What is a high-protein flour? Is protein good or bad?
What is gluten? What is the relationship between protein and gluten? Is gluten bad?
What is the difference between hard and soft grains? What is the difference between strong and weak flours? Which flour is suitable for baking what?
What is the difference between white flour and whole wheat flour? What else is there beyond white flour and whole wheat flour?
What do the ‘0’s in Italian flours mean? What is “tipo 00”?
If white flour is all refined carbohydrates and sugar, what substitutes are there?
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Protein in flours is necessary for bread, cakes and any recipe. It is the protein that, when mixed with water, forms the gluten web that gives dough strength and elasticity. This gluten web allows the dough to maintain its shape, and is essential for loaves to rise. So high-protein flours are ideal when the recipe calls for a long fermentation process, or when you want to make something very high. In other words, high-protein flours are easier to work with. Industrial baking that requires doughs to be mixed at high speed with little to no hand kneading definitely need flour with very high protein content.
As high-protein grains withstand transformation (milling, mixing, proofing, etc.) better than low-protein grains, grain quality – and selling price – is often determined solely by protein content. As such, industrial producers have sought to increase the protein content in their grains, by focussing on wheat varieties that respond well to methods such as nitrogen and sulfur fertilisation. When done intensively and excessively, other grain qualities are compromised. Refined gluten may also be added to fortify the flour (making it easier to mill, transport, store and use machinery when baking). There is therefore a difference between grains that are naturally high in protein, and those whose protein content are artificially pumped up. Though to date there has been no conclusive evidence directly linking the increase in wheat-related health problems to the enhanced protein – and therefore gluten – content in wheat, we can safely say that grains naturally high in protein (such as ancient varieties) are definitely more in harmony with our bodies than standardised wheat varieties specially selected and bred for large-scale commercialisation.
Flour contains two gluten-forming proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When flour comes into contact with water, these two proteins create an interlace known as a gluten web. The gluten web is formed as the dough is kneaded – mixing at high speed for a longer time results in a dough that is very strong. This gluten web allows the dough to maintain its shape, and is essential for loaves to rise.
Gluten, however, requires a strong stomach acid to digest. When excessive gluten is consumed, it may not be digested efficiently enough and can cause inflammations. The key word here is “excessive”. Modern wheat varieties have been selectively bred to respond well to protein-enhancing methods and therefore contain more gluten-forming protein. Refined gluten may also be added to fortify the flour (making it easier to mill, transport, store and use machinery when baking). Moreover, the non-naturally occurring nature of these gliadins and glutenins may be of a completely different quality than naturally-occurring proteins in grains that are not on “steroids” (today they are known as ancient grains). Though to date there has been no conclusive evidence directly linking the increase in wheat-related health problems to the enhanced – and excessive – gluten in modern wheat varieties, we question why gluten-containing grains had nourished past generations without creating any trouble. In addition, methods such as using wild yeast and long fermentations kick start the process of breaking down the gluten structure, lending our digestive systems a hand.
The “hardness” of a grain refers to how resistant the starchy endosperm (the middle layer of a grain) is during the milling process. A hard grain requires more work before it can be milled into flour.
The strength of a flour, on the other hand, refer to its protein content. A strong flour has high protein content to form a strong gluten web, which is necessary for recipes that call for proofing. In the English speaking world, the adjectives strong and weak to describe flours are often interchangeable with the adjectives hard and soft. However, while hard grains tend to produce strong flour and soft grains tend to produce weak flour, this is not a hard and fast rule.
Strong flours with high protein content (whether naturally-occurring or enhanced artificially) are increasingly known as bread flour, as they are ideal for baking loaves that need to rise. On the other hand, crumbly cookies and shortcrust pastries call for a weak flour, like all-purpose flour, as they do not need the gluten structure to support long fermentation processes. Soft and fluffy cakes require the least protein content and therefore cake flour has been invented to fill this gap.
So, bread flour, all-purpose flour and cake flour have been developed to meet specific needs. Before these specially manufactured standardised flours existed, people counted on the naturally-occurring protein content in different types of grains and different varieties of wheat to get the perfect flour strength for their delicacies. By understanding the role of protein, gluten and strength, we are empowered to make use of 100% natural grains and flours instead of turning to enhanced products.
White flour comes from grains that are stripped of their bran (the outer coating) and the germ (the centre) during the milling process, and only contains the starchy endosperm (the middle layer). In nutritional terms, white flour is stripped of its fibres, vitamins and minerals. Whole wheat flour offers a more wholesome alternative. However, in most large-scale industrial production, it makes economic sense for vendors to directly mill grains into white flour and then throw in some bran to make “whole wheat flour”. This is why products made with whole wheat flour sometimes lack harmony, as the grain had been separated right from the start. On the other hand, 100% stone-milled flour contains all the different parts and nutritional properties of grains. As nothing is added nor removed as the grains pass through the stone discs, the bran, endosperm and germ of the grains stay together. They are sometimes sieved after milling to remove larger pieces of bran. Products made with stone-milled whole wheat flour are well-balanced and the huskiness of the bran does not disrupt the smoothness of the starchy endosperm. At the same time, the fragrance and flavours contained in the bran and germ are present, giving personality to the flour.
Now take this reasoning one step further, into the world before grains were standardised and transformed into a cash crop. Stone-milled, the unique properties (taste, texture, aroma, nutrition) of different varieties of grains are retained and expressed when baked. Beyond white flour and whole wheat flour, there is a whole world of grains to be explored and enjoyed.
Recipes that have an Italian origin often call for “farina tipo 00”. The number of 0’s refer to how refined the flour is, and has nothing to do with the type of grain or the variety of wheat.
- Integrale: Whole wheat flour, with the entire bran and germ
- 2: with large pieces of bran and germ sieved out
- 1: with large and medium pieces of bran and germ sieved out
- 0: obtained by mechanical milling, consists mainly of the starchy endosperm with a tiny amount of bran
- 00: obtained by mechanical milling, consists of only the starchy endosperm
- Manitoba: fortified white flour, with a high protein content similar or superior to that of bread flour
Tipo 0 and 00 are similar to white all-purpose flour, whereas tipo 1, 2 and integrale are obviously the nutritionally superior counterparts. In the absence of protein enhancers or refined gluten, tipo 0 and 00 flours are weak and unsuitable for baking that requires fermentation, such as making bread. Unfortunately, today many of us are used to the soft fluffiness of refined flour, unaware that it is essentially refined carbohydrates rich in sugar with 00 nutritional value. Fortunately, there are alternatives if we start considering the type of grain or variety of wheat instead of counting the 0s.
It appears that to obtain certain products, we have to resort to refined flour, along with their protein and gluten enhancers. However, delicious breads, cakes and all kinds of flour-based products had been equally produced and enjoyed by generations of people before wheat was standardised and transformed into a cash crop and before massive steam rollers were the norm. What they had, that we unfortunately are running out of, was access to different types of grains and varieties of wheat. By selecting grains or blends of grains according to the product they wanted to create, they managed to achieve results and delight the family with the guarantee that they were feeding their loved ones only 100% real, natural goodness. Today, especially amidst growing concerns about wheat-related health problems, more are turning towards these ancient grains as a tasty and wholesome alternative to commercial white flour.