Flour 101

Flour

To be able to choose the best variety of flour for your needs, get to know the basics about the wheat from which flour is milled.Soft wheat thrives in temperate, moist climates (like our mid-Atlantic region), while hard wheat flourishes in the Midwest. Soft wheat is milled into pastry flour, while hard wheat becomes bread flour. All-purpose flour is a combination of the two.

For years, we kept it out of the Daisy lineup out of principle. Dave Poorbaugh of Daisy Organics has spent a lifetime buying grain and milling flour. He argues the principle of all-purpose, “the half-and-half of flours” by arguing, “I don’t think many women buy all-purpose dresses.” But Dave finally relented because of consumer demand and because so many modern recipes call for all-purpose flour. Daisy now sells all-purpose flour.

So, what separates these varieties of wheat and resulting flours? It’s all about protein: Hard wheats have much higher protein levels. Protein develops gluten. And gluten, that sticky strand you see when kneading or stirring flour and liquid, gives elasticity to the dough.

Hard wheats (bread flour) have about twice as much protein as soft wheats (pastry flour). Voila! This is the difference between two oppositional, and delicious, textures-chewy (high gluten) and flaky (low gluten). Coarse bread, for example, is chewy. Croissants or tarts or pie crust are flaky.

Loaves made with bread flour have that familiar high, airy, chewy crumb, which raises the question: What did people in our region do before the 1850s, when hard wheat from the plains became readily available? They cooked with soft wheat, of course.

That said, locally-produced flours from the 1700s and 1800s were slightly different from what we find around here today: Heritage soft wheats-something McGeary is currently cultivating in a pilot program-have slightly more protein content than modern soft wheats. “Even a small amount of protein will make a huge difference in the quality of the bread,” says Poorbaugh. (That is one reason that we buy only winter wheat for our flours. Spring wheat has different characteristics and is not widely grown in our local agricultural region. Loyalty to our time-tested relationships with farmers is another trait that we hold dear.)

But good protein is not the only thing that distinguishes the heritage varieties: “Wheat around here is two-and-a-half feet tall,” he explains. “The heritage wheats are up to six feet tall.”

So, for a history lesson-and a tasty alternative-try baking traditional soft-wheat bread. It took plenty of trial and error to arrive at the recipe below, and Poorbaugh swears by it. “People expect really airy breads,” he explains. “The stuff at the grocery story is 50 percent air. We’ve all been indoctrinated into these high loaves. If you bake with our soft wheat bread, you get a nice, dense loaf. Try tearing a piece off and dipping it in your soup, or smearing a little apple butter on it.”

Courtesy Lee Stabert and GRIDPHILLY.COM MAY 2010