"What flour do you use?"

CC BY-NC-SA mark@markrank.net
A “baguette de tradition fran├žaise” can only have 4 ingredients; wheat flour, water, salt and yeast*. That does not leave much room for generating flavor and thus puts much of the focus on the quality of the flour. As I developed my hobby, I have tried many different types and brands of flours. Just as a bourbon drinker is loyal to a favorite brand, I bake using the Gold Medal brand. For most of my baking, I use the “Better for Bread” label. For artisan breads such as baguettes, freestanding or hearth loaves, I use a 50/50 mix of Gold Medal “Better for Bread” and Gold Medal Unbleached All-Purpose. I find these give me the results I am looking for. They are also a good balance of economy and quality, thanks in no small measure to the national distribution might of General Mills.

When I am evaluating a flour, I look at a couple of factors:

  • Type and extraction
  • Percentage gluten forming proteins
  • Quality and consistency
  • Unbleached
  • Cost and availability

At its most basic, flour can be defined as any finely ground foodstuff. It is possible and desirable for many reasons to use flours made from other grains, pseudo-grains, legumes and nuts. However, each flour will have different characteristics. To keep our discussion focused I am going to stick to wheat flour. In U.S. grocery stores, wheat flour is either all-purpose, bread flour, or whole wheat. What differentiates the first two from whole wheat is a concept called extraction. To understand extraction, we need to look at where flour comes from. Each wheat kernel is composed of three major parts; the fibrous outer bran layer, the starchy endosperm and the fat rich germ.

CC-BY-SA: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jkwchui   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wheat-kernel_nutrition.svg
If you took a hammer and crushed some wheat berries, you would effectively have whole wheat flour. Now before you reach for the hammer and a hand full of wheat berries, stick with me a bit. The art, science, and technology of flour milling is the evolution of that basic crushing process to something more elegant. The miller will use a combination of crushing and sifting operations to separate the bran and germ from the endosperm. This is what we mean by “extraction” and is percentage of whole wheat kernel contained in the resulting flour. Full extraction would be whole wheat flour, but that is the opposite of what we are looking for. In the US, we are looking for extraction to go from 100% of the whole kernel to somewhere around 50% or 60% for your typical white, all-purpose flour.**

This sorting process has some side effects. Think of a wheat berry like an egg. You can separate the egg whites from the yoke and the shell easy enough. You can take the egg whites and whip up a nice fluffy meringue, but without augmentation it really will not have much flavor or nutritional value. Much of that was contained in the egg yoke. The same goes for the endosperm of the wheat berry. The endosperm has the gluten forming proteins needed to make light and fluffy bread but does not have the fats and vitamins of the wheat germ or the healthy fiber of the wheat bran. While present in small quantities in an all-purpose flour, the healthy benefits of whole wheat flour comes from having 100% of the wheat berry present.

The gluten forming proteins contained in the endosperm leads us to the second factor we care about for flour, the percentage of these proteins. It is these proteins we depend on to form the gluten matrix when we bake and have the most effect on the structure of our bread. The target for an artisan loaf of bread is around 11.5%. For reference, a pastry flour where you don’t want gluten development would target something in the 9% range. On the other side, some high-gluten flours used for pan, sweet or rye breads go into the 13% to 14% range. In the United States, the difference between the all-purpose and bread labels is mostly the percentage of gluten forming proteins. I compiled Table 1 in 2011 and it gives the gluten forming protein for several retail flours.

Flour% ProteinReference
King Arthur All Purpose11.7Website
King Arthur Bread12.7Website
Gold Medal Unbleached All Purpose9.8 - 12Vendor Email
Gold Medal "Better for Bread"11.7 - 12.3Vendor Email
Pillsbury Best Unbleached All Purpose10.5Vendor Email
Pillsbury Best Bread12Vendor Email
Central Milling Unbleached All Purpose10.5Vendor Email
Hodgson Mills All Purpose10 - 12Vendor Email
Hodgson Mills Bread13Vendor Email
Bob's Red Mill Unbleached White Flour12 - 13Vendor Email
GM Harvest King Commercial12Product Spec Sheet - gmflour.com
Table 1 - Flour Brands

One item to notice is that some vendors quote a range. The Gold Medal flours for instance will vary depending on time of the year and region. Having used Gold Medal so often, I really do not notice the differences but every once in a while a batch of dough will not feel right. This was especially true when I moved from the midwest to the west coast. All of the hydrations seemed to be off just a bit. On the other hand, the King Arthur maintains very tight and uniform controls on its offerings. I often recommend the King Arthur All-Purpose to people who want to try baking bread. King Arthur All-Purpose falls almost exactly where a baker would want a flour for artisan bread baking and the consistency makes it a very good product to bake with and well worth the slightly higher cost for the occasional or first time baker.

One other observation from the table of flours should be most of the flours have unbleached in the label. Those that don't are still unbleached flours, just unneeded for branding reasons. The natural color of a good quality four is a creamy off white and an unbleached flour is the type you want to use for bread. The hint of yellow is coming from carotenoid pigments. These are the same class of natural molecules that make carrots orange and is an indication of a flour with valuable vitamins still intact. My objection to using a bleached flour for artisan bread is rooted in protecting these components of the flour. By breaking down these molecules, the quality of the end product is compromised. In the end, I bake bread because I believe I can make a good product in my kitchen.

Bleaching agents were originally introduced into flour to make pure white flour with good handling properties for large commercial scale bakeries so baby boomers could grow up on PBJ and grilled cheese. The agents are also added to age freshly milled flour to also improve the handling properties. This is where the life of bleached bread flour and yoga mats intersect. It is not new that bleaching agents are used in commercial bakery products. What is new is using social media as a megaphone to call attention to what we eat. Not that I am defending ADA use. As the article points out, it may be time to revisit the science on this. That really is my underlying point. For home baking, there is no need for these additives and unbleached flour will lead to a very successful product.

There are several other parameters and characteristics related for flour, but that is what books and reading are for. For those interested in the history, 6000 Years of Bread by H.E. Jacob is a good read. For a more technical deep dive, check out Wheat and Flour Testing Methods book. It was produced under contract by the International Grains Program of Kansas State University and a gives a good insight into just how complex of a commodity wheat flour has become.

That brings me full circle. The last parameters to talk about are cost and availability. I use Gold Medal because I am familiar with it and no matter where I am, I can find it. I recommend King Arthur because I believe the incremental extra cost is worth the tighter tolerances when someone is first learning to bake. There are store brand flours and there are ultra premium organic flours. Each can be used to make good bread. Part of the art and fun of baking is the choices made.    

* Well, and just a touch of bean flour or malted wheat flour, but let us not quibble.
** Don’t be confused with white whole wheat flour. Wheat comes in two colors, white and red. The color is reflected in the bran. Most whole wheat flour is made from red varieties and thus a darker color. White whole wheat flour has become popular as a way to incorporate healthy whole grains into foods without making them look that way. White whole wheat flour has different handling properties that align closer to whole wheat flour and thus are not a direct substitute for all-purpose or bread flour.


More Change, Something New

After 15 years of working in Higher Ed IT, today I gave notice that I will be leaving my current position at UCSF. I have accepted a Business Process Analysis position supporting the Application Access Life-cycle Management Program for Kaiser Permanente. To put that into something my parents understand. I will be working in a group ensuring the applications used to deliver healthcare by one of the nation's largest healthcare providers are both secure and easy to use by Kaiser's medical staff so they can deliver some of the most effective healthcare in the country. 

Both higher education and healthcare are changing. This will be something new and the time is right. I will start at Kaiser's main offices in Oakland the last week in October. I will likely report more when things get closer but I thought I would put something out.        


A Quick Update

It has been awhile but I thought I would give a bit of an update. I joined my wife in the Bay Area at the end of February. I am working as a project manager for UCSF and slowly Lou and I are getting settled in. I have been baking a bit. Hopefully I will get back to posting pictures and articles shortly.


Change with the New Year

I thought I would share a personal update.

Next week my wife will be starting a new position in San Francisco. With a bit of luck, I and our two dogs will join her there in a month or so after some personal matters work themselves out.


Travel Log - SFBI Whole Grain Breads and Specialty Flours

This summer, I returned for a week to the San Francisco Baking Institute to take the whole grain breads course.  I have been waiting to take this course for quite a while and frankly knowing that I was scheduled to go, kept me going over the last couple of months.  It was a great 5 days of leaving work behind, working with my hands, and interacting with professionals.

This was my fourth trip to SFBI.  As always the arrangements and facility were without fault and everyone was very friendly.  The workshop was taught by Mac McConnel, and like my past instructors he was extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  The class was smaller than my past workshops but that was OK since over the 5 days we would bake 21 different breads.  Also unlike past workshops, we were in the bakery mixing within the first hour and that was just fine by me.  My table partners for the week were Juan from Columbia and Marcio from Brazil.  I enjoyed their company and collaboration very much.  

One disappointment for the trip was the photos.  I didn’t want to deal with my big camera so I just used the one on my cell phone.  I hope the engineering team that worked on the camera for the Motorola Droid Bonic has been re-assigned to make the “Snookie Limited Edition Baby Monitor”.  As such, the quality of the pictures is not the greatest.

Monday - Three Breads

  • Baguettes with Wheat Germ
  • Pear Buckwheat Bread
  • Semolina with Fennel and Raisins

To get things rolling, we started off with what would turn out to be the of the more straightforward breads of the week.  The “Baguettes with Wheat Germ” was a classic pre-fermented baguette made with a little high extraction flour and some toasted wheat germ for texture.  “Pear Buckwheat Bread” is a formula I have tried before and was anxious to try during the workshop. As would become a theme, I was not mixing it with enough water when I attempted it at home.  Mac also demonstrated a different technique to make the pear shape to the bread.

"Pear Buckwheat Bread" on the loader going into the oven
The last bread for the day was “Semolina with Fennel and Raisins”. This was my favorite for the day and easily in the top 5 for the week.  It was sweet and yet could easily pair with meats or sausage.  I am looking forward to making it at home.  The rest of the day was spent on a bit of lecture and prep for the following day.  Like other workshops, there was a tasting table at the end of the day.

Tasting table for Monday
I am not the party animal and especially on this trip I wasn’t planning on making many excursions into the city.  Most of the time after class I would be tired, and would just head back to the hotel to make a sandwich with some of the wonderful product from the day.

Fixings for dinner back at the hotel

Tuesday - Five Breads

  • Oatmeal Pan Bread
  • 100% Whole Grain
  • Corn Bread
  • Flax Seeds Bread
  • Millet Bread

On the second day we kicked into high gear.  Of the five formula, the “Oatmeal Pan Bread” was the most straightforward, and in many ways the most “pedestrian” but still far better than any grocery store pan bread.  The “100% Whole Grain” was a hearty loaf that was still very soft due to a double hydration method of mixing.  The yeasted version of “Corn Bread” is another formula that I have tried on my own but now I see that tweaking how I approach the mix and shaping will improve the results.

"Corn Bread" on couche proofing
I really liked the “Flax Seeds Bread”.  It was basically a whole wheat ciabatta style with flax seeds and currents.  This was the one that ended up being my dinner for the evening.  The winner formula for me was “Millet Bread”.  The formula was complex and the dough was hard to mix, handle, and shape but the end result was just astounding.  The dough had a mix of seeds and honey and was baked in a flat shape that gave it a wonderful crust.        

"Millet Bread"
Tasting table for Tuesday

Wednesday - Five Breads

  • Crown of the Great Valley
  • Sesame Flame
  • Prairie Bread
  • Two Castles Rye
  • Finnish Rye

By the third day Juan, Marcio, and I were starting to get into a rhythm of working together.  Wednesday was by far the day with the most work to do given the complexity of the formula.  The “Crown of the Great Valley” and the “Sesame Flame” are both formula that were developed for competition in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie or World Cup of Baking.  I found the “Sesame Flame” interesting and the shape was fun to play with but probably not worth the effort to do at home.  I really liked the taste and texture of the crown and may try it at home but again the complexity of the formula is a detractor.  

"Sesame Flame" ready to go into the oven
The overall group favorite for the day was the “Prairie Bread”.  The formula was full of different grains and we shaped it using a technique I have not seen before to form a square “pillow” form.  A formula I will definitely want to try on my own.

"Prairie Bread" cooling
I have baked “Two Castles Rye” previously several times at home with good success, but it was good to experience the formula in a different setting none the less.  My personal favorite for the day was the “Finnish Rye” formula.  This was the classic deep hearty rye one would expect but as with the “100% Whole Grain” it had a lightness again from a double hydration mixing technique.

"Finish Rye"

Thursday - Four Breads

  • Whole Wheat Soft Rolls
  • Carrot Rolls
  • Oatmeal Date Rolls
  • Honey Rye

On Thursday, we changed gears a bit and explored some sweeter breads.  The “Whole Wheat Soft Rolls” was a good dinner roll formula and we explored a couple of different 1-strand knotted shapes with it.  The “Carrot Rolls” formula was interesting.  It was a ciabatta style bread with seeds and shredded carrot.  While I enjoyed it, it was the kind of product that one either liked or didn’t and there was little in between.

"Carrot Rolls" in the oven
The standout for the day and the week was hands down the “Oatmeal Date Rolls”.  This was another Coupe du Monde formula but unlike the others is well worth the extra effort to try at home.  The combination of oats and dates made for a soft and sweet roll that was perfect for morning with coffee or afternoon as a pick-me-up.  Mac showed us the competition shape but for practicality, we shaped most of the dough into little round batards.  

"Oatmeal Date Rolls" in the competition shape for Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie 
The last bread for the day was a hearty 50% rye.  Since we were a small class, Mac asked if there was a particular style we were interested in.  Several of us wanted to try another rye.  The “Honey Rye” was a standard formula that resulted in a nice deep flavor with a good texture and crust.

Tasting table for Thursday

Friday - Four Breads

  • Pave au Levain
  • Toasted Pecan and Flax Seed Bread
  • Sprouted Whole Wheat Pan Bread
  • Power Bread

The last day was more about experimentation.  On Wednesday, Mac had started soaking a large bucket of wheat berries and by the end of class on Thursday, they had started sprouting.  Mac had also received a shipment of special sprouted grain flour the teams spent the day mixing and contrasting the results from the two methods.  The “Pave au Levain” was OK but though a stocking mistake that we didn’t catch during prep, we made it with whole wheat flour instead of the high-extraction like the formula called for.  The “Toasted Pecan and Flax Seed Bread” was excellent and a recipe I want to try at home.  The nuts and seeds gave it a nice texture and a deep flavor.

"Toasted Pecan and Flax Seed Bread" coming out of the oven
Our group's experiment with the sprouted grain flour was the “Sprouted Whole Wheat Pan Bread”.  We had to tinker with the hydration a fair amount but the result was interesting.  Marcio and I experimented with a couple of free standing shapes as well.  My favorite of the day was the “Power Bread”.  A hearty formula made with the sprouted grain, nuts, and raisins.  It was almost a power bar in bread form.

Close-up of "Power Bread"
To wrap up, Mac pulled out some saved samples from the week and we put together a display table.        

Final Display
The founder, Michel Suas stopped in at the end of the day to hand out certificates and wish us all well with some kind words.  I always leave SFBI with new energy and a feeling of accomplishment having used my hands to make something tangible.


Bread Porn - Spring 2012

The last couple of months, career things have left little motivation to write about bread. For sanity reasons, I still found time to bake it however.  I also upgraded my camera to improve the quality of the resulting bread porn.  

Things have settled down a bit and wanted to take a moment a post some of the loaves that turned out especially well.  Enjoy!

The new camera allows for nice close-ups.  A whole-wheat / whole-rye sourdough from January.
Seven-Grain Sourdough and Baguettes from January.

I had a nice success with a 70% rye in February.
Some Challah in February.
Cranberry-Fenney Rye from February.
Two-Castle Rye from March

Some caraway rye from April.
A stiff levain based sourdough from April.


Bread Porn - Nov 2011

Some pictures from last months baking.

One of the things I am working on is a post comparing different brands of flour.  The picture above is part of the research and is a baguette with a poolish pre-ferment made from Pillsbury Best Unbleached All Purpose Flour.  I still have a couple of more brands to test but look for a post after the new year.

Some chocolate bread using a recipe from my SFBI workshop and Two-Castle Rye from Advanced Bread and Pastry modified using a hand mix procedure.

Lastly, some late season raspberry-cranberry jam.