If you’re reading this, you have probably have some form of wheat flour in your home. Even the person nearest to you, who is most likely not reading this, probably has some kind of wheat flour in their home. It almost sounds funny to say wheat flour because it is universally known as just flour. Flour refers to wheat flour, and only the other types of flour need to differentiate themselves. Rice flour is no less a flour, but we need to say “rice” in front of “flour” otherwise it will be assumed we are talking about flour; that is, wheat flour.
All-purpose, bread, cake, pastry, self-raising, strong, durum, semolina, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry, and graham are just some of the names for wheat flour types…what do you always have on hand? Besides maybe the price and brand of your flour, what else do you know about the substance that goes into so many hundreds of recipes? Should you care? It may not make a life or death difference, but if you enjoy cooking and baking, or generally like learning, then learning to understand wheat flour varieties and how best to use them can take the food you make to a whole new level!
If you’d like to read Part 1 and learn how flour is used in Italy, click here.
The Six Categories of Wheat
In your American pantry you probably have an all-purpose flour, a bread flour, maybe a cake flour, maybe a self-raising, possibly a few others. If you know when and how to use these flours (or just follow a recipe), you might not need to know where or what kind of wheat is actually grown and ground to make these. But once you become familiar with the types of wheat, their properties and best uses, you can make more educated choices about your baking and end up with a superior result. Even the most nominal baker will eventually come across recipes that call for cake flour or bread flour, and knowing more about the wheat characteristics and which kinds are used to make these flours will help you understand if you can substitute say, all-purpose flour, and the results if you do so.
The first thing to know is that wheat can be defined by these six characteristics:
Soft wheat has a higher moisture content and less gluten, suitable for making cake and cookies and more delicate baked goods
Hard wheat has a lower moisture content and higher protein/gluten* content, usually between 12-14%, suitable for bread making
Red wheat has a slightly higher protein than white and a bolder taste
White wheat is milder in taste even if the color is not so different from red once milled into flour
Winter wheat is usually planted in the fall and harvested in the summer, with the exception of countries that have too harsh of winters, such as Canada where it is planted in the spring
Spring wheat is usually planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, with the exception of countries that have too hot and dry of summers, such as California in which case it is planted in the fall. You can read more about winter and spring wheat here.
*Many use the terms protein and gluten in wheat flour interchangeably. This is because gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, the kind that is “developed” when you knead bread and gives it the elastic/chewy quality. In most cases, the higher the protein content, the higher the gluten. It is important to note that all gluten is protein, but not all protein is gluten, as your celiac friends should be able to tell you. Also, all wheat contains gluten, but not all gluten comes from wheat. Make sense? You can read more here or here for better understanding gluten in the light of gluten allergies, or here for a good explanation of gluten. For my purposes today, and baking in general, if someone says a flour is high in protein, and someone else says a flour has a high gluten content, they mean the same thing. And they both mean the flour is good for bread making.
There are thousands of varieties of wheat grown around the world, but chaos can be brought to order with the following six principle categories, using the characteristics we reviewed above:
Hard Red Winter Wheat (HRW)
Hard Red Spring Wheat (HRS)
Soft Red Winter Wheat (SRW)
Hard White Wheat (HW)
Soft White Wheat (SW)
Durum Wheat (DW) is the hardest of all wheat, used for pasta making
The flour you buy from the store will most likely fall into one of these six categories. The bread flour in your pantry is most likely a hard red or white spring wheat; your cake flour is probably milled from a soft white wheat; all-purpose is usually a mixture of hard and soft wheat. You’d know now, for example, that baking a loaf of bread with all-purpose or cake flour will not yield a wonderfully chewy loaf like using bread flour would; they don’t have the gluten required to achieve the chewiness.
If you’d like to start experimenting with flour varieties, check your area for a local mill. If you live in the States and are not fortunate enough to have a mill near you, check out Bob’s Red Mill, in store or online. They have some clearly labeled high-quality flours. You could buy some of their whole-wheat hard red flour and whole-wheat hard white flour and make some simple bread loaves, trying the two wheat varieties side by side.