scraper is a very helpful tool when working with dough
Loaves are ready for the oven

3. To shape the dough, form a small rectangle about the size of your bread pan (use your bread pan as a guide). Starting closest to you, roll the dough up tightly, pressing in at the seam with every roll. After it forms a cylinder, pinch the seam closed. Place dough into bread pan and let rise again, about an hour.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake loaves for 37 minutes. Brush tops of bread with butter. Enjoy warm OR…slice the bread for sandwiches/toast/to freeze. I let it completely cool before slicing with a bread knife.

Let your loaf cool before slicing to use as sandwiches, freeze or enjoy toasted

I often make this while my kids are at school. When they walk through the door in the afternoon and the smell of bread hits them, I love watching the smiles that light up their faces. We usually eat an entire loaf the same day I bake it. It makes for a perfect after school snack, grilled cheese for dinner or toasted with a bit of butter or jam. Give this recipe a try. I hope you love it as much as we do!