I’d like to preface this post by saying up front that I am by no means an expert in flour. But what I am is someone who likes to know where and how ingredients are made/sourced and think that when it comes to those most basic of ingredients (particularly those things we use each time we bake a cake or make a batch of biscuits) we should know where they come from. What started out as a simple exercise to research the top supermarket and independent brands best suited for making pastry at home has turned into a little bit of an obsession.
So let me start at the beginning. I have found the lack of information about the wheat we grow and the manner in which we manufacture our flour in this country frustrating to say the least. Whilst we become more educated in terms of the range of flour available to us (semolina, “00”, spelt etc) we, well I, still don’t know very much about wheat varietals and production methods for the everyday plain and self-raising flours used in baking. This country’s largest producer of flour and probably the most recognisable brand was not able to provide me with any detail about the variety of wheat they use to product their range of flours only to say it was “definitely NOT GM” and definitely Australian. Without conducting extensive research, in Australia, we only appear to grow a small number of wheat varieties for mass production (mainly hard wheat) and the variety of soft wheat grown seems destined for wholesale and is not available in the local supermarket. Simply put, when we buy plain flour from the supermarket we are generally purchasing one variety of wheat, with slight variations. After taking my time to do as much research as I could I am still confused as to why we seem to be able to get 4 varieties of “plain” flour for use at school but not for the home.
The other reason I wanted to write this post to explain in a little more detail the chemistry that exists in pastry. Ok, you probably all know this stuff anyway, hard flour contains more gluten and gluten is what makes something “doughy”, to use the simplest of terms. I guess I’m trying to make it easy for you to identify when you are buying flour which brands are the best for what. Whilst it is possible to buy flour that is derived from a special crop, say for instance spelt, from your smaller independent grocers, most often it is the local independent supermarket or one of the bigger supermarket chains where you will be buying your every plain and self-raising, most of which stock the same brands.
The best place to start so we are all on an even playing field is to provide the briefest description of how flour is made. We all know that flour is most commonly made from wheat right? In some markets (Germany & France), the different varieties available are labeled according to the ash mass (“mineral content”) that remains after a sample of wheat grain is incinerated. The mineral content of the starchy endosperm (the inner part of the grain) is much lower than that of the outer parts of the grain which are burned off. So we know that flour made from all parts of the grain leaves about 2 g ash or more per 100 g dry flour. Plain white flour leaves only about 0.4 g.
For those of you that may have lived or are from Europe or even the States you will identify with the fact you grow different types of wheat and burn of varying degrees of the outer parts of the grain provide you with a range of plain flours to choose from. We don’t have this variety in Australia.
Outside Europe the ash mass is only rarely given on the label by flour manufacturers, in Australia not at all. However, the legally required standard nutrition label specifies the protein content of the flour, which is also a way for comparing the extraction rates of different available flour types.
In general, as the extraction rate of the flour increases, so do both the protein and the ash content. However, as the extraction rate approaches 100% (whole meal), the protein content drops slightly, while the ash content continues to rise.
So without going into details, cause frankly I don’t have them We now know that there are different varieties of grain ranging from hard to soft and different ash contents. Here in Australia there is not a granular (pardon the pun) level of product available but YES there is a difference between brands. What makes each of these flour brands different is the amount of gluten or protein they contain. Ok, bear with me, it’s a teeny bit scientific, but it will be useful I promise. “Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye.” It is what provides elasticity and structure and particularly with bread, gives it that chewy texture after it’s been baked. So in cakes/tarts/pastries etc the flour component provides the body (crumb) and structural support, protein through coagulation and starch through gelatinisation. Little or no gluten development is what you want when making a cake, gluten will toughen the cake. However, when you are making breads you want it to be chewy and tougher, so a higher gluten/protein content is desirable. This is why selecting the right flour for the end product is key. Bread & pasta flours is different altogether, here I’m focusing on the “softest” flour with least amount of protein.
At the highest level flour can be broken up into Bleached or unbleached, plain and/or self-raising.
A note on bleaching:
You know that the colour of flour is not meant to be bright white yeah? Here’s a link to Wikipedia so you can read a bit more about what actually happens to get flour the colour that it is. I mean, do you need your flour whitened? Read More.
For baking specifically, flour falls into one of the following categories:
Normally used for making cakes, however you can get just as good results using Plain Flour (what we most commonly use and the most readily available to the general public.) Soft Flour or Cake Flour have lower gluten content around 7-8.5gm per kilogram.
HIGH RATIO FLOUR
A finely milled soft flour, bleached and chlorinated. The bleaching treatment to which the flour is subjected tenderises the gluten and the finer grains allow more moisture to be carried than would be allowable by a “normal” soft flour. This type of flour is used to make high-volume cakes and pastries. Think your chain supermarket cakes and some “high-street” patisseries.
Not to be confused with flour used for making bread, you would only use this type of flour in cakes that require a stronger structure, for example a fruit cake. It is a stronger flour by way of its higher gluten content, so shouldn’t be used in say a sponge, but it’s still used for making cakes.
OTHER IMPORTANT INFO
The other important thing to keep in mind, as per my previous post, is the important role fat plays in making cakes and pastries. Whether you are using butter, margarine or nuttelex (if vegan) fat affects gluten development. It’s not just about flavour, in baking, ingredients are generally there for a reason. Fat shortens the crumb, so it provides a softer cake. It obviously enrichens cake and also adds to shelf life. When you make a shortcrust pastry the method of “rubbing” the butter into the flour means that you are coating the flour particles in fat which stops gluten from forming, that is why you are always told to never “over-work” pastry, the more you work it the more gluten will be produced and the less crisp your end result. So when you are making bread, continued kneading is appropriate because you want to work the gluten and add elasticity to the finished product.
JUST ONE MORE THING….
A quick note on “supermarket” cakes. Cakes made in a supermarket don’t generally get made using a separate set of ingredients like we would use at home i.e. butter, flour, milk, eggs, they are called emulsified or stabilised cakes. They are made using an assortment of ingredients that have additives such as stabilizers and emulsifiers which means they can be made by adding all the dry ingredients at once then simply adding water, that’s right no butter or eggs. They have a longer shelf-life because of the additives, and as just mentioned no fresh ingredients. Emulsifiers and stabilizers are available in powder and paste forms and the majority of them mare based on lecithin and lacto albumen, these emulsifiers enable normally incompatible substances such as water and fat from an egg yolk to combine and form an emulsion. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to purchase and eat these cakes, or make one yourself. The cake in the picture above is a chocolate cake from the Bourke Street Bakery cookbook, thanks go to EssjayEats for providing me with the recipe. Its a “real” cake and I rate it as one of the best chocolate cakes ever.
So that brings me to what is readily available in our Australian Supermarkets and Deli’s. The following is a list of the most widely available flour brands and their protein content. I wrote to both White Wings (Goodmanfielder) & Lion/Lighthouse as the two biggest Australian manufacturers and only White Wings replied.
Probably the most recognisable brand and the brand that takes up more space on the shelves in both major and independent supermarkets. White Wings is an Australian company originating here in Victoria. They commenced milling flour in 1898 and have recently launched a range of packaging that includes recipes by Donna Hay, their products were also apparently given the CWA seal of approval in 2009. White Wings range includes: plain, self-raising, organic plain, organic self-raising, wholemeal plain, wholemeal self-raising, gluten free plain, gluten free organic. White Wings Plain flour has 9.5gm of protein per serving.
In terms of the Gluten Free product, it is made from maize as opposed to wheat, it still has 3.8gm protein which provides structure. Using this type of flour does not provide a softer crumb or shorter shortcrust even though it has a smaller protein content.
LION & LIGHTHOUSE
An Australian brand located in Fremantle. Anchor make the Lighthouse & Lion brand of flours. The Lighthouse plain flour is sifted three times to ensure it’s lighter and aerated for baking. There is a line of “Traditional” flours in both brands, Plain and Self-Raising flours and both have the lowest protein per 1000gm (1kg) compared to other brands on the market at 7.7gm.
There is also a line of “Speciality” products under the Lighthouse brand, these include: wholemeal plan and self-raising, organic plain and self raising, bread and pizza plain, Vitalextra+ (a flour with enriched fibre, folate, vitamin B and Iron), Cake, Pastry and Biscuit plain and self raising (a low protein soft flour with only 6.3% protein) and Tip “00” flour for noodles and pasta.
Lion is by far my favourite brand and I personally think it’s the best for making cakes etc at home. It is the closest I’ve seen to the “cake” flour I use in the kitchen at school, I can feel how soft it is.
WOOLWORTHS “HOME BRAND”
A range of Plain, Self-Raising and wholemeal flours and a budget price. The plain flour contains a whopping 10.3gm protein.
MACRO ORGANIC – A WOOLWORTHS BRAND
I’ve just recently noticed the Woolworths “Macro” brand taking up shelf space with it’s organic and Spelt range. The plain flour has only 5.7gm protein.
I can’t find out much more about this flour, it’s label claims that it’s made from a soft wheat but it still has 10.1gm of protein per kilo, so it’s not the softest on the shelf.
THE HEALTHY BAKER
This flour comes from one of Australia’s largest mills, Manildra Mill in NSW. This flour’s point of difference, and I’m guessing why it’s “healthy” is that is has added vitamins. Not sure about that but it has 10.1gm of protein per kilogram.
COLES – HOMEBRAND
I have no picture nor any information to offer, I suspect the protein content would be around 10gm or even higher as per Woolworths home brand product. You see, I never go to Coles and didn’t realise that until I wrote this post! In the interest of getting it published I’ll let you tell me about the Home Brand flour.
LAST WORDS – FOR NOW
William Angliss probably has what I can only imagine is one of the biggest contracts when it comes to flour in Melbourne. The current contract is with Allied Mills, you know the iconic mill that borders Kensington & North Melbourne. They supply a “soft” cake flour, “medium” (equivalent being the plain flour you get in a supermarket), HIGH-RATIO flour and bread flours to the school. I asked for access to the mill but was refused. I’ve asked lots of the Pastry Chef’s & Bakers at school about this topic and to be honest have come up empty handed in terms of further information. I’m starting to think I’m a bit mad and the only person kind of really into this. If you have any other information or resources you think I might find either interesting or useful please let me know.