5 Days with Whole Wheat Flour: What’s With All the Different Kinds of Wheat?
Posted Jun 04 2012 7:00am
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It’s common knowledge that whole wheat flour is better for you than white all-purpose flour… but why is that? And what exactly is whole wheat flour, anyway? What’s the difference between whole and white flour?
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Wheat is a grain (or cereal) that has been around since the dawn of time, and has been a staple food for civilizations since the ancient Egyptians. It is the third most widely produced grain in the world, after corn and rice.
You’ve probably heard of grains and flours similar to wheat, like durum, spelt, kamut, and emmer. Those are all variants of wheat, but for the purposes of this series, I’m going to focus exclusively on the common wheat flour you’ll find in any grocery store and in any kitchen.
I’ll do my best to answer your questions, and for whatever burning questions you have that may remain, I’ve included some very informative links at the bottom of this post.
Let’s untangle the wheat confusion, shall we?
There are two main kinds of wheat: hard and soft. Simple, right?
Not so fast. Wheat can also be “winter” or “spring” wheat, depending on when it was planted and harvested. And on top of all that, wheat can either be “red” or “white”.
Yes, I know. Confusing. Let’s break it down.
Hard wheat has a higher protein content than soft wheat, and that protein is mostly gluten. Gluten is what creates the highly prized elastic quality of bread dough, and is therefore a desirable element in bread flour. Hard wheat can be either spring or winter wheat (more on that in a minute). Soft wheat is lower in protein and higher in carbs, making it ideal for cakes and other sweets, but not so much for bread. Soft wheat is almost always winter wheat.
Depending on the area where it’s being cultivated, wheat can be sown either in the fall or spring. When wheat is sown in the fall, it becomes dormant over the cold winter months, then resumes growing in the spring. Such wheat is called “winter” wheat, and typically has a lower protein content in comparison to the same wheat grown in the summer. Spring wheat is sown in the spring and harvested in late summer or early fall, and has a comparatively higher protein content.
This refers to the color of the bran, the outer layer of a wheat berry, and is the biggest difference between the two. Bread made from red wheat will be considerably darker in color than bread made from white wheat. Red wheat also has a slightly bitter taste from the tannin that creates the red color, whereas white wheat has a lighter (and many say more pleasant) flavor. Both hard and soft white wheat have about the same amount of protein as soft red winter wheat, but not as much as hard red wheat varieties. Otherwise, it has a very similar nutritional profile to all other wheat varieties. (See a comparison of all kinds of wheat here .)
Essentially, the different types of wheat all come down to the protein content, with soft white wheat having the least amount of protein, and hard red spring wheat having the most.
But that’s just the berry. We haven’t even talked about the milling process yet! Different flours are produced by using different wheat varieties, but also by grinding them differently.
The most basic difference in wheat grinds is Whole Wheat vs. Enriched (or “White”). Whole wheat is exactly what it sounds like: a flour ground from all 3 parts – endosperm, bran and germ – of the wheat berry. Enriched or White flour is ground only from the endosperm and usually has the nutrients typically found in the bran and germ added back in (hence the term “enriched”) after grinding.
As grocery stores are offering more and more options these days, you’re bound to see bags of flour on the shelf that go beyond the usual “Whole Wheat Flour” and “All-Purpose Flour”. What are all those flours anyway? What kind of wheat are they made of? How are they ground? Are they whole grain? What is their protein content? What foods do you make with them?
Here’s a quick lexicon to help you sort through all those labels and determine which flour you need.
All-Purpose Flour (commonly called “white flour”) is a blend of 80% hard wheat and 20% soft wheat with a protein content of 8-11%. It is typically bleached, which means you’ll want to stay away from it if you’re trying to avoid chemicals in your food. Also, all-purpose flour is not a whole grain flour, meaning it’s made from the endosperm of the wheat berry and does not contain the nutrient-rich bran and germ.
Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (also called “white flour”) has been whitened naturally by aging for a few months rather than using chemicals. Once again, it is made only from the endosperm, not the bran or germ.
Bread Flour, unless specified as whole wheat bread flour, is also made only from the endosperm, and is high in protein. The most commonly available varieties in the grocery store are usually made from hard red spring wheat, and have some malted barley added. The protein content is typically high, from 12% to 20%, making it popular with bread bakers.
Cake Flour is a bleached white flour with a very low protein content (6-8%) to make it especially good for cakes and pastries. But not very good for your health.
Self-rising Flour is usually white flour with added leavening ingredients (baking soda and salt). It’s mostly used for biscuits.
Whole Wheat Flour is made from all parts of the wheat berry (germ, bran, and endosperm), but supermarket varieties are not typically labeled as to their ideal usage (bread or all-purpose). My guess is that most flours labeled “whole wheat” are ground from hard red winter wheat, and have a protein content of around 12%. Since it is made from the entire wheat berry, it is higher in fiber and overall nutritional content than white flours.
White Whole Wheat Flour is ground from white wheat berries, and also contains all 3 parts (germ, endosperm, bran). It’s a little lower in protein than its red counterpart, but has a lighter taste and color, making it ideal for anyone who wants to eat more whole grains but is put off by the taste, texture and color of the more common red wheat flour.
Those are the flours more readily available at any grocery store around the country. At specialty stores or larger stores, you might be able to find the following types of flours:
Pastry Flour is available in both whole wheat and white varieties, and has a lower protein content (9-10%). As its name suggests, it’s best for pastries, cookies, cakes, and the like. I’ve personally not found whole wheat pastry flour in any store near me, but Bob’s Red Mill , King Arthur Flour , and Hodgson Mill all carry this variety and are available in some stores around the country (and, of course, online). You can also find other producers of whole wheat pastry flour on Amazon.com .
Sprouted Flour is made from wheat berries that have been soaked until they sprout, then dried and milled. Sprouted flour is considered by many to be the healthiest form of wheat flour available, and is usually available at health food stores or you can, of course, find a variety of sprouted flours on Amazon.com . Cultures for Health is another good source for sprouted flour (and hey, today only, you can get 10% off their sprouted flours with the code FLOUR!)
Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour is milled the old-fashioned way, using stone instead of steel. The benefit of stone ground flour is that the entire grain is ground at once, keeping the bran and germ together with the endosperm. When flour is ground on steel mills, the endosperm is typically removed and ground to create white flour, then the germ and brand are added back in afterward. Tropical Traditions and Arrowhead Mills both carry stone ground whole wheat flour.
Whew! That was a lot of information about one little grain, wasn’t it? Did you have any idea wheat was so complex?