Baking is a science. A specific set of reactants (or ingredients) combined together in certain proportions, and reacting at a certain temperature; having an understanding of how each ingredient behaves makes it so much easier. Not only to be able to alter recipes successfully, but to figure out why a certain recipes, or alterations to recipes, don’t work out quite as intended.
Though I like to think I know whats going on when I make a cake batter, or prove some dough, or even whip up some frosting, the truth is… I don’t. I don’t have all the details. But, that’s about to change because I’ve decided to go back to basics. Whether it’s the fundamentals (flour, sugar, eggs) or things which are a little more complex (raising agents, flavourings and extras), each ingredient is important in its own right, and I want to know why. This week I’m starting with an ingredient which is paramount in baking: Flour.
Typically, wheat flour comes in three types: white, brown, and wholemeal. White flour is made using only the endosperm of the grain (the protein/starchy part), and results in a crumb which is lighter in colour, and provides a blank slate for flavourings/seasonings to be added. Brown flour contains only some of the grain’s bran and germ in addition to the endosperm, and wholemeal flour is made with the entire grain (including the bran, endosperm, and germ). The high proportion of bran in wholemeal flour results in a darker brown colour crumb and, usually, a nuttier flavour. Though the nutritional value of wholemeal flour is significantly higher, because of the bran of the grain containing many of the beneficial vitamins and minerals needed in our diets, white flour is often preferred in baking due to its bland flavour and finer texture.
Now we know the basics about what each flour contains, we can go further and look at flours which are tailored to certain purposes.
Plain flour (or all-purpose flour) is the most common type of flour, as it is acceptable for most household needs and only has a protein content of approximately 10% so it is more difficult to develop the gluten (though still possible to do, if a batter/dough is over-worked). This means it can be used to provide the substance in most cakes and pastries, often with the addition of a raising agent (e.g. baking powder or baking soda) to create the open structure. Self-raising flour, more commonly found in the UK, can be created by sieving/whisking 2 teaspoons of baking powder into 1 cup/150g of plain flour with a small pinch of fine sea salt.
I’ve got to say, I hadn’t heard of such a thing until a few months ago, but here we are. Cake flour is used, not surprisingly, in cake baking. It is more commonly used in American recipes, and is a very low protein flour (usually 8%) and contains an additional ingredient: cornstarch. In mixes which contain large amounts of sugar, the cornstarch prevents the sugar from caking together, resulting in a lighter, fluffier sponge. To make some yourself, measure out as much flour as you need (in cups), and for each cup of flour needed remove 2 tablespoons. Replace these two tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and sieve together to ensure they’re well combined.
Somewhere between plain and cake flour, pastry flour has a protein content of around 9% and is useful in baking pastries and cookies due to the ‘soft’ nature of the wheat used in its production. The ‘soft’ wheat used results in a relatively starchy flour, and in turn a more crumbly, soft texture of cookies, pastries, tarts etc. I don’t believe it is very readily available in supermarkets (or at least not in the UK), however it is easily made by combining two parts plain flour with one part cake flour.
High in protein and made from ‘hard’ wheat, this is perfect for baking where the structure of the finished bake is essential. With a protein content of around 13%, bread (or ‘strong’) flour is usually kneaded to develop the gluten and provide the open, airy structure created from the carbon dioxide released by the yeast, or created through a chemical reaction with baking powder. This flour is widely available in supermarkets, and is nigh on impossible to make at home (without the addition of vital wheat gluten). However, if you do happen to have some of this magical substance, you can add around 1 tsp of it to each cup of all-purpose flour needed, to give it the protein content of regular bread flour.
Flour plays such a fundamental role is so many recipes that it is often very difficult to substitute with other alternatives which are not wheat-based, as they behave very differently. In future instalments, I’ll take a look at other types of gluten-free flours and flour blends to get a better understanding of when and where to use them (e.g. oat, almond, tapioca etc).
Well, first ingredient down, many more to go. All I can say is we’re on this learning curve together, so suggestions for future ingredients/recipes would be welcomed with open arms!