Flour is grain ground finely. Typically it is used for baking, although flour also shows up in gravy, sauces, stews, and gratins. The great invention in flour was that of 'All Purpose Flour.' The word reminds me of a vehicle introduced int he early 1970s. It was low and built on the frame of a car. It had two seats like a small truck. And it had a bed which was so small and cramped that one might use it to bring potted plants back from the garden shop, but for nothing else. In other words it had all the liabilities of a small car combined with all the liabilities of a small truck. The car was not a commercial success. All purpose flour may not be quite so bad an idea, but it can be a big mistake to imagine that it is the best thing for all flour applications.
Wheat flour contains gluten, and gluten is protein. Not all protein in flour is gluten. Pastry flour is made from low-protein wheat and has little gluten. This is what allows it to bake up into light and fluffy cakes and southern style biscuits. This property also makes it well suited to making gravy and roux.
Bread flour is made with high protein wheat. The protein in bread flour is typically 11-13 % versus 7-8% in pastry flour. And if half of the protein in pastry flour were gluten, then bread flour could easily have twice the gluten as pastry flour. This makes a huge difference in the texture of bread. If one wishes to have chewy, crusty bread one simply must use bread flour.
Bread flour is used for pizza dough. It would simply be ludicrous to imagine tossing dough made from pastry flour into the air in the way that is done with hand-tossed pizza crust. In a similar vein, most wheat based noodles depend on some gluten in order to hang together.
All purpose flour is 10% protein, typically. This works well enough for American style breads, if one likes a sort of cakelike consistency in breads. And it works for American style pizza dough if one likes a sort of cakelike consistency in pizza dough. It works alright in dinner rolls, if one has never had a perfectly made southern style biscuit. But it never can work in gravy.
Long story short. If you bake bread buy bread flower. If you make biscuits or cakes or gravy, buy pastry flour. It's not like you are going to go broke buying two kinds of flour. And everything you make will be improved, a bit.
Long, long ago households bought flour in 100 lb woven cloth sacks. This flour would sit in the open air and breathe much like we do. If such flour was made with the germ, the oils in the germ would react with air, go rancid, and give the flour and 'off' taste. For this reason, millers some centuries ago started the practice of separating the germ from the rest of the grain.
Well, it turns out that the germ is where all the vitamins are in grain. And it is where most of the flavor is as well. Fresh wheat germ has a delicious nutty flavor that is powerfully alluring, especially when lightly toasted.
The germ is at the center of the the wheat, the bran is on the outside. The bran has also been traditionally removed by millers, mostly for aesthetic reasons. But it also has some distinctive flavors that add to the personality of grain.
Whole grain flours retain the bran and the germ. They are tan or brown in color, and they have a great deal more flavor than normal flours. If one is making bread at home and one can find a reliable source of flour in small batches, ( we list a number below ) then one can improve the flavor of one's baking efforts with whole wheat or whole grain flour.
Graham flour is a kind of whole grain wheat flour that is ground more coarsely than other wheat flours. This coarse grind helps the flour retain a rich, nutty sort of flavor characteristic of whole grains. But it is not well suited to many baking efforts, since it produces dense product. Obviously, if one is making something dense to begin with like chocolate brownies or graham crackers, this is not an obstacle.
Mark Twain complains that good cornbread cannot be found north of the Mason Dixon line. If he was right a century ago, he is probably right even now. But that ought not stop us from making cornbread. It is best made in a very heavy metal frypan, ideally cast iron. And it is best eaten right out of the oven, slathered with butter.
Corn contains gluten as does wheat, but cornmeal cooks up quite differently. One reason is that cornmeal is traditionally milled to be quite coarse compared to flour - somewhat like graham flour. Another is that it is whole grain, also like graham flour. Because of this it is frequently the practice that cornbread recipes call for a bit of all purpose or biscuit flour to lighten up the final bread. If one is finding one's corn bread to be too crumbly, for instance, one might use all purpose or bread flour in the recipe.
Several million Americans suffer from celiac disease which is a painful, debilitating, and potentially lethal digestive disorder that is caused by or aggravated by gluten in grains. Rice and millet are two grains that do not contain gluten. And for this reason they are milled into flour and used in breads. A person who is hooked on the best artisinal breads will find breads made from gluten-free flours to be less than ideal. But some of the properties of gluten are approximated with other food products such a xanthan gum, gum arabic, arrowroot, and so on. Breads made from gluten-free grains may not fit the aesthetic expectations we have for bread, but they will frequently meet or exceed the dietary and nutritional ones.
Gravy has been used for more than two millennia to impart thickness and flavor to sauces. Sauces thickened with flour can be a tricky business. One must recall at the outset that walpaper paste and a host of unappetizing materials are made from water and flour. The trick is to make the whole thing appetizing. This is where roux comes in. Roux does at least three things
Most of my own experience with making roux involves barley flour. The reason for this is that I generally do not have wheat flour int he house. I have never had roux made from barley flour fail to disperse in gravy. This is the good news. The bad news is that barley is rarely milled as finely as the best wheat flours, so the gravy or sauce has a bit more of a grainy texture.
A better idea is to make roux with pastry flour. Pastry flour is ground fine enough to produce a very smooth sauce. And its low protein level will help prevent it from making lumps.
American cooking has not latched on to the making of roux, and gravies are often thickened with slurries. Slurries must be made carefully with cold cold cold water and pastry flour. If the water is warm, lumps will form. The story here is to add cold slurry a drop at a time into the sauce that is being thickened, and to keep stirring it steadily. This ought to eliminate lumpy gravy for good.
Eat well, and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.