I think we've all been there... you stir together a batch of cupcakes, or banana bread, or cookies, and bite into them only to find they are tough, dense, or dry. I've even had this happen to recipes I've made dozens of times before with no problems - so what gives?
There are two main reasons this might happen:
1. Too Much Flour: If you measure your flour straight from the bag with a measuring cup (like most of us do) you could be scooping as much as 30% more flour than the recipe calls for. As cliche as it sounds, baking is a science, and requires a little more precision than other kinds of cooking. One of the biggest variables in baking is the person making the recipe, which is why standardized measuring is important to produce the same fluffy cupcakes every time.
2. Over Mixing: Many recipes say to add the flour at the end, and mix until just combined. The reason? Flour contains gluten - long, elastic bands of protein - which can make loaves of bread chewy and pasta dough stretchy. In a lot of baking gluten is a good thing (in gluten-free flour blends, gums and starches are added to replace the binding qualities of gluten), but for delicate cakes and cookies, over mixing can make those treats go from tender to tough. The thing is, different types of flour contain different amounts of gluten, along with other varying qualities... if your recipe calls for cake flour, bread flour simply will not do!
It's FAK Friday (Feeding my Appetite for Knowledge) and this week I want to go over some flour basics. First, I want to talk about how to measure flour properly and accurately, and then I'll discuss what the different types of flour are, and why they matter. I'll go over a variety of wheat flours, as well as some non-wheat and gluten-free flours. As always, I've tried to be as accurate as possible, but if you notice any errors in the information below please leave me a comment at the bottom of the page!
- How to Measure Flour -
We've all heard it said that 'baking is a science', and that is very important to use exact measurements. In many cases, this is true - especially when compared to other types of cooking which require much less precision. Of course, not all baked goods are so finicky, but it is still important to measure properly, especially when trying a new recipe, to ensure that the finished product is as close as possible to what the recipe writer intended it to be.
One cup of all purpose flour should weigh 120g., but when measured improperly can weigh up to a whopping 160g. - a whole 40 grams more! Because there's such a wild variation depending on how you scoop it, there's a standard technique for measuring flour accurately each time.
When a recipe calls for "one cup of flour", most of us reach for a measuring cup, dip it into the bag of flour, and scoop against the side of the bag. Even if we measure lightly and level the top, this method has far too much variation to be consistent. To measure the flour accurately, set your measuring cup on the counter (or on a kitchen scale, if you want to be really precise) and spoon the flour lightly from the bag into the cup, until it is heaping. Using the back of a knife or other flat object, scrape across the top of the measuring cup to level it. Do not tap the cup against the counter, as this will compress the flour. If measuring by weight, most flours weigh about 120 grams per cup, though some weigh slightly more or less. Check the nutritional panel to find the weight of the flour you're using.
If the recipe calls for "one cup of flour, sifted" the flour should be measured first, then sifted. If it calls for "one cup of sifted flour" the flour should be sifted first, then lightly measured into the cup and leveled.
- Different Types of Flour -
There are many different varieties of flour, from different grades of wheat flour all the way to cornmeal, rice flour, and gluten-free blends. Here I want to talk about wheat flours, and what the difference is between cake flour, bread flour, all purpose four, etc.. While I'm at it I'll try to touch briefly on other types of flour, as well.
First, let's talk about wheat. A kernel of wheat consists of three main parts:
1. the bran, or hard outer shell of the kernel, is dark in color and can be seen in whole wheat flours as tiny brown flecks. Wheat bran is high in fiber, b vitamins, fat, protein, and minerals.
2. The germ, which is the part of the kernel that would, if planted, sprout into a new stalk of wheat, contains lots of nutrients, proteins, and vitamins. It is also high in fat, which means it can go rancid rather quickly. This means that whole wheat flour, which contains wheat germ, is more nutritious but also has a shorter shelf life than white flour.
3. The endosperm is the white, starchy part of the kernel which is milled into white flour. The endosperm is made up primarily of starch and protein, with very little fat and other nutrients. When white flour is ground, it passes through a stream of rollers and then gets sifted after each pass. The first passes produce a very fine white flour, while later passes produce increasingly darker (and higher-protein) flours. These are called 'patent flour' 'clear flour' and 'straight flour', and each come in a variety of grades... when a professional baker chooses a flour, they can determine from the grade things like how much protein, starch, moisture, fat, and minerals are present, as well as how well the flour absorbs water. Of course, for the average home baker, these grades are of little importance. What we need to know is how they apply to the common types of flour available to us.
The most important thing to know about types and grades of flour is that some are made from hard wheat, and others from soft wheat, which produce strong or weak flours, respectively. Hard wheat, or strong flour, contains a lot of gluten-forming proteins, while soft wheat, or weak flour, contains very little. Here are some of the most common types of flour you'll find:
- Wheat Flours -
Cake Flour -
Cake flour is a very low-gluten flour made from soft wheat. It is a patent flour, meaning it comes from the softest part of the endosperm, and is very smooth and white. Because it has so little gluten, this flour is perfect for use in delicate cakes and other tender baked goods.
Pastry Flour -
Pastry flour is also a weak or low-gluten flour, but it is slightly stronger than cake flour. Unless it has been bleached, it has a light creamy color (as opposed to cake flour, which is perfectly white). Pastry flour is often used for pie doughs, and sometimes for biscuits and muffins.
Bread Flour -
When people say 'patent flour' they typically mean Bread Flour (even though cake and pastry flours are patent flours as well). Bread flour is made from hard wheat, and has lots of high-quality gluten, making it ideal for bread making. Bread flour sometimes comes with additives like malt flour to improve yeast performance.
"All Purpose" Flour -
As the name suggests, this is a general purpose flour. It is typically formulated to be slightly weaker than bread flour, so that it can be used for either pastries or breads effectively.
Whole Wheat Flour -
Whole Wheat Flour is made by grinding the entire kernel of wheat, including the bran and germ. Because it contains more fat than white flour, whole wheat flour can go rancid more quickly, and should not be stored for prolonged periods of time. It also contains lots of gluten-forming proteins, making it suitable for bread-making. However, breads made entirely with whole wheat flour tend to be heavier, partly because of additional fiber and minerals, and partly because the strands of gluten get cut by the sharp edges of the bran flakes. For this reason, many whole-wheat recipes are strengthened with the addition of white flour.
Durum Flour, or Semolina Flour -
Durum wheat is a different species of wheat than is commonly used in other flours. It is very high in gluten, and is primarily used to make pastas and pizza doughs.
- Non-Wheat Flours -
Wheat flour is the only type of flour with enough gluten to make standard yeast breads. There are plenty of other types of flour out there, though, including a wide variety of gluten-free blends.
Rye Flour -
Next to wheat flour, rye is the most common flour in bread-making. It does contain gluten-forming proteins, but not enough to stand alone, so is typically mixed with hard wheat flour (usually at a ratio of 25-40% rye flour to 60-70% wheat flour). Rye flour also contains a lot of gums, which can make rye dough stickier and harder to work with than wheat. Like wheat flours, rye flour is milled into different grades, ranging from light, to dark, and then to a coarse meal called pumpernickel flour.
Spelt is considered to be an ancestor of modern wheat. Like wheat, it contains gluten proteins, but they only form a somewhat weak gluten structure and cannot withstand much mixing.
Buckwheat Flour -
Buckwheat is not actually a grain, and is not in any way related to wheat. Instead, it is the seeds of a plant that is related to sorrel and rhubarb. Buckwheat contains no gluten of it's own, but those with gluten allergies should still use caution because buckwheat is sometimes processed alongside wheat, and may be contaminated with small amounts of gluten. Buckwheat is typically ground whole into a dark, strong tasting flour which is often used in pancakes or crepes. You can also find buckwheat crushed into small pieces, which are called 'buckwheat groats', and can be cooked similarly to rice.
Corn Meal -
Corn contains lots of protein, but no gluten. It can be ground anywhere from very fine, to very coarse, and can be used to add texture and flavor to baked goods (think, cornbread).
Soy Flour -
Soy is not a grain at all, but a legume, or bean. Soy flour is made by drying the beans and grinding them into a powder. They are high in fat and protein, and contain no gluten and very little starch. In baking, soy flour typically has the fat removed, to keep it from going rancid. Raw soy flour contains enzymes that can aid yeast development making it useful in bread making, but can only be used in small amounts or else it can result in an unpleasant flavor. When toasted, the yeast-feeding enzymes are destroyed, but the flour produces a much better flavor and can be added to baked goods to add nutritional value.
Rice Flour, Oat Flour, and other Gluten Free Flours -
Rice flour can be made from either white or brown rice, and is simply the dried grains ground into a powder. It contains a small amount of protein, but no gluten. Because of it's mild flavor and versatility, rice flour is often used as a base for gluten-free flour blends.
Oat flour is made from finely ground oats, and can also be used in making gluten-free flours, though it should be noted that oats are frequently processed alongside wheat and may be contaminated, so be sure to look for the 'certified gluten-free' label. Oats also contain a small amount of a chemical called avenin, which can cause stomach upset to those with sensitivities. For more information about oats, see last week's FAK Friday: The Wonderful World of Oats!
To make a gluten-free flour, there are typically several types of flour (such as rice, coconut, oat, or nut or bean flours), blended together with a starch and some kind of gum (like xanthen gum). Gluten-Free flour blends can be tailored with more or less gums and starches to produce many of the same products as wheat flours do. There are 'all-purpose' gluten-free flours available, or they can be made from scratch - I find that many of the store-bought blends have an unpleasant taste to them, so I prefer to make my own. You can find my recipe for gluten-free flour here: Homemade Gluten-Free Flour.