The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Flour-pedia required

foolishpoolish's picture

Flour-pedia required

My apologies if the following sounds like an anti-intellectual post but it is an attempt to write down and express the great difficulty I have with 'understanding flour'.

First there's the type of wheat (or rye or spelt etc. etc. etc.) - what season did the crop grow? Is it red or white? How long has it been stored? Has it been malted? Did it rain on the weekend before it was harvested and what did the farmer have for breakfast that day?
Add some confusion bout protein and ash content.

On the one hand I read that high gluten gives you better gluten structure, greater extensibility and 'strength' contributing to higher rise and open crumb. Then almost in direct contradiction, I have read elsewhere that lower gluten is better for obtaining an open crumb and gives a more extensible dough. Throw in some vagaries about minerals and yeast fermentation, role of protein in crust formation (maillard from the breakdown of proteins presumably??) . Not to mention the 'quality' of protein (however you manage to measure that??!!).
Then I learn that protein is not equivalent to gluten...and that gluten is just part of the protein equation..oh and fling in some protease for good measure.

Then you go to a manufactuer's website where each flour is being touted as 'ideal for artisan baking' - whatever the hell that means?! Then you go to an artisan bread resource and you get home milling put into the equation...
Oh my goodness the milling!
...we have first clear, patent, 'matured' flour vs fresh flour, sifted whole wheat, high extraction, fine milled, coarse milled, stone milled....heather mills???

Eeek (and we haven't even got to mixing the dough yet!)
I'm no genius but I don't consider myself an idiot either ...I've honestly tried to follow the science and logic. Yet I come away feeling like I have ultimately learned nothing all the while losing confidence in the humble ol' bag of store-bought flour I have to bake with.

I admire the people who understand this far better than I do. Their dedication is amazingly inspiring! I just don't know what I'm missing in my understanding...some special training? some secret knowledge? some rosetta baking stone to decode the mysteries of bread?
Is there any hope in this big bread world of ours for someone like myself?


Oldcampcook's picture

At the risk of being ostracized by other members of this fine group, I must admit to my failings.

I use generic bleached all purpose flour which I buy from a large store in 25 lb bags. I also use their brand of generic bleached bread flour which I buy from their warehouse affiliate.

Now, I have only been baking, mostly sourdough, for about two years, even though I am older than dirt.

I am happy with my breads, my significant other loves my yeasted breads, my neighbors contribute money and flour for my breads and my "guinea pigs" at work think I am the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Is my bread perfect?  Probably not.  Does it measure up to other breads?  I don't know, because I have no other bakers in the area that I know of.

Am I continuing to learn?  You betcha!  Especially from TFL members.  I read and read and read and experiment a little.  Am I scientific about it?  Nope, just enough to try some different things in an effort to get even better breads.

Am I happy?  You betcha.  I love to bake and do it every weekend.  It is my hobby and my obesssion.


Eli's picture

Thank heavens I am not the only one  confused! I am using my "rosetta stone" to a bake a plain old white with Hi Gluten flour that came in a brown bag as I type this! LOL

colinwhipple's picture
proth5's picture

As one who has indulged in single factor experiments, milled, aged, and malted flour, and read paper after paper, I have this advice:

Take a deep breath.  Chill.

Are there minimum requirements for flour for bread?  Yes.  And  in truth, maybe not the humblest of generic all purpose flours will meet these requirements, but most do.  High gluten flours are needed for some applications - but just a few - and formula writers are usually clear.

Bwraith and I both puzzled over the fact that he was producing beautiful bread with flour that, according to lab test results, was unusable for baking.  We reached no conclusions and we both continue to mill and bake (and experiment.)

I am currently puzzling over the fact that my levain should be dead by now, yet it raises loaves every week.

After all, to quote:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." F. Scott Fitzgerald

And while I am fairly sure that I don't have a first rate mind, I am almost certain you do.  So sometimes the theory just doesn't jive with the practice.  It was ever thus.

The science is fun (for some of us!) but bread is still more art than science.  Enjoy the art.  Learn to use your senses and enjoy the pleasure of the process.  If the science contradicts, so what?  If the bread is good, the bread is good. 

What I have learned is only that there is much still to learn, but the bread is still good.

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, FP. 

Just as cold fermentation helps bread develop a fuller flavor, so chilling out, while slowing things down, results in greater baking expertise and confidence in the long run. 

Trying to memorize protein percentages and other flour parameters by rote is pretty unproductive. I sincerely believe that experiential learning will serve you best. What's that mean? Choose a small number of breads you really like and make them over and over again. Critique your products. Sometimes, correcting their shortcomings will be a matter of technique, sometimes a matter of ingredients. Try to be specific and concrete in identifying how you would like to improve a bread. If you don't know how to accomplish it, ask. 

Try baking breads with which you have become familiar and comfortable with a different flour or mix of flours. Notice the differences in things like water absorbtion, elasticity of the dough, extensibility of the dough, taste of the bread, texture of the crumb, etc. 

Over time (measured in months and years), you will become familiar with the performance of different flours and, regardless of how the specs read, know how they would alter the breads you make. At that point, determining which parameters have what effects will make a lot more sense, and you will be able to anticipate the results you are likely to get by altering a recipe using new ingredients. 

Sometimes, a particular flour will have distinctive characteristics that you can't account for. But that doesn't mean you can't take advantage of them. It might be this flour makes a more extensible dough. That flour has a particular flavor you like. Another flour might always require you to add 2% more water than a recipe calls for to get the dough consistancy you want. Etc. 

So, don't rush it. A slow rise is a good thing.  

And don't forget to enjoy yourself! Have fun, dammit! ;-)


GrapevineTXoldaccount's picture

too much to learn, not enough time to learn it in, so I think it is best that I simply admit:

I'm winging it and remembering that when the results are less than what I'd hoped for, they are still in the category of Cave-Girl bread....I'll bet that girl didn't toss out the bad stuff, either.

If the family is hungy enough, they'll eat it, if not, guess what?  I serve it as toast, buttered or dipped in egg and milk.  (What they don't know, can't hurt

JMonkey's picture

Sure there's hope! More than hope! Baking, like most hobbies, can be something you get very, very deep into or something that you just enjoy doing. As far as flour is concerned, just know that:

  • "Bread" flour will usually give you a high rise (good when you've got lots of goodies in the loaf like nuts or seeds) and a pretty chewy crumb.
  • All purpose or artisan flour will give you more flavor, but less rise.
  • Pastry flour is ideal for muffins, pancakes and waffles, but won't make a good loaf of yeast bread.

Rye is a different animal altogether and, unless you're using small amounts, you'll want to read up on it a bit. Spelt is like wheat, but is a little more difficult to handle -- wait until you've mastered wheat before venturing into spelt.

If you want to get into ash, protein, falling numbers, spring vs winter wheat, red vs white, it's all there for you.

But you can have a lot of fun and make some very tasty breads without it. :-)
Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

How did you get the "thorns among flours" spiked into the address...?   cool.

When things get too thorny, I can picture myself falling back in a hemmock and letting my floppy hat slip over my eyes, just to stretch, listen to birds and wait for the smell of fresh baked bread  come drifting over me.  It's a very simple process and can get as complicated as you let it. 

Mini O

ehanner's picture

FP, Great job! You have artfully laid the trap of self deprecation. Hahahaha


foolishpoolish's picture

Thanks folks for the words of encouragement and indulging my flour rant.

Perhaps it's a symptom of learning via internet that my weakness for wanting to 'know everything right away' tends to come out. Give me some patience....(right now damnit!) You are all right of course - knowledge and understanding comes with experience.

Just yesterday I finally decided to indulge myself in some (relatively) high protein 00 flour (11%, much higher than the 9% pasta flour I am used to finding). Now I understand why it's used in pizza making. The pizza crust chars beautifully (more than with standard bread flour) and there is a lightness and openness to the crumb that I am chuffed to bits with.

Truth is, I'm happier about bread than I have ever been before and tackling breads that I would never have considered a few years ago.

Am I enjoying it? Absolutely! I wouldn't be here if I wasn't.

Thanks again.