Welcome back to Natural Baking 101! For those of you that are new, this is a short series in which I reveal and clarify the processes behind the ingredients used in commercial baked goods. I also highlight some natural alternatives to these refined and processed ingredients and show you how easy it is to bake more natural goods.
Today we’re taking a stab at demystifying flour and grains.
Break it Down: The Basics
All flour is created from ground wheat grains. Wheat grains are composed of three distinct parts:
- The endosperm. This is the food storage centre of the grain and it houses most of the starch, protein, and oils. It makes up about 85 percent of the entire grain and feeds the plant germ.
- The bran. This is the outer layer of the grain which constitutes about 13 percent of the grain and contains all-important fibre, B vitamins, and iron.
- The germ. Also known as the embryo; this is where the plant sprout develops and is only about 2 percent of the grain.
The endosperm is the portion of the wheat grain that makes up all the different kinds of white flours, and it is this portion that we harvest during the milling process.
The Milling Process
There are a variety of grains milled for use in flour, such as wheat, millet, brown rice, amaranth, and buckwheat. For this article, we are going to focus on the process of wheat milling and the creation of all-purpose flour because it is used in 95 percent of commercial bakeries.
During harvest season, farmers transport the grain to a milling facility where it is tested and graded according to the Grain Standards chart (a mostly universal chart with slight differences based on country). The flour we consume is comprised of grain graded level 2 or higher. From the testing room, the grain is stored in silos containing the correct moisture, heat, and air to keep it fresh until it is ready to be ground.
On milling day, the grain goes through several stages. First, the grain is cleaned to separate it from other seeds and large foreign materials.
It is then put through a magnetic separator, which removes any metal particles that may have gotten into the batch out in the field or en route. From there, the grain is vibrated through a rotating drum system to separate straw, wood, and other fibrous materials.
The grain then moves into the aspirator where strong currents of air vacuum out the dust and lighter dirt particles. A de-stoner then separates any stones and hard debris from the grain, and finally the disc separator pulls out objects that do not have the same shape as the grain.
After this lengthy separation and cleaning procedure, the grain moves to the scourer to begin the grinding process. The scourer starts by ripping off the outer husks and dirt on the grain using high powered air currents.
From the scourer, the grain is spun in the impact entoleter, which uses centrifugal force to break apart any grain kernels that are too tough or unsound. The grain is then transported to the tempering unit where it soaks in a water bath to toughen the bran and loosen the endosperm. Tempering can take anywhere from 6 to 24 hours.
Once the grain has finished soaking, it is taken to the grinder. The grain is fed through a series of roller mills – grooved cylinders made from chilled steel – which separate the bran, endosperm, and germ. Grinding the grain can take a few hours of blending, re-grinding, sifting, blending, etc. until all of the parts are separated.
From the grinder, the grain powder is sent through a sifter, which shakes the powder through large screens in order to isolate each part of the grain. One batch of grain can be sifted several times in order to achieve the maximum flour (endosperm) separation of 75 percent.
The flour that comes out of the sifter is what we know as unbleached all-purpose flour. This flour does not have any bleaching, extra nutrients, or bran added back. It is moved to a holding facility where it can age properly, since fresh flour cannot immediately be used in baking. The aging process is crucial for the glutenin proteins in the flour to strengthen and create longer chains of gluten, which can only happen with time and exposure to oxygen. These longer chains allow for more elasticity and structure in your finished baked goods. You can tell a flour is unbleached by its off-white colouring.
However, this process takes time to naturally occur, so often companies will use chemicals to bleach and age the flour quicker. Regular all-purpose flour, cake flour, self-raising flour, and enriched flour are all chemically aged. This means that the sifted flour is then exposed to a bleaching agent, usually chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide, to oxidize it faster and give it a pure white colour. Enriched flour has the nutrients (iron and B vitamins) from the bran added back to it at the end of the bleaching process.
Whole wheat flour is the only wheat flour that is recombined with the bran and germ post-sifting, making this flour the most nutritious but also the densest.
I don’t like chemicals being used unnecessarily in my ingredients, especially when those chemicals are known to be dangerous.
Benzoyl peroxide is a pretty nasty chemical which is created from the reaction between benzoyl chloride (used in dyes, perfumes, and resins), sodium hydroxide (used in paper, drinking water, soaps, and detergents), and hydrogen peroxide (used in disinfectants and cosmetics). It is used as a bleaching agent in different foods, such as flour, whey, milk, and cheese, in the manufacture of plastics, the curing of silicone rubber, and in cosmetic ointments.
Unbleached flour is known to be a little denser than all-purpose flour because it has a slightly higher protein count. However, I have never come across an issue substituting unbleached for all-purpose in any recipe I’ve tried, nor do I foresee this being an issue. I do not use any bleached flours in my baking.
What Can We Use Instead?
The following are some completely natural alternatives for bleached flours, and all of them work well as substitutes in baking. I want to be clear that I am not promoting these ingredients as healthier alternatives. Some of these flours contain the same or higher levels of carbohydrates than bleached flours. I am suggesting these ingredients as natural alternatives, meaning they are less processed, unrefined, and truer to their natural form.
Unbleached all-purpose flour is naturally aged and hasn’t been exposed to any harsh chemicals. It works similarly to regular all-purpose flour in baking, but can result in very slightly denser products. Personally, I’ve never noticed a difference, but I’ve been told that the higher proteins can have adverse effects. It can run more expensive than bleached flour because it has to age longer at the manufacturer before use. I use this flour for cakes, cupcakes, cookies, scones, muffins, dessert pastry, quick breads, and yeast breads.
Whole wheat flour is unbleached all-purpose flour that has been recombined with the grain bran and germ. This flour typically results in dense baked goods, but also adds a host of nutrients and fibre that all-purpose lacks. I usually mix this flour with one of the others in this list to create a lighter flour. Whole wheat flour is great for muffins, pizza doughs, hardy pastries or quiche, quick breads, and yeast breads.
Whole white wheat flour works well as a transitional flour, because it’s not as dense as whole wheat flour. Contrary to popular belief, this flour is not a mixture of all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour; it is a flour made from white wheat. White wheat is lighter in colour, has a milder taste, and contains all the health benefits of regular wheat, but it has no genes for the bran colour. This makes it quite a bit lighter in texture and taste. If you’re not ready for regular whole wheat, try whole white wheat flour first.
Spelt flour is a good alternative to cake flour. It has a sweet, mild flavour, it’s super light, and produces a tender texture in baking. The only downside to spelt is that it doesn’t contain as much gluten as all-purpose, and it will spoil more quickly. Buy this flour when you intend to use it, or refrigerate it to keep it fresh longer. This flour works well in cakes, cupcakes, cookies, scones, quick breads, and yeast breads when mixed with unbleached all-purpose.
Coconut flour requires a ton of extra moisture when used alone in baking, but does provide extra fibre and protein, and it is a good low carb alternative. This flour is made from ground dehydrated coconut meat, and imparts a slight coconutty flavour. It’s not very sweet, so extra sweetener will usually be required. It’s also gluten-free. I use coconut flour in bars, crusts, and quick breads.
I love mixing buckwheat flour with whole wheat flour. This gluten-free flour is made from the grain-like seeds of the buckwheat flower and is high in iron, zinc, and selenium. It also has a pretty high protein count, which allows it to stabilize baked goods better than other gluten-free flours. I use buckwheat flour in cakes, cupcakes, doughnuts, muffins, cookies, and quick breads.
Almond flour is one of my favourite gluten-free flours, because it has a nutty taste and soft texture. It’s made from ground blanched almonds. It can be used alone in baked goods, but shouldn’t be used too often because it’s high in omega-6s which can be harmful in large doses. It’s also quite expensive, so I use it sparingly. You should always store almond flour in the refrigerator to lengthen its shelf life as it can go rancid very quickly. Almond flour is great for pastry, quick breads, and pound cakes.
I’ve only used oat flour on a few occasions and found it works quite well. This flour is made from ground oats and is one of the easiest flours to make at home. However, I’ve found it doesn’t have a ton of flavour, so I’ll usually toast my oats before grinding them to give the flour a nuttier taste and scent. Oat flour works well in cookies, biscuits, quick breads, and crusts when mixed with other flours.
Some other gluten-free flour options I have tested and liked are amaranth, quinoa, and brown rice. I do recommend mixing these flours with others, since they can result in sub-par baked goods when used alone.
Do you have any questions, concerns, or quandaries regarding this article? Be sure to leave it in the comment section below, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Did you like this article? Be sure to check out the other articles in this series: Natural Baking 101: Sugar
Disclaimer: I am not a nutrition expert, nor do I have a degree in food science. This article is the result of a baker who was curious about how her ingredients were made and thought she would share her findings.
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“Flour, food.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2016. Available Online.
“Food Science: Why Some Flour Gets Bleached and Bromated.” The Kitchn. 2009. Available Online.
“Risks of Unbleached Flour.” Livestrong.com. 2015. Available Online.
“What’s the Difference Between Bleached and Unbleached Flour?” The Kitchn. 2015. Available Online.
“Wheat Milling Process.” North American Miller’s Association. 2011. Available Online.
“Whole White Wheat FAQ.” The Whole Grains Council. 2014. Available Online.
Header photo courtesy of Unsplash.com.