You need High Gluten = High-Protein Flour for
(Strength, Elasticity, Yeast Doughs)
Yeast breadsStrudelCream puffs, popovers, Yorkshire pudding Puff pastryPasta (durum wheat)
You Need Low Gluten = Low-Protein Flour for
Quick breads (baking powder or soda)
Cakes, muffins, pancakesPie crustsDumplings, Asian soft noodles
When gluten-or no gluten-really matters.
When John taught in Atlanta several years ago, he prepared the magnificent strudel from Joseph Weschberg's The Cooking of Vienna's Empire. For strength and elasticity in a thinly stretched strudel, a high-protein flour makes the needed gluten. I assisted him and bought his groceries. For the strudel, I bought bread flour for strength and elasticity.
John was so thrilled, he hugged me. "Shirley, I did this strudel yesterday in Texas, and the only flour they had was Southern low-protein flour-not much gluten. My poor strudel looked like Swiss cheese!" Using the bread flour, John made a six-foot-long strudel so thin you could read the Washington Post through it.
The right flour makes an incredible difference in the quality of a loaf of bread. A loaf made with a high-protein flour (like bread flour) will rise well in both risings and then bake into a light, airy loaf with good brown crust color. A loaf made with a low-protein flour (like Southern all-purpose or cake flour) will not rise well and will bake into a heavy, dense textured, pale loaf.
Different kinds of flour can solve many baking problems. A chef from a test kitchen, for example, told me the had a wonderful lemon square recipe, but she could not use it because the lemon squares were so tender that they fell apart. No problem-a little gluten will hold them together. She could change the flour from bleached all-purpose to unbleached all-purpose, which is a higher-protein flour and will form more gluten. Or she could cut the sugar, which interferes with gluten formation. Either way, the lemon squares will be perfect.
Gluten and water absorption
For thousands of years, cooks have known that some flours absorb more water than others, but they usually blamed it on humidity. Humidity really has very little influence. The gluten proteins join with each other and water to form gluten. It's primarily protein content that determines how much water a flour will absorb.
This difference in water absorption can be major. For example, 2 cups of high-protein bread flour absorb 1 cup of water to form a soft, sticky dough. However, 2 cups of low-protein Southern flour or cake flour and 1 cup of water make a thick soup. It takes 1/2 cup more low-protein flour to get the same consistency dough as with the high-protein flour. This means that even a small recipe with 2 cups of flour can be off by 1/2 cup if the wrong flour is used! This is a difference of 25 percent; commercial recipes with 20 pounds of flour could be off by 5 pounds. Regardless of measure by weight or volume, the type of flour will make a big difference.
Cooks are constantly faced with this problem. The person writing the recipe uses one kind of flour, and the person following the recipe uses another. When driving through Georgia, Mrs. Jones of Connecticut purchases a local church cookbook. When she gets home, she makes Miss Lolly's Cake. The recipe says 2 cups all-purpose flour. Miss Lolly always uses White Lily all-purpose, a low-protein, partially chlorinated flour, and her cakes are superb. Mrs. Jones uses her favorite local all-purpose, high- protein Hecker's, which makes great yeast bread but soaks in the cake liquids and makes a stiff batter and a dry cake. Mrs. Jones thinks this is the worst recipe she has ever followed.
Some time ago, when I was teaching at a chefs' training center in Vancouver, British Columbia, the young chefs were excited about Paul Prudhomme's Cajun cookbook. They loved his recipes, but they were having a real problem with his sweet potato pecan pie. The filling was delicious, but the crust was a disaster. What had they done wrong?
Chef Paul's recipe called for l cup all-purpose flour, and he was probably using a low-protein Southern flour. In Canada the flour called all-purpose is actually a very-high-protein flour. (Canada produces some of the highest-protein flours in the world. Carol Field, in her book The Italian Baker, mentions that a baker who wants to make very light bread will add Manitoba - a Canadian high-protein flour.) So when the young Canadian chefs tried to use it in Paul's recipe, the amount of liquid in the recipe did not even dampen the flour, let alone form a dough. When they added enough liquid to form a dough, the dough was so tough that they could hardly roll it out. "Oh, no!" I said.
"What Paul meant was a flour like your cake and pastry flour." This second major type of Canadian flour is low in protein and just right for cakes and pie crusts. So flour labeled "all-purpose" may not suit your purpose at all. All-purpose flour from one place can be totally different from all-purpose flour somewhere else. In fact, the traditional cuisines of the Northern and Southern United States reflect this difference. The South is noted for its pies, biscuits, and cakes, which the low-protein flour from Southern wheat produces beautifully. Cookbooks from New England and the Midwest that date from before the extensive distribution of national brands of flour contain many fine yeast bread recipes, best made with high-protein flour.
Furthermore, flours labeled as all-purpose can differ from each other in the same geographical region. National brands can differ from regional brands in protein content, and unbleached all-purpose is usually different from bleached all-purpose. Two all-purpose flours that you can buy in most markets in the South - Pillsbury unbleached all-purpose, with 12+ grains of protein per cup, and White Lily all-purpose, with about 8.6 grams of protein per cup, vary by almost 1/2 cup of flour per 2 cup recipe in the amount needed to absorb 1 cup of liquid.
There are no easy solutions. Many recipes using flour are written with an approximate amount, such as "2 to 3 cups flour" or "6 to 8 cups flour." The amount of flour in a recipe is actually a ballpark figure.
The way flour absorbs water tells you a lot about the flour. A flour that absorbs a lot of water is high in protein and good for yeast doughs. They tell of old Cerman bakers who could shove a sweaty arm into the flour barrel and tell what kind of flour it was by how much clung to the arm!
You don't have to master this particular art, but you can perform a similar test by combining an unknown flour and water in the food processor.
From the consistency of the dough, you can make a good guess at the protein content by using the following procedure.
Measure 2 cups and 1 tablespoon of bread flour and place it in the workbowl of a food processor with the steel knife. If you measure by scooping a dry measuring cup into the flour bag, filling it, and slightly packing the flour as you level it off against the inside of the bag, a little over 2 cups of bread flour will absorb 1 cup of water, producing a sticky dough ball when processed for about 30 seconds. Perform the same test with cake flour and you will find that it takes over 2 1/2 cups to form a similar sticky dough hall. This gives you a standard.
You know that if a little over 2 cups of flour plus 1 cup of water make a sticky dough ball, the flour has about 14 grams of protein per cup. If the dough barely forms a ball and is wet, needing from 1/4 to 1/2 cup more flour to reach the same consistency, it is an all-purpose flour with about 12 grams of protein per cup. If the dough is so wet that it does not form a ball at all and requires over 1/2 cup more flour to reach the same consistency, you have the equivalent of a Southern low-protein flour or cake flour with 8 to 9 grams of protein per cup, great for pie crusts.
Protein Content Flour Type Approximate Volume Needed to Absorb 1 Cup Water*
Grams/cup14 Bread 2 cups (packed) + 1 tablespoon 13 Unbleached 2 cups (packed) + 2 tablespoons 12 All-purpose 2 1/4 cups 11 All-purpose 2 1/3 cups + 1 tablespoon 10 All-purpose 2 1/2 cups 9 Southern All-purpose 2 1/2 cups + 2 tablespoons 8 Cake 2 3/4 cups
*To form a sticky dough ball in a food processor. These amounts may vary some with individual measuring techniques.
NOTES : I have a friend who was having trouble with her recipes when they moved to England, so I scanned in the following and sent it. I thought this list might benefit too. I highly recommend the book it is from, the author is, among other things, the person Julia Child calls when her recipes fail!