In a classic case of not doing our homework, we had been using Hungarian High Altitude flour as our bread flour, since we're living 5600 feet above sea level. (That's high altitude, right?) But apparently, the 'high-altitude' refers to where the wheat was grown, not necessarily that the flour is tuned for baking at high altitudes. Eventually, we got some specifically high-gluten flour from an Amish grocery store the last time we were home to Wisconsin, and poof! Good bread again.
When we finally checked the specs on our 'high-altitude flour,' we found it had a measly 3 g protein in a 30 g serving, or ~10% protein. Most flours that are 'good for bread' are in the 13-16% protein range, so that could have easily been our problem. (Although gluten isn't exactly the same as protein, it is does contribute to the protein content, and the two are usually correlated, at least for wheat flour; more discussion here.)
Back to the Amish store...in our experience, these stores have a huge selection of flours. Which one is best for bread? Which ones aren't bleached or bromated? The bags just have the brand name and variety, so we can't tell what's what when we're actually in the store. What we really need is a database of all the flours and their attributes, collected in a table in a readily-accessible place like a blog. Minions! To the spreadsheet! Other minions! To the internet!
|A few hours of searching later, and we know all kinds of things about the Amish store flours. Note: if your local purveyor of flour has other varieties you're interested in, sources 1 and 6 have brands/varieties that aren't included here. Sources:  Dutch Valley Foods.  MichiganSPARC.  Pizzamaking.com.  Mohamed et al.  Wheat Montana.  King Arther Flour.  Package nutrition info.  King Arthur Flour Community. (If you have trouble finding links to the specific product specs, we have more specific links in some cases.)|
In case you were wondering...bleaching and bromating are chemical processing steps that make flour whiter and better for some applications (including bread). But bleaching makes flour white by removing 'carotenoid pigments,' usually by reacting them with benzoyl peroxide. Bromating improves dough characteristics by oxidizing some compounds needed to form gluten, usually through reactions with potassium bromate. While both of these compounds are oxidants, and are (in theory) fully consumed in the flour treating and baking processes (i.e., converted to nontoxic substances), bleaching is unnecessary and removes nutrients, which have to be added back in. Residual bromates are toxic and suspected carcinogens. Outside of the U.S., many countries ban bleaching and bromating agents for those (and other, less chemistry-related) reasons (see also here, here, and here). Usually the ingredients section will list "bleached flour" and/or "postassium bromate" if those processing steps have been included.
So, why do we care if the flours are bleached and bromated?
[stepping on to soapbox]
Bleaching is primarily an aesthetic step. While it helps gluten formation somewhat and removes some oils that can go rancid (thereby increasing the flour's shelf life), we think that those benefits are more than offset by the nutrient removal that also happens in the process. Furthermore, the aesthetic benefits happen anyway if the flour is allowed to stand exposed to air (or more specifically, to oxygen). It doesn't appeal to our line of thinking that food production should be more complicated and less nutritious for primarily aesthetic reasons.
Bromating, in addition to being unnecessary, might pose some legitimate health concerns, especially in home baking operations where the processes aren't perfectly controlled. If the bread isn't cooked long enough or to a high enough temperature, the bromates don't break down, and we would end up eating them. While they are generally present in very low amounts, the possibility of consuming bromates in any quantity seems like an unnecessary risk.
It's just flour production--keep it simple!
[falling off of soapbox, hoarse and exhausted]
So, there you go. Next time we're home, we'll probably be looking for some Wheat Montana or Sir Lancelot flour to make our sandwich bread.
What's your go-to sandwich bread recipe, and what kind of flour(s) do you use? Let us know in the comments section below!