Food & Drink : Flour power

A treatise on the cultural significance & uses of wheat flour

The term “flour” generally refers to wheat flour, the fluffy white stuff. Nothing denotes home-cooking and domestic competence more graphically than a fine coating of flour on apron, forehead, and countertop. Even better is a thin coating on any type of meat or vegetable cutlet before said cutlet is lovingly fried, making it all the more absorptive of lemon juice, wine reductions, or a variety of other sauces. The inherent appeal of freshly baked bread, cookies, or cakes needs little explanation, and the world of delicate pastries is a realm unto itself. Life without flour would be sad indeed; it’s used as thickener for puddings, pies, tarts and inumerable sauces, stews, and dumplings.

If you are going to make bread (or cake, pasta, pie crust, and a myriad of sauces), you’ll knead flour. In the story below, our resident flour child explores the versatile grain in all its glory and complexity.

How did flour come to have such an important place in our culinary universe? Part of the answer lies in our very history. In many ways, human civilization developed around the cultivation of grain; wheat in particular was one of the major old-world preoccupations. Many historians and anthropologists have cited the organizational systems of grain cultivation — planting, growing, harvesting, storing, and processing — as one of the social developments most central to taking us from hunting-gathering to the complex agrarian systems we tend to think of as “civilized.” Along with the political structures that emerged to regulate, document, and centralize storage and distribution came the nutritional advantages of relatively stable grain supplies, which led to stronger, healthier, more robust people.

Nutritionally, wheat has been a major source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals since Neolithic times. Wheat flour is rich in the B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, not to mention iron, fiber, and oils. Wheat flour’s unique ability to rise and make fluffy, chewy, nutritious, and delicious breads has, incidentally, helped to make consumption of these powerful nutrients quite pleasant.

There are a variety of flours, each with specific subtleties of character. Like all grains, wheat kernels have a coating of bran and germ covering the true fruit, called the endosperm. Most of the protein is contained in the soft endosperm, which is ground into white flour. Whole-grain flour contains both the bran coating and the germ, which is where the dietary fiber, oils and the bulk of the B-vitamins are stored. While a bit more nutritious, the whole-grain variety it is a bit harder to digest, and its higher oil content gives it a shorter shelf-life. Most refined white flours are enriched with iron and B-vitamins to offset their relative lack of nutrition. Stone-ground flours are preferable to those produced by large-scale steel-roller milling, the heat of which further destroys some of the nutrients.

Wheat flour’s most unique characteristic is gluten, the stretchy, elastic protein that develops when wheat is ground and mixed with water. In bread-making, it is gluten’s web-like structure that traps the carbon dioxide during fermentation (caused by the addition of yeast) and, after much kneading, makes the dough rise. In short, without wheat flour, there would be no raised bread.

Gluten content is the key to different flours. The harder the wheat, the higher the gluten content. All-purpose flour is typically a blend of both hard (winter) and soft (spring) wheat, and is blended for across-the-board, everyday use. Fine cake and pastry flour is ground of soft, spring wheat with a lower gluten content that is more appropriate for light, delicate cakes and biscuits. Durum wheat (otherwise known as semolina) is the hardest and is used almost exclusively for pasta products, where the tough, yellow paste is perfect for holding a limitless array of sauces. Within this continuum, there are also high-gluten bread flours for chewy, crusty baked goods; whole-grain and whole-wheat pastry flours for nuttier, crumblier, more nutritious purposes; and even a strain of white whole-grain flour that is simply lighter in color.

Differences in gluten and oil can also affect overall texture. In the classic text Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child says that American all-purpose flour tends to make a tougher, more brittle pastry crust when combined with butter. She recommends a mix of 3 parts butter to 1 part vegetable shortening, for a flaky, tender crust.

Bread, pasta, noodles, batter, cakes, crust, sauces — this is just a partial list of the staples made possible by wheat flour. Like salt and pepper, flour is just one of those basic ingredients that one tends to take for granted, yet it’s almost indispensable. That said, there are a myriad of other flours for home cooks to explore; below are a few examples.

Pastry flour:
With a very low gluten content, pastry flour creates light and moist cakes and pastries, and is a necessity if you want to explore the subtleties of the croissant, for example. To achieve a similar texture, some sources suggest replacing 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons cornstarch per cup.

Indian Atta (chapati flour):
A finely ground, nutritious, whole-wheat option, it is similar to whole-wheat pastry flour, but doesn’t necessarily need to be mixed with white flour. It has a slightly nuttier flavor and denser consistency.

Oat and Rye flours:
These non-wheat, finely ground meals can can be a tasty addition to breads, but must be blended with regular flour. For example, the gluten in rye flour is sticky — rather than elastic, like wheat gluten — so favoring rye in your bread will yield a dense, heavy loaf.

Soy flour:
Soy and other legume meals up the protein and flavor content of breads and batters. Because it has no gluten of its own, soy flour should be mixed (about 20 percent) with wheat flour, but it will yield a moist bread or cake with large, fluffy crumbs.

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