Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flours in Your Hair

Earlier this year, we were having some trouble with our bread loaves, namely, that our bread slices would fall apart.  We're pretty messy eaters, so no one really noticed anyway, but it was still inconvenient for us.  We tried everything we could think of, assuming the problem was altitude-related.  More flour, less flour, adding eggs, longer kneading time, lower fraction of whole wheat, shorter proofing time...nothing worked well.

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 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: [1] Dutch Valley Foods. [2] MichiganSPARC. [3] [4] Mohamed et al. [5] Wheat Montana. [6] King Arther Flour. [7] Package nutrition info. [8] 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!


  1. Well this will be very helpful! Not only for which ones work best for breads, but also for which ones are better all-purpose flour. I like to have both on hand. Thanks for doing all the work!

    1. You'll just have to remember to bring the table up on your phone before you lose signal in Amish country! (or write down which ones you want to get before you leave.)

  2. I bake a loaf every second day and have been for many years.
    I just use the general purpose white flour from the supermarket (store brand, 10% protein, unbleached).
    It is ridiculously cheap (35¢ per pound).
    And it works fine for me, certainly no sign of falling apart.
    Bread ingredients are simply flour, water, salt and instant yeast.
    This may be heresy to bread gurus, but maybe you could try commonest general purpose flour as an experiment.

    1. George, thanks! We love it when readers suggest experiments! We'll definitely give that a try and report back here.

      One thing I didn't mention is that we usually use about half whole wheat flour in our recipe, which I'm sure isn't doing us any favors in terms of keeping the bread from crumbling.