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Stoneground, wholemeal, wholewheat, strong, 100%, 85%, brown, white, granary, unbleached. What does it all mean?
The answer is here.
To anybody venturing out for the first time to buy flour in order to make real bread it can be a confusing, even intimidating process. This Entry aims to provide a basic guide to bread flours for the British buyer1; explaining the more common terminology and highlighting a few pitfalls that the uninformed would simply never realise were there.
The most useful advice is to read flour packaging and be aware of what it does not tell you.
The most effective grain for bread-making is wheat. It tastes good - nutty with no bitterness - and it performs consistently well. An ear of wheat has all the ingredients for a good loaf: starch for bulk to feed the yeast and to turn a golden brown during cooking; germ to give essential fats and oils which enhance breads nutritional value; bran to help our digestive systems; and gluten which allows bread to stretch and rise.
The primary rule for producing a really good wheat loaf is to use strong bread flour. What differentiates a bread flour from flour more suited to making cakes and biscuits, is the gluten content. Gluten is a protein present in all wheat in varying amounts. Wheat grown in hot, dry summers in a short season will have a higher gluten content. These wheats are known as hard or strong. The high gluten content will ensure an extensive and even rise and a lighter loaf.
Stoneground 100% Wholewheat or Wholemeal Flour
As the name suggests, this flour is ground on a traditional millstone and made from the whole grain of the wheat, from which nothing is extracted and to which nothing is added. There is no difference between wholewheat and wholemeal flour, unless the packaging on wholemeal flour states that barley and/or rye are added to the wheat.
When wholemeal has been stoneground, it will be stated on the packaging. If it does not say this, the chances are that the flour is reconstituted. In other words, it is a roller-milled flour, which is bleached and to which the bulk of the bran and wheat germ removed by the roller-milling process has been returned.
80% - 90% Extraction Flours
Between 10% and 20% of the bran (the outside layer of the wheat) is sieved off to leave a finer, paler and lighter flour than 100% wholewheat. Provided it is labelled as stoneground, this is natural flour with only bran removed; it will not have been bleached or reconstituted. This type of flour is sometimes called wheatmeal and produces a loaf of a finer flavour and texture than wholewheat.
Strong White Flour
The best strong white flour is stoneground which is then sieved to remove most of the bran and the germ which constitutes almost all of the nutritional value. A by-product of this process is the wheat endosperm, which is known as semolina. Strong white flour will make a light and creamy bread which is best eaten very fresh.
Unless the packaging says it is unbleached the flour will have gone through a bleaching process, inspired by a desire for whiter-than-white bread in the 19th Century. Unbleached white flour is a pale cream colour.
This is a combination of 80% - 90% extraction flour and malted wheat or barley flour. Malted wheat or barley has been allowed to start to germinate, thus releasing some of the sugars locked up in the germ. The result is a bread that has a characteristic sweet nutty flavour, much favoured by many people.
Beware additives to granary type flours. Unless the packaging states that it is stoneground wheatmeal with added malted grain, it is almost certain to be roller-milled flour with added caramel, bran, molasses and malt extract.
This is not normally suitable for making a good bread unless it is a strong brown flour, but it is worth mentioning here as the brown in its name will usually be caramel. Unless the packaging tells you otherwise, it is roller-milled bleached flour with caramel and sometimes some bran added. This is another reconstituted flour.
There are many other flours that are used in bread-making. The most commonly used ones will be covered here.
For people with gluten intolerance it is often wheat which is the main problem. Flours such as barley, rye and oats all have very low gluten content but it is hard to make a palatable risen bread, in the European sense, with non-wheat flours. They tend to be heavier and doughier than conventional bread.
Barley produces a flour with lower gluten content than wheat and it therefore does not rise as well. It makes a sweeter bread and is an excellent alternative for people who are wheat intolerant. Barley flour, when used 50:50 with wheat flour, makes a flavoursome and sweet bread. Northern British breads and bannocks were traditionally made using barley, which is better suited to growing in cooler and wetter conditions.
Rye was one of the staple grains of Britain in the Middle Ages and was used with wheat flour to produce maslin flour. Rye flour alone is unstable, resulting in very dense bread2 and it is almost always used with wheat to produce bread with a rich nutty taste.
Spelt is an ancient grain which was used throughout Europe3. It almost died out in the 19th Century as it is a low-yielding grain and therefore not so commercially viable as other flour grains. Some people who are slightly wheat intolerant are able to eat spelt. It is a fine flour which produces loaves which are not dissimilar to those made using maslin.
And The Rest...
Oats have largely disappeared from modern bread-making, although as they have very little gluten they are an alternative to wheat for those who cannot eat gluten. The main use for oatmeal historically has been for flat breads and bannocks in Scotland and northern England. It is also popular as an element of multi-grain flours in continental Europe.
Maize - or cornmeal - is the yellow meal ground from sweetcorn and is used to make Italian polenta, and Southern corn bread in the USA. Both are non-yeast based breads. Broa is a Portugese corn bread made with yeast and provides an alternative for people with gluten intolerance.
Rice and rice flour are not suitable for bread-making except as additives to a wheat flour-based loaf, or as unleavened breads.
Soya flour is added to conventional bread dough to enrich it.
Chickpea or lentil flour is used to make unleavened naans4 and chapattis.
Where to Buy Bread Flour
Fortunately most supermarkets these days stock a variety of proper bread flours. However, a greater choice can be found in wholefood shops and farm shops. There are also a number of watermills and windmills that sell their own flour, with many products available to order on the web.
To make tasty bread with as much of the original grain in it as possible, the trick is to read the packaging. Unless it tells you that you're buying what you want, you're not. And of course, if you want the full flavour and nutritional experience, the flour that you buy should also be labelled organic.
David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery Allen Lane 1977
Downes, John. Natural Tucker Bread Book Hyland House Melbourne 1983
Jaine, Tom. Making Bread at Home Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1995
Smith, Delia. Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course BBC Publications 1982