A short introduction to flours

How many types of flour are out there? Countless. Out of these flours, even seasoned bakers know only a handful of flours they were lucky enough to work with. There are a few countries that have centuries old tradition when it comes to farming grains and milling the cereal into what every baker needs for their bread. France and Italy are definite leader when it comes to flour production, but there are a few other countries that are challenging them now, amongst which the U.K., Germany and Scandinavian countries deserve a mention.

So, just to scratch the surface of the world of flours, you may know the difference between:

  • White flour – which is the most refined type of flour, obtained by milling the endosperm and removing the bran and germ. It is the most common type of flour used anywhere, as it is easily found and does not pose major difficulties in handling.
  • Wholemeal flour – which is obtained, more or less, by milling the entire grain and, as such, has a high fiber and mineral content. It also adds a taste component, but it is not so easy to handle as white flour.

Well, a bit more complicated

But, of course, it is not that simple. Between these two types of flour, there is a world of flours out there and just to add more confusion, each country has their own standards and labeling systems

  • Here, in Romania, flour producers mark their products by specifying the residual ash content (don’t worry, there is no ash in your flour, this is a system based on burning the flour and measuring out the residual ash left at the end).
  • In Italy, flour producers signal the differences between flour by types (tipo), the smaller the figure that follows the more extracted and white your flour is. So:
  • A tipo 00 will be the most extracted and white flour
  • Tipo 0 will usually be a white flour designated for various uses (from bread to pizza, focaccia etc.)
  • Tipo 1 will mean the flour includes some germ and bran, which should also be visible
  • Tipo 2-3 will be wholemeal flours.
  • In France, flours are labeled with Ts, the greater the figure, the more bran and germ the flour contains. A few examples
  • T55 is a flours usually designated for pastries
  • T65 is a white bread flour (usually higher in protein than the T55)
  • T80 is a slightly less extracted flour than T65, also designated for bread etc.
  • In Germany, they also label the flours with numbers, but numbers in Germany greatly differ from the ones used by flour producers in other countries (Scheiße, that’s complicated).

And just to make things even more complicated, there are significant differences between flour producers in the same country in terms of how they standardize and label their products.

It can surely be a bit confusing, especially if you’re just embarking in bread making, but one piece of advice we have is that you learn to read the flour labels in terms of uses (what can you to make with it) and what are the attributes in that flour that can help you rather than try and translate that label intro another country’s.

May the force be with you

Another factor worth mentioning is flour strength measured by its W index. The greater the W index, the stronger the flour and the more water it absorbs.

The lower the W index, the less water the flour absorbs. In addition, flour with a lower W index forms a weaker and wider dough.

Plain flour has a W index of between 180 and 250. The index increases for strong or very strong types of flour, up to Manitoba flour which is flour with W index equal to or higher than 350, absorbing up to 50% more water than a weak flour. That is a consideration you must have when you’re working with very strong flours, as you might get a very dry dough if you will not adjust the water content. Manitoba or strong flours can be used on their own or together with other types of flour which can contribute favorably to the taste and texture of the end product.

The weeds

A few words regarding types of cereal out there:

  • Common wheat is, well, the most common cereal in the world. Just about everyone has dealt with this kind of wheat and has eaten bread made out of this very common cereal. Wheat doughs form gluten networks that are capable to trap gas bubbles inside and expand, thus creating that airy look. Wholemeal wheat doughs however tend to be more dense.
  • Ancient grains are types of grains that have been farmed since the oldest times and have kept their taste intact due to the fact that they have undergone less hybridization than other crops.
  • Spelt, einkorn and emmer – 3 different types of grains, with somewhat similar attributes. They form very weak gluten networks (that does not mean they are gluten free though) and have a taste nutty taste profile. Doughs made with these cereal are usually quite sticky and hard to manage and they are more commonly used in conjunction with other flours that can sustain a well developed gluten network, using the addition of ancient grains to improve the taste profile of the loaf.
  • Kamut or Khorasan wheat – is a type of wheat with a high protein content, which can sustain the development of a very strong dough and it has a nutty and buttery taste profile. It is one of the best tasting flours there are out there. However, it is also very expensive, it can cost much more than regular wheat flours.
  • Durum wheat – or semolina flour, it is a yellowish flour which can form a very strong dough and has a rather sweet taste profile.
  • Rye is a cereal that is used broadly, especially in the northern and Scandinavian countries. Rye doughs are very particular in the way they develop. Whilst wheat doughs develop gluten networks, rye doughs are based on starches and some sugars named pentosans. Whilst a small proportion of rye in a wheat dough can greatly contribute to both taste and fermentation of the dough, a high proportion rye dough requires special knowledge and understanding of the particular processes that happen inside it. More details, here (link catre Art 2 din aceeasi sectiune).

So what flours should you use in a dough? Well that is for you to experiment and decide what works for you and what doesn’t, the flavors you enjoy and the ones that don’t quite hit the spot. All we’re saying is, if you wouldn’t eat the same food every day, why would have the same bread every day? So don’t be afraid to try out new flour combos and discover the world of bread.

Happy baking!