Jan 19, 2011

Baking Ingredients: All you Need to Know About Flour!

When I started baking a couple of months ago, I happened to meet with a quite a few disasters :D, many of which will be posted here over coming weeks. As always, practice helped me get better and better at a recipe (and I'm still practising!).

But there were some things that went wrong that I just couldn't figure out. Everything would seem like it was going fine and then something would go horribly wrong. And I wouldn't know what had happened. I thought about it, and figured (with a little help from my wonderful husband) that I needed to know more about baking than simply putting the ingredients of the recipe together.

Baking is sort of a technology. I needed to know what exactly the purpose of each ingredient was, so I could be sure of what I was doing. So I started my research about individual ingredients.

Today I'll share with you all that I've learnt about flour used for baking.


Flour "is a powder which is made from grinding cereal grains, seeds or roots." But you know that. Oh well, I had to start somewhere. :-)

Wheat flour (refined, or otherwise) is what is most commonly used for baking purposes. Sometimes, other types of flour are used as well.

Why Flour?

Flour, as a part of batter or dough for baked goods, lends texture, body and flavor. It's a binding agent that brings the liquid ingredients together and supports the finished product. So you can safely call it the basic ingredient or the foundation.

Flour contains protein and it is the percentage of this protein in various types of flour that affects the quality of baked foods. The protein, when put in contact with water and heat, produces Gluten. Gluten is what "gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and keep its shape, and often giving the final product a chewy texture." It is possible to remove gluten from flour for people who suffer from gluten-sensitivity. Gluten is also available separately to add to flour to increase its strength.

So, as you can figure from this, the protein content of the flour you are using would play a pretty chunky role in what you end up baking.

Sifting Flour

Flour is sifted using a flour sifter/sieve for three basic reasons:
  • To incorporate other dry ingredients well, such as cornflour, baking powder or salt.
  • To remove lumps.
  • To incorporate air into the flour for light and fluffy cakes (such as sponge)
Don't bother sifting under two conditions: 1. The recipe doesn't call for it AND 2. You use a hand blender or stand mixer.

Some Important Flour Words

All Purpose Flour. Also called Maida in India. Or Refined Wheat Flour. It's basically a type of wheat flour suitable for home bakers use in a variety of recipes such as cakes, cookies, pies, muffins, rolls, biscuits and some types of bread. Content of protein varies from region to region but is typically anywhere between 8-12%.

Whole Wheat Flour. Milled from the whole wheat grain, containing both the bran and the germ. Hence, healthier. Typically has 11-15% protein. Used for many kinds of baked breads, flat breads and also healthy versions of cookies and cakes. Results in denser products. Involves a little compromise on taste sometimes.

Unbleached Flour. That hasn't been bleached! Bleaching is the chemical process of making flour 'white' by using oxidizing agents. I did not go into much details for this, but it's basically done to improve the aesthetic value of the final product. Get unbleached if you're worried about consuming extra chemicals and you don't care that your cake isn't white. Please correct me if I'm wrong, I think there's no difference in the nutritional value of bleached and unbleached flour.

Cake Flour. Used for cakes as the name suggests, and made from soft wheat flour. 6-8% protein, hence has low gluten as well. Bleached and soft in texture, so used for cakes when a tender crumb is desired. Cake Flour can be prepared at home. To make 1 cup, use two Tbsp Cornflour/Cornstarch and fill the remaining 1 cup measure with regular all purpose flour (bleached is preferred). Sift together thoroughly; 3-6 times.

Self-Rising Flour. All purpose flour that is pre-mixed with baking powder and salt. To make your own, for every 1 cup of flour add 1+1/2 Tsp baking powder and 1/2 Tsp salt.

And then there's also Pastry Flour and Bread Flour, but I didn't bother going too much into those. This seems sufficient enough to know for a weekend-baker like me. Will update this page as and when needed. Please let me know if anything important is missing!

So that's all about flour. As always, I'm very happy to hear from you! :-)

Some credits:
img: BBC
research: Joy of Baking, Allrecipes.com, Flour.com, Wikipedia & Wikipedia

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