Flour was discovered around 6000 BC and it has become the daily food for millions ever since.  Wherever enough grains could be harvested, ground, and baked, the economy flourished and culture emerged.  Romans were among the first to use cone-shaped millstones – huge structures turned by slaves or animals – to produce flour in mass quantities.

Today, more than 320 million tons of wheat flour is produced in mills for hundreds of different types of flour needed for every cooking and baking application. 

White flour bread was consumed from the time of the Romans, who could afford finely ground flours.  Even people living in Medieval England distinguished between brown (whole wheat) and white (finely ground or refined) breads.   Poor people consumed rougher grades of flour, such as whole wheat, because it was less expensive. 

White flour adoption grew among many cultures because it was perceived as “healthier” than darker, whole grain flours during the late Middle Ages.  This perception existed because the molds and fungus that led to several diseases would grow in stored whole grains, but they could be eliminated in processing that resulted in white or very finely grown flour.  Before the 20th century, fine, freshly milled flour was really a light yellow color caused by xanthophylls, a carotenoid.  This natural flour was stored exposed to air so it would lighten in color and oxidize naturally, making it more suitable for baking. 

Flour Processing

Flour is created when whole grains are cleaned and put together in different combinations (called gristing) to make different kinds of flours.  Then the grains go through a milling process using rollers and other mechanisms (hammers) to break up, sieve, grind and separate the bran, germ, and endosperm of the grain.  The result is a mix of flour, bran, and germ, each of which is used up somewhere in the food chain. 

Why This Matters:

Natural food processors use time-tested stone grinding and hammer mill methods during some portion of the milling process to preserve as much of the integrity of the whole grain as possible.

Highly refined flours are milled using methods that separate out the bran and the germ, leaving only the innermost endosperm.  Refined flour may also go through additional processing steps including bleaching which uses chlorine, dioxide, benzoyl peroxide, or acetone peroxide to remove the natural yellow color caused by the carotenoids contained in the grain.   The bleaching process destroys any remaining nutrients that have survived the milling process.  In addition, dough conditioners, such as potassium bromate or potassium phosphate, are often added to reduce the need to knead the dough when making bread.

In the 1940s, white-bleached flours began to be enriched so that the wartime population could get the nutrients they needed during a time when food was scarce or being rationed.  Enrichment was endorsed by the American Medical Associations in order to combat nutrient deficiency-related diseases, such as pellagra and beriberi.  While voluntary in the beginning, standards for the enrichment of flour were set by the federal government in 1990 in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) and updated in 1998 when folic acid was added for the prevention of some birth defects.   These standards require that grains & flours that are labeled as enriched must contain added iron, thiamin (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folic acid.  However, enrichment only replaces 5 of the 22 known nutrients that are lost during the refining process.

Flour Storage 

Whole grain flours contain some fats that can go rancid. They should be refrigerated in an airtight container and used within three months.  Refined flours should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place to keep out moisture and insects. They should be used within six months.  Flour can also be kept in the freezer in a plastic airtight bag or container for longer periods of time.  However, gluten will deteriorate over time in refrigeration which is why fresh flours make the best breads.

Why This Matters:

Gluten is a key component in bread making. It contains strong expandable fibers that enable bread to rise high and maintain volume. And, because gluten deteriorates over time, it is important to properly store and use flour within six months.

Types of Flours

Flours made from wheat are the most common because wheat contains the most gluten.  However, over the last few decades, flours made from other grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds have been produced to expand the nutrition varieties and provide alternatives for gluten-free customers.  Many of these non-wheat flours such as amaranth, barley, buckwheat, oats, rice, millet, rye, and triticale can be used in baked goods, pancakes, and other traditional flour products. Since flours made from plants other than wheat lack a significant amount of gluten, any breads, cakes, and muffins made exclusively from specialty flours tend to be compact, with a dense, crumbly texture.  To “lighten” them, bakers may combine a variety of flours and leavenings with whole wheat flour.

Why This Matters:

Customers can feel overwhelmed by the choices in our stores. Knowing the key differences and uses of products demystifies the selection and helps builds trust. This trust translates into customer loyalty.  Combining flours to achieve the best flavor, texture and nutritional profile to meet individual’s needs is both an art and science.  Staff can go the extra mile by becoming knowledgeable about the properties of different flours so they can help facilitate customers’ purchases.

Unlike mass-market supermarkets, natural product stores have many more whole or minimally refined flours, including organic flours.  Flours of all kinds must follow all organic regulations for ingredients and manufacturing standards to qualify for the U.S. Organic Seal.

All-Purpose (White) Flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat; it may be bleached or unbleached and contains 8% - 11% gluten protein. Flour that is allowed to oxidize (whiten) naturally is labeled "unbleached"; flour that has been chemically treated is labeled "bleached".  Just as it is named, all-purpose flour is good for a wide variety of baked goods from pancakes to pastries, cookies to yeast breads.

Amaranth flour has such minute traces of gluten to be considered gluten-free.  It has a mild, slightly sweet, nutty, earthy, and malt-like flavor.  It combines well with other flours to make smooth textured breads, muffins, pancakes, and cookies.

Barley flour retains the germ, endosperm, and bran so it is an excellent source of fiber and nutrients.  It has a sweet, nut-like flavor and can be substituted for 1/3 of regular flour for excellent pancakes, biscuits, cookies, muffins, and breads. It gives a cake-like texture to breads and can also be used as a thickener.

Bread flour is made from high protein hard red spring or winter wheat chosen for their gluten strength.  Milled in both refined white and whole wheat varieties, it is best for making breads, rolls, and other yeasted bread products.  Unbleached white bread flour may sometimes be conditioned with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which increases volume and improves texture.

Buckwheat flour is whole grain, full-bodied, nutty, and earthy flavored, gluten-free flour packed with nutrients and fiber.  Buckwheat flour is required for traditional Russian floods such as Blini or buckwheat crepes along with French Brittany crepes, Japanese soba noodles, and buckwheat pancakes.

Cake flour is fine-textured, soft-wheat flour with a high starch content.  It has the lowest protein content of any wheat flour, 8% to 10% protein (gluten). Mass market cake flour is chlorinated (a chemical bleaching process).  Natural food stores carry whole wheat cake flour.  Cake flour is best for baked goods with a high ratio of sugar to flour (such as cakes, some quick breads, muffins, and cookies) because it will be better able to hold its rise and be less liable to collapse.

Corn flour is made from a finely ground cornmeal and is not to be confused with cornstarch (in Britain and Australian the term corn flour is used synonymously with cornstarch).  Made from the whole kernels, it comes in yellow and white colors and is used for breads and in combination with other flours in baked goods to reduce the gluten.  Massa Harina is special corn flour that is the basic ingredient for corn tortillas.  White corn flour is also used as a filler, binder, and thickener.   

Gluten flour is made from hard spring wheat that has been treated to remove some of its starch and concentrate its protein. Gluten flour has between 40% to 80% gluten protein (bread flour has 10-13%; high gluten bread flour has 12-14% gluten protein).   Gluten flour is also known as vital wheat gluten and can be added in small amounts to boost the protein content of breads. It can also be used to make seitan.

Kamut flour is made from whole Kamut grains, stone-ground to retain its fiber.  It adds a nutty flavor to baked goods and may be better tolerated by persons allergic to common wheat.  Kamut flour is good for most recipes that call for all-purpose wheat flour and can make excellent pasta with superior texture and flavor.

Millet Flour is gluten-free and a good source of manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium.  Unlike most other grains, millet flour is alkaline, which makes it easy to digest and helps balance the body’s natural tendency towards acidity.  It has a slightly sweet flavor, making it a nice addition to cookies and pastries.

Oat flour can be prepared at home from grinding rolled oats in a food processor or blender. If produced in a gluten-free facility, oat flour will have no gluten.  Otherwise, it may have traces of gluten. Either way, oat flour cannot hold its own in yeasted breads (use with other gluten-containing flours) but is very absorbent and provides body to baked goods.

Why This Matters:

Although oats do not contain gluten, due to the possibility of cross contamination from the field to the production, it should not be assumed that oat products are gluten free. Gluten-free labels help guide staff and consumers.

Pastry flour is milled from soft wheat varieties and falls between all-purpose and cake flour in protein content and baking properties.  Pastry flour is ideal for cookies, cakes, quick breads, and pie crusts, but is not suitable for breads.

Potato flour is made from peeled and steamed potatoes that have been dried and ground into heavy, cream-colored flour with a distinct potato flavor.  The flour readily absorbs liquid and if not used correctly can produce a dense gummy product.  Potato flour should not be confused with potato starch.  The flour is made from the whole potato including the skin.  Potato starch is similar to cornstarch and is made from the dried starch component of peeled potatoes.  Potato starch is often part of a gluten-free flour blend because it provides a light, fluffy texture to baked goods.  It is also used as a thickener in gravies, sauces, and in custards and puddings.

Rice Flour (also called Mochiko in Japanese and Pirinç Unu in Turkish) is a form of flour made from finely milled rice. It can be made from either white or brown rice.  Brown rice flour is nuttier and richer tasting than white rice flour and also more nutritious. It is used for making breads, cakes, muffins, and noodles.

Rye Flour has full-bodied, bitter, and slightly sour flavor. Its gluten content is lower than wheat making the gluten fibers more delicate so it works best in conjunction with wheat. As a result rye breads should be kneaded more gently to avoid breaking the gluten strands.  Rye grains produce several different types of flour and meal:

  • White Rye Flour contains only the endosperm of the grain.
  • Cream or Light Rye Flour small traces of the bran in the flour.
  • Medium Rye Flour includes greater amounts of the bran.
  • Dark Rye Flour does not have a universal definition and may vary from 100% whole grain or flour made with the remaining amounts of the bran left from producing light and medium varieties.
  • Rye Meal is the whole grain including the bran, germ, and endosperm of the original kernel.  Rye meal can be found in fine, medium, or coarse varieties.
  • Pumpernickel Flour or Meal is coarse whole-grain rye flour that is synonymous with Pumpernickel bread, originating from Germany.

Self-rising Flour is phosphated, low-protein flour with salt and leavening (baking powder) added.  It is commonly used for biscuits and some quick breads, but never for yeast breads.

Semolina flour is refined flour made from the endosperm of durum wheat.  It’s commonly used for making pasta and Italian puddings.  The bran and germ have been removed by a sifting process, giving semolina pasta its characteristic light color.  There are different grades of semolina flour:

  • Semolina flour is finely ground endosperm of durum wheat
  • Semolina meal is a coarsely ground cereal like farina. 
  • Durum flour is a finely ground semolina from wheat grown almost exclusively in North Dakota.

Spelt flour is one of the most popular widely available of the baking flours because the fats are more soluble and the nutritional content higher than traditional wheat, making it more digestible.  It works well as a bread flour and has a nutty slightly sweet flavor.

Soy Flour is made from raw ground soybeans is richer in calcium and iron than wheat flour and has high-quality protein with all essential amino acids needed for growth.  It is also gluten-free and high in protein. Soya flour is ground from lightly toasted soybeans. Both add a slightly sweet, pleasant flavor to breads and baked goods.  Soy flour is also included in textured vegetable protein products.

Teff Flour is made from the tiny whole grains which are mostly germ and bran.  It is very high in fiber and is a good addition to recipes calling for wheat.

Whole Wheat flour (also known as Graham flour, named for Sylvester Graham, an early crusader against commercial white bread), is coarse ground whole wheat flour. Used alone, it produces heavy, compact, dark bread.  White whole wheat flour is milled from white wheat, a new strain of wheat developed in Kansas that has less tannin in the bran, giving it a lighter color and milder flavor. Because of its lighter texture, it is popular in cookies and pastries to provide whole grain nutrition.

Flours made from nuts, seeds, and legumes include:

Almond Meal/Flour

Black Bean Flour

Blue Cornmeal

Coconut Flour

Fava Bean Flour

Flaxseed Meal

Garbanzo Bean Flour

Green Pea Flour

Hazelnut Flour

Quinoa Flour

Sorghum Flour

Tapioca Flour

White Bean Flour

 

 

 

 
 
 

Words to Remember

BLEACHED FLOUR

Flour that has had a bleaching agent added to make it appear whiter and oxidize the flour grains to help develop the gluten. There are health risks when humans are exposed to these bleaching agents.

 

CORNSTARCH

The starch extracted from the endosperm of corn. It is not cornflour. Corn starch is most commonly used as a thickener in sauces or soups.

 

DOUGH CONDITIONERS

Any added ingredient to dough, including chemical made it a lab, that is intended to strengthen the texture or improve the performance of the dough during manufacturing.

 

MASSA HARINA

A traditional corn flour used in Mexican cooking primarily in tortillas and tamales.

 

PELLAGRA

Pellagra is a disease caused by the lack of niacin (vitamin B3) in the diet which affects the digestive, skin, and nervous system. Due to flour enrichment, pellagra death rates in the US Southern states dropped to 0.5 per 100,000 people (down from 10.5 in 1933).

 

POTATO STARCH

A starch extracted from potatoes by crushing the potatoes and releasing the starch grains which are washed out and dried to powder. It is often used in food products such as noodles, soups, sauce, and gluten-free products.

 

SEITAN

A high-protein food made from cooked wheat gluten with a texture that resembles meat. It is used for a variety of meat alternative products especially beneficial to vegans and vegetarians.

 

XANTHOPHYLLS

Are yellow pigments that form one of the two types of carotenoids. They are involved with photosynthesis and lighten with exposure to oxygen.