Have you ever wondered? The varieties of flour are many! Discover all the different types of flour with me.
Flour is derived from grinding the dried fruits or seeds of certain plants. It can be derived from wheat, maize, rice, barley, oats, rye, chestnuts, chickpeas, almonds, coconut, locust beans and buckwheat, but also from some dried fruits and legumes.
Generally, when we talk about flour without specifying its origin, we refer indirectly to wheat flour. This is in fact the flour that tends to be most commonly used for the most common and widely consumed culinary preparations.
Flour is an essential ingredient in cooking because without it, many recipes could not be made. Just think of the bread, pasta, pizza, cakes or pastries that we love so much. Flour, however, is not only important in the world of flour and the like! It is, in fact, an important ingredient if, for example, we want to make escalopes, frying batters or ravioli. These are just a few of the myriad ways of using flour in cooking, as well as for baked goods.
One particular use that is made of it is as a thickener. One food whose recipe calls for the use of flour as a thickener is that of béchamel. Like this preparation, there are many others that exploit the thickening capacity of flour. Many of these are sauces themselves.
However, it is important to be able to distinguish between the different kinds of flour and identify the one that best suits our needs. Nutritional values, as well as processing and grain size, are completely different factors from flour to flour.
What follows is that depending on the flour used, the product will be characterised by certain qualities rather than others.
History and facts about flour
As we have just discovered, most types of flour are derived from cereals. Cereals are plants belonging to the Gramineae family with the exception of buckwheat, which belongs to the Polygonaceae family.
The first cultivation of cereals dates back some 100,000 years and originated in the area of the Fertile Crescent. In the same area, there was the first attempt by man to domesticate this plant family in order to modify its biological cycle by adapting it to his own needs.
The birth of cereal cultivation was a turning point in the history of modern man because it gave rise to sedentarism, thus abandoning nomadism and giving rise to the first settlements that, over the centuries, expanded to become cities and then states. Put simply, today’s society and its organisation are a direct consequence of man’s discovery of cereals.
Flour is one of the most energetic ingredients as it represents a good mix of protein, starch, fibre, minerals, vitamins and antioxidant compounds. Many organoleptic characteristics of a food prepared from flour depend directly on the composition of proteins in wheat.
About 80 per cent of these proteins are gliadins and glutenins, which, when mixed with water during dough preparation, give rise to gluten. Gluten is essential as it allows the dough of flour and water to rise. By trapping the carbon dioxide developed by the yeast, it generates a more or less soft product. Gluten also allows the starch granules to be trapped during cooking and not dispersed into the surrounding environment as happens when cooking dough.
The flour strength
All these factors are responsible for the so-called “strength of flour”. The strength of a dough corresponds to its resistance to deformation. It is measured in ten-thousandths of a joule and is calculated using a machine called the Chopin Alveograph. The measurement consists of preparing a dough of water and flour in standard doses, which is subjected to deformation following the insufflation of a given amount of air. This causes it to break and, based on the amount of air used to reach the breaking point of the dough, the flour strength is calculated.
Flour strength (W) is also referred to by the technical term “breadmaking factor”. It is one of the most important factors to take into account when choosing a flour. A low W is typical of a flour that needs little water and leavens quickly. The result will be a light but not very consistent dough. On the other hand, a high W indicates that the flour will absorb a lot of water and will rise slowly, creating a firm and very puffy dough.
A W of 90/130 is suitable for making biscuits, a W of 130/200 is suitable for making breadsticks or crackers, ordinary bread and bacon are made with a flour with a W of 170/225, baguette pizzas and focaccias need a flour with a W of 225/290, kneaded bread, pastries and a 15-hour biga need a W of 300/310 while puffed bread, panettone or a biga over 15 hours, need a W of 340/400.
Now that you have learnt a few tricks that may come in handy when choosing your flour, stay with me… We are going to discover together all that characterises and distinguishes the different types of flour for baking (and not only) available on the market and their possible uses!
In fact, the choice of a flour is based on many factors, not just strength! Let’s discover together what you can make with the different flour types!
All types of flour
When we talk about flour without specifying its origin, we generally refer to wheat flour. You won’t be new to reading that there are two different types!
Wheat flour is divided into soft wheat flour and hard wheat flour. The former is used for all bakery preparations such as bread, pizza, and cakes, while the latter is used for the production of pasta.
The seeds of the wheat plants from where flour is derived are called caryopses. Those of common wheat or “Triticum Aestivum”, are round and floury in appearance. The caryopses of durum wheat or “Triticum Durum”, on the other hand, are more elongated and have a glassy appearance. If you think about it, it all makes sense if you compare a piece of bread with spaghetti or pennette! At first glance, pasta will immediately give you the idea of being more glassy than bread! This is because the characteristics of flour are very evident in the products that are made from them.
There are also many varieties of flour derived from other cereals such as barley flour, which is particularly beneficial due to the high amount of cholesterol-reducing beta-glucans it contains, but also spelt or oat flour, rye flour and maize flour.
Many kinds of legume flour are also gaining popularity. Very similar to more “traditional” flour, legume flour is appreciated and used because of its texture, which is very reminiscent of traditional flour. In addition, legume flour has the advantage of being totally vegan and also suitable for those with intolerance or allergy problems such as coeliacs. What varies in this type of flour is the flavour. A difference with respect to tradition, but a fair compromise when we consider that the amount of carbohydrates is much lower and the protein contribution is much higher!
But how is flour obtained from a plant?
How flour is obtained
As already mentioned, flour is obtained from the grains of certain plants, usually cereals. The plants are the same from which flour gets its name. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to wheat flour.
Bear in mind, however, that the processes carried out industrially are more or less the same for each kind of flour. The wheat grain consists of an outer husk called “bran” and an inner part formed by the germ and endosperm.
Flour is obtained by grinding wheat grains in a process known as “milling”. Milling can be of two types. There is stone milling and cylinder milling. Stone milling (the more traditional type) also contains the germ of the grain, whereas cylinder milling does not. This implies less flavour in the final product, despite the higher yields of modern milling equipment.
However, milling is preceded by other steps. The first step to obtain flour is in fact pre-cleaning. This is followed by cleaning, which is necessary to remove all impurities from the grains. After cleaning, the grains are soaked. This softens the bran and makes it easier to extract the flour.
After wetting we find the already known milling, which is followed by sifting.
The sifting refers to the quantity of flour obtained with 100 kg of grain. The higher the rate of sifting, the more integral the flour.
Whole-wheat flour refers to flour that incorporates components such as bran. This implies that a wholemeal flour, besides being less refined, is also healthier as it contains more fibre, vitamins and minerals than a non-wholemeal flour. Husking is carried out by separating the bran from the rest of the flour. This process is carried out using machines called “plansichter”, a complex of sieves that is able to classify the flour according to its size. The lower the rate of sifting, the finer and more refined the flour obtained will be.
Ancient grain and speciality flours
The fashion of making food from so-called “ancient grains” has been gaining ground in recent years. These types of wheat date back to the time before the Green Revolution in the second half of the 20th century.
Originally, each region of the country had “its” type of wheat. Today, however, wheat production in Italy has become much more standardised than in the past. Several varieties, however, are slowly reappearing on the territory. Examples are the Senatore Cappelli variety, the Solina variety, the Timilio variety, Russello and many others.
It is mistakenly thought that these varieties of ancient grains are better than all the varieties produced and consumed today. Nothing could be more wrong! It is wrong to think that ancient wheats contain less gluten or no gluten at all, just as it is wrong to think that modern wheats should be set aside because they are GMO products, they are not!
The spread of coeliac disease is not due to modern wheat; ancient wheat does not give less intolerance than modern wheat. Moreover, they are no more digestible and do not always taste or smell better! Ancient wheats contain on average more gluten, have a low W, have a variable content of toxic epitopes, have a high price and above all a low yield. In fact, it is estimated that if only ancient wheat were cultivated, national wheat production would fall dramatically, thus increasing the already high import.
The rediscovery of these cereals is certainly an added value to our country’s biodiversity, but it is nevertheless important to take into account all the disadvantages and negative aspects that this entails, as well as the false beliefs that are unfortunately widespread among unsuspecting consumers.
It is very important not to be guided by fads when it comes to food. The same argument can be addressed by analysing the increase in consumption of gluten-free products. Fortunately, science now allows us to create gluten-free flour that is suitable for all people suffering from coeliac disease. Unfortunately, alongside the people who use them out of genuine necessity, there are just as many who do it for fashion.
It is important to know that a gluten-free product is neither slimming nor easier to digest. They are therapeutic products that are prescribed as therapies to curb a serious problem caused by a chronic systemic disease and, as such, should not be consumed lightly. The price of these products is on average higher than normal, and as they are gluten-free products, in most cases a lot of fat is added to make a fairly soft product.
Good alternatives to gluten-free products can be all those products made from naturally gluten-free flour. Cereals such as rice, millet, sorghum, maize, and pseudocereals such as amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa are a good alternative.
Remember, however, that coeliac disease is a disease and as such must be diagnosed by competent doctors. Don’t use gluten-free products just for the sake of it, because it could even harm your health! Rather, prefer from time to time those products made from naturally gluten-free flour such as those just mentioned. They are much healthier and healthier for those who do not suffer from coeliac disease!
Let us now analyse all the characteristics of the different types of flour that are most widely consumed and sold!
1. Durum wheat flour
Durum wheat flour comes from the regrinding of semolina, a product obtained by grinding durum wheat, which, when ground only once, is more or less coarse and amber-coloured. When semolina is milled at least twice, durum wheat flour is obtained. The final consistency will be similar to that of white flour and only then can it be called that. Used to produce dry pasta, the kind you find on sale in every grocery shop, durum wheat flour provides approximately 314 calories per 100g.
2. Wheat (or soft) wheat flour
Derived from the milling of common wheat, this type of flour is the most widely marketed and consumed. It is used to produce bread, pizza, cakes, leavened goods, biscuits and fresh egg pasta. However, there are different types.
1. Type 00 flour: this kind of flour is the most processed and has a powdery and almost impalpable consistency. It is obtained by grinding the wheat grain from which the germ and bran are removed. The loss of vitamins and minerals is therefore high. The same applies to fibre.
2. Type 0 flour: less refined than 00 flour, this type of flour contains a small percentage of bran.
3. Type 1 flour: less refined than 0 flour, it has an even higher percentage of bran. This implies a higher presence of fibre.
4. Type 2 flour or semi-wheat flour: it contains almost all the parts of the wheat grain that are removed in more refined flours.
5. Wholemeal flour: this is the flour that contains all parts of the grain, starting with the germ and ending with the bran. This type of flour was widely used until a few decades ago, before the discovery of the extreme processing of flour to obtain a product that gave softer and whiter bread.
From a nutritional point of view, wholemeal flour is the best choice as it has the most nutrients. It is estimated that about 100g of type 0 wheat flour contains about 341 calories.
3. Manitoba flour
Appreciated and loved for its special nutritional characteristics, Manitoba flour is none other than a flour produced from the well-known soft wheat or Triticum Aestivum. So where is the speciality of this flour then? Why is it so popular? What makes it more expensive than others?
The particularity of Manitoba flour lies in the fact that the only region from which it originates is in Canada. Here, precisely in the area of the same name, the temperatures are particularly cold and adverse. In spite of everything, however, the common wheat plant has been able to adapt to such adversity, developing defence techniques that have given it a very high degree of resistance. As a result, common wheat from this area is much higher in protein than others. The amount of gluten in it is also higher.
Once this particularly resistant species of wheat was selected, it was exported to the rest of the world, where it is now widely cultivated.
Its resistance allows it to be considered a “strong” flour, which also implies a higher commodity price. Indeed, Manitoba flour gives the dough a better ability to rise and retain the carbon dioxide chambers produced during rising. This flour is therefore ideal for products such as panettone and pandoro, the leavened items par excellence! Manitoba flour shares approximately the same nutritional characteristics as other common wheat flours. For every 100g of flour, therefore, the intake is approximately 341 calories.
4. Semola and semolina
Semola is obtained by grinding durum wheat grains and is generally used to make bread with excellent digestibility. In the tradition of Roman cuisine, this type of flour is also used to prepare the classic Roman-style gnocchi. This dish is characterised not only by the use of semola flour, which is rarely used for the preparation of fresh pasta, but also by the delicious appearance due to the crust given by the cheese and melted butter.
Semolina, on the other hand, is obtained by grinding not only durum wheat. It is in fact a flour derived from the milling of soft wheat, maize, rice and other cereals.
5. Alternative flours
As already mentioned, flour can be obtained from many grains, not just wheat! In addition to these, there is also flour derived from legumes or nuts (in the future, we will maybe have kinds of flour derived from insects, too!). On the market, you will find many types of “alternative” flour such as oat flour, black rice flour, white rice flour, maize flour, millet flour, buckwheat flour, chestnut flour, barley flour, quinoa flour, almond flour, hazelnut flour, spelt flour, chickpea flour, lentil flour, soya flour, millet flour, coconut flour, carob flour, rye flour and potato flour.
Each type of flour has unique nutritional and organoleptic characteristics that sometimes mirror the flavour of the similar food from which they are derived.
Many types of alternative flour are little used but, being derived from crops other than wheat, they are able to provide completely different nutrients than those introduced with more classical flour. These products could be a good starting point for a more varied and balanced diet!
An excellent piece of advice I would give you is to discover all types of flour by travelling around Italy… And maybe even taking some interesting cooking classes! 👩🍳