Flour is essentially milled wheat, the main body in nearly every basic baking recipe and many dishes all over the world. We are incredibly dependent on the little kernels harvested off tall stalks, and have found many ways to alter the grains based on our ever increasing needs. Wheat is a type of grass grown all over the world for its high nutritional value, wide use and easy cultivation. It is one of the top three most produced crops in the world, along with corn and rice. Wheat has been cultivated for over 10,000 years and probably originated in the Fertile Crescent in the Southwest Asian region, along with other staple crops. A wide range of wheat products are produced by humans, including flour, the most famous of all its products.
WHEAT: IT’S PAST, ITS REDESIGN AND ITS PRESENT
Ancestral wheat is very different from the wheat that is mass cultivated today, with much smaller kernels. The early domestication of wheat was by people who obviously wanted plants with particularly large kernels, since more nutrition could be eked out from each stalk. This led to man looking for ways to combine or hybridize the different wheat strains. Because wheat is generally a self-pollinating plant, each plant tends to produce clones of itself; so when farmers want to hybridize a wheat strain, they have to physically pollinate plants of different strains. Farmers combining wheat strains usually combine different seeds at harvest time and spread them evenly over the field. But hybridization is also done for other reasons, such as increasing the yield produced in a year. For example, the wheat grown internationally falls into two categories: winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and matures in the summer; and spring wheat, which is planted after the danger of frost is over and also matures in the summer.
Today, wheat is a grass that grows between two and four feet (1/2 to 1 1/4 meters) tall. The physical appearance of the grain is familiar to most people, with a long stalk that terminates in a tightly formed cluster of plump kernels enclosed by a beard of bristly spikes. Wheat is an annual grain, which means that at the end of each year, fields must be ploughed and prepared to grow the wheat grass. Wheat's characteristic golden colour at harvest time is well known and often appears in artwork that uses wheat. When the wheat is ripe, the stalks of the groan and bend with the weight of the kernels. This, in combination with the golden colour, indicates that it is time to harvest the wheat. After harvest, the grain is separated from the stalks and chaff, and sent off to the flour mills.
WHITE, WHOLE AND GRAHAM
In the US, there are generally six types of wheat cultivated, and they are differentiated based on their colour, hardness of kernel and the time when the wheat was planted. The types are – hard red winter wheat, soft red winter wheat, hard red spring wheat, hard white wheat, soft white wheat and durum wheat. Generally, flours that are milled from hard wheat have high quality gluten and are considered strong – these are also known as hard flour; milling soft wheat produces soft flour. However, due to the difference in quality amongst the types of wheat, millers usually blend flours to achieve a consistent product time after time. The most common flour in baking as such is the all purpose flour which is a blend of hard and soft wheat flours.
Regardless of the type of wheat, milling the contents of wheat berries or kernels – which mainly contains only starch (known as the kernel endosperm) – yields white flour. This process, unfortunately, removes much of the natural nutrients and vitamins that subsequent artificial enrichment can never completely replace. That is why enriched white bread is by no means nutritionally equal to whole wheat bread. In addition, the label "wheat bread" on the bread does not mean that it is made from whole wheat flour; it is just to distinguish the bread from those made from other types of grains. Breads made from whole wheat flour should normally have "whole" or "100% whole" before the term "wheat bread". However, white flour has a longer shelf life, contains more gluten proteins and is easier to digest in comparison to whole wheat flour.
On the other hand, to produce whole wheat flour, entire wheat kernels – that include the fibrous bran, nutritious germ (the fatty embryo of the kernel), and starch (endosperm) – are ground uniformly. Although whole wheat flour and graham flour are often used interchangeably, there is a minor physical difference. In the milling of graham flour, the outermost part of the wheat berries (bran) is not as finely ground as the germ and starch. Whole wheat flour, while having a shorter shelf life and is a little harder to digest, has a lower glycemic index and retains most of the wheat's natural vitamins and minerals.
BAKERS AND FLOUR
Often, recipes specify ''cake flour'' or ''bread flour.'' What are they? If they aren't at hand, are there substitutes that can be used, like all-purpose flour? For all intents and purposes, bread flour and hard flour are the same thing, while cake flour is synonymous with soft flour. Before all-purpose flour was available, recipes for baked goods often called for one specific type of flour, but nowadays that only happens occasionally.
White wheat flours are categorized by their protein content. Bread flour is ground from wheat that is high in proteins, especially gluten. When bread dough is kneaded, the gluten in the flour forms an elastic network, or web, which traps the carbon dioxide gas given off by the yeast. That is what causes the dough to rise. The more gluten, the greater the bread dough's tendency to rise (provided there is sufficient yeast activity of course), and the lighter the finished loaf.
Flour milled from low-protein strains of wheat has less gluten, and is called soft flour. It is often marketed as ''cake'' or ''pastry'' flour, since it is perfect for mixing into tender, delicate cake batter and pastry dough. All-purpose flour – a mixture of hard and soft wheat flours – has become a standard compromise in contemporary recipes. While it can be used for most baked goods, it excels in none. But when a recipe calls for all-purpose flour, it means that the recipe has been developed, or at least tested, using all-purpose flour, and it is best to follow the recommended instructions.
It is also important to note that all flours tend to lose moisture during storage. Moisture content also varies depending on the brand of flour and the seasons. Therefore, those who indulge in a spot of bread, cake, or cookie baking, may sometimes need to adjust the amount of flour used in a particular recipe, to achieve the right ratio of flour to moisture and attaining the right consistency of baking mix.
Now, armed with the knowledge of the different designs and uses of flour, it is high time to begin ingredient-hunting for that chocolate cake you've always wanted to make.
Source: AWB Limited
AWB is a leading diversified agricultural supply chain business specialising in the storage and handling, origination, trading and processing of grain and oilseeds. We have an extensive network of local and state representatives across the Australian grain belt that partner with Australian farmers to provide access to a range of tools and services to help them thrive.