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Foods

Flour, wheat
Why Eat It
Varieties
Storage
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Flour is a soft, dry powder that is usually ground from grain (although it can also be made from vegetables, fruits, legumes, or nuts--even from fish). Wheat flours are the most popular and familiar of all the different types of flours. Wheat is unique among the grains because it has the potential to produce gluten, a protein that gives dough its strength and elasticity, so it is an important element in the texture of baked goods.

Most flours consist of a blend of hard and soft wheats, which affects a flour's gluten content: Hard wheats are higher in protein than soft wheats, and therefore produce more gluten. Because the production of flour isn't standardized, flours from two manufacturers may consist of different blends, which will produce varying results in the kitchen. For example, all-purpose flours sold in the southern region of the United States contain a higher proportion of soft wheat, good for making the light, airy biscuits that are popular there. In northern states, by contrast, the preference is for breads rather than biscuits, and the all-purpose flour used in bread-making contains a higher proportion of hard wheats.

For thousands of years, flour was milled by grinding kernels of grain between stones. Although you can still find stone-ground flour, today most flour is milled by the roller process, in which seeds are alternately put through a series of high-speed steel rollers and mesh sifters. The rollers crack the grain, allowing the endosperm (the largest part of the seed) to be separated from the bran and germ. The endosperm is then ground to the desired consistency. For whole-grain flours, the bran and germ are returned to the flour at the end of the process.

Varieties

REFINED FLOUR
More than 90% of the wheat flour we eat is white, or refined, flour, which consists of only the ground endosperm of the wheat kernel. White flour is popular because it produces lighter baked goods than whole wheat flour and has an unequaled ability to produce gluten.

When the bran and germ are removed from the wheat kernel, 22 vitamins and minerals are decreased, along with dietary fiber. Therefore, 35 states require that white flour be enriched with iron and the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. Some manufacturers add calcium and vitamin D as well. If a flour has been enriched, the label will say so.

There are many types of white flours:

All-purpose flour: Also known as family, plain, white, or general-purpose flour, this flour is made from a blend of hard and soft wheats. It has a "middle of the road" protein and starch content that makes it suitable for either breads or cakes and pastries. It can be either bleached or unbleached. All-purpose flour also is available presifted--that is, milled to a finer texture. This aerates the flour to make it lighter than standard all-purpose flour. However, all flour, whether labeled presifted or not, has a tendency to settle and become more compact in storage, so the benefit of presifting isn't always apparent.

Bleached flour: When freshly milled, flour is slightly yellow. To whiten it, manufacturers either let the flour age naturally or speed up the process by adding chemicals (such as benzoyl peroxide or acetone peroxide) that bleach it. This process gives the flour more gluten-producing potential, but naturally aged flours develop more gluten as well.

Bread flour: This is made entirely from hard wheat; a high gluten content helps bread rise quickly. (It's also available in whole wheat form.)

Bromated flour: Some manufacturers add a maturing agent such as bromate to flour in order to further develop the gluten and to make the kneading of doughs easier. Other maturing agents include phosphate, ascorbic acid, and malted barley.

Cake flour: Finer than all-purpose flour, cake flour is made entirely from soft wheat. Because of its low gluten content, it is especially well suited for soft-textured cakes and cookies.

Durum flour: Since it has the highest protein content of any flour, durum flour is the basis of nearly all noodles and pastas.

Farina: This granular product, milled from the endosperm of any wheat but durum wheat, is primarily used in breakfast cereals and pastas.

High-gluten flour: This has about twice the gluten strength of regular bread flour and is used as a strengthening agent with other flours that are low in gluten-producing potential.

Instant flour: Also called instant-blending, quick-mixing, or granulated flour, this type of flour pours easily and mixes with liquids more quickly than other flours. It is used to thicken sauces and gravies, but is not appropriate for most baking because of its very fine, powdery texture and high starch content.

Pastry flour (cookie or cracker flour): This flour has a gluten content slightly higher than cake flour but lower than all-purpose flour. It is well suited for fine, light-textured pastries.

Self-rising flour: Soft wheat is used to make this flour, which contains salt, a leavening agent such as baking soda or baking powder, and an acid-releasing substance. However, the strength of the leavener in some flours deteriorates within two months, so it's important to purchase only as much as you need during that period. Self-rising flour should never be used in yeast-leavened baked goods.

Semolina: This yellow granular product is ground from durum wheat. Its high protein content makes it ideally suited for making pasta. It can also be used to make bread.

WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR
Since roller-milling separates the bran and the germ from the endosperm, the three components actually have to be reconstituted to produce whole wheat flour. (The germ and bran are visible in the flour as minute brown flecks.) Whole wheat flour is higher in fiber, vitamin E, some B vitamins and trace minerals, and protein than enriched white flour. You may also find it called graham flour in the supermarket.

Because of the presence of bran, which reduces gluten development, baked goods made from whole wheat flour are naturally heavier and denser than those made with white flour. Many bakers combine whole wheat and white flour in order to gain the attributes of both. Whole wheat pastry flour is also available.

When whole wheat flour is stone-ground, the kernels of wheat are crushed between two heavy, rotating stones, so that the bran and germ remain. Because oil in the germ is released during this process, stone-ground flour is more susceptible to rancidity. Nutritionally, there is no difference between stone-ground flour and roller-milled flour.

Storage

Flour does not keep forever and is more susceptible to spoilage than you might think. If flour is stored improperly or for too long, it can develop an off flavor or give unpredictable results in baking. Flour can absorb moisture from the air. The fat from the germ in whole grain flours can go rancid with time.

Refined white flour can be stored at room temperature for six to 12 months in a tightly covered container. Whole-wheat flour keeps for less than a month at room temperature, so store it in a tightly covered container in the freezer; it will stay fresh for up to a year. You can use the flour directly from the freezer.

Nutrition Chart

All-purpose flour/1/2 cup

228
Total fat (g)
0.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
1.7
6
Carbohydrate (g)
48
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Thiamin (mg)
0.5
Riboflavin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
3.7
Folate (mcg)
96
Iron (mg)
2.9
Selenium (mcg)
21

Whole Wheat/1/2 cup

203
Total fat (g)
1.1
Saturated fat (g)
0.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.5
Dietary fiber (g)
7.3
8
Carbohydrate (g)
44
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
3
Thiamin (mg)
0.3
Niacin (mg)
3.8
Magnesium (mg)
83
Manganese (mg)
2.3
Phosphorus (mg)
208
Selenium (mcg)
42
Zinc (mg)
1.8


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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