Home Baking: Wheat and Flours

Good bread for her family is one of the important concerns of the home-maker. This article points out what makes for high quality and gives methods and proportions for making typical yeast breads, quick breads, cakes, and other baked goods at home. These main types may be varied in almost innumerable ways by the housekeeper by adding seasonings or by baking in different shapes and sizes. A great variety of recipes is not included ; instead emphasis is placed on the general principles of baking, proportions, and ways of substituting various ingredients, such as soft-wheat for hard-wheat flour, so that the housekeeper can make economical use of the materials at hand.

Flour and Other Mill Products of Wheat

For making most kinds of bread and similar products wheat flour is superior to all others because of the two proteins in it which form gluten when the flour is made into a dough.  This gluten is what gives the dough an elastic quality, so that it can expand and hold within it gas bubbles formed by yeast or other leavening agents.  It is known to the farm boy as “wheat gum,” which he makes by chewing the wheat kernels, and may be easily recognized as the grayish yellow substance left when the starch is washed out of wheat flour.

The bread-making value of different types of wheat flour depends on the quantity and the quality of the gluten that can be developed in them.  For practical purposes these gluten-forming proteins in the wheat grain and flour are referred to as gluten, as though they were combined.  Flours are called “strong” if they have a comparatively large quantity and good quality of gluten, and “weak” if their gluten is low in quantity or poor in baking quality.

The nature and the amount of gluten in flour depend both on the kind of wheat from which it is made and on the milling.  The wheats which make the strongest flours are grown mostly in the regions between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi Valley, north and west of Missouri. The wheats grown in the more humid areas between the Great Plains area and the Atlantic coast and most of the wheats of the Pacific coast are softer and less glutinous.

Out of any lot of wheat, either hard or soft, it is possible to mill several kinds of flour that differ considerably in their bread-making quality and in their food value.  The present milling process is very complicated and highly specialized. The grain is broken up gradually by passing it between several pairs of rolls, and after each step in its reduction some separation of the material is made according to the size and character of the particles. In this process the bran and germ are usually removed.

The flour resulting from each separation forms a “stream.”  These streams are combined in various ways to form different commercial grades of flour. The two grades most commonly sold to the housewife are straight and patent.

Straight or “straight run” flour usually contains about all of the grain except the bran, the shorts, and the germ, and is approximately 70 per cent of the total weight of wheat milled.

The chief difference between patent flours and the type just mentioned lies in the fact that certain streams of flour that go into the straight are excluded from the patent and are utilized in producing so-called “clear” flours. Patents are classed as long and short patents, depending on what proportion they represent of the total flour milled from the grain. A short patent may contain less than 50 per cent of the total flour and is seldom made except for commercial bakers.  A longer patent containing a larger proportion of the total flour is more common on the retail market.

Removing the bran, shorts, and germ of course sacrifices some food value, for most of the minerals and vitamins of wheat are contained in these portions. This loss may be compensated for, however, by the improvement in the baking strength of the flour.

Graham flour, whole-wheat flour, or entire wheat flour contains all of the constituents of the wheat grain in their natural proportions. This type of flour has some advantages from the point of view of food value over a flour that does not contain the bran and the germ. It does not, however, keep so well as white flour. In a diet that is limited in variety, and hence likely to be lacking in certain elements, some of the breads should be made from this kind of flour. In a diet containing plenty of milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables the bran and the germ of the wheat kernel are not so essential, but even in this case breads made from graham flour add flavor and variety.

Bran, the dark fibrous portion of the wheat, is less completely digested than the rest of the kernel. As bran is sold commercially it has some food value from the starch as well as from the minerals and vitamins associated with the fibrous parts, but it is used chiefly for its laxative properties. In moderate quantities, and especially as it comes ground up in graham flour, it is usually considered to be a desirable addition to the diet.

Special Uses for Strong and Weak Flours

Strong flours made from hard wheats are generally considered best for yeast bread, although with proper methods excellent results can be ob- tained with those from some soft wheats. For cake and pastry, in which tenderness is of prime impor- tance, soft-wheat flours are usually the more successful. Quick breads, such as muffins or biscuits, may be made about equally well with either type.

It is difficult for a housekeeper to tell what type of flour she is buying, especially as those on the market vary all the way from very strong to very weak. The flours from soft wheats have a velvety texture somewhat like cornstarch, and those from hard wheat are usually more gritty, but it requires some experience and a flne sense of touch to detect this difference. Experts usually do it by taking a pinch of flour and rubbing it lightly between the thumb and the third finger. Another way to tell is by squeezing a handful of it tightly and noticing whether as the hand is opened the flour remains in a mold and shows the impression of the fingers. In this test a hard-wheat fiour acts more like a powder and the mold breaks up more readily than that of a soft-wheat flour. Weighing is still another method used to distinguish hard-wheat flours from soft. A quart of hard-wheat flour that has been sifted once, dipped lightly into the measure, and then leveled oft, weights about 16 or 17 ounces or even more. A quart of soft-wheat flour sifted and measured in the same way weights only about 14 or 15 ounces.

It is much easier to get good results in baking if the methods used are adapted to the type of flour. When occasion demands, good yeast bread can be made from a comparatively weak flour or good cake from a strong one, by making sufficient allowance for the weakness in the former case and for the strength in the latter. The rules for substituting apply to typical hard-wheat and typical soft-wheat flours.

Composition of Wheat Flour

The approximate chemical composition of different types of hard-wheat and soft-wheat flours is shown in the table below.  Though no indication of vitamin content can be given in such a table, experiments have shown that in general the highly refined flours contain practically none of the vitamins present in the whole-grain products.

Composition of different types of wheat and wheat flour
Composition of different types of wheat and wheat flour

Other Flours and Meals Used in Baking

Rye ranks next to wheat as a bread grain because it contains similar proteins. In fact, rye flour is practically the only other kind that can be used successfully alone in yeast breads, and even it gives better results if mixed with wheat flour. Products from corn, oats, buckwheat, barley, rice, potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and many other materials may be substituted for part of the wheat flour in yeast breads, and some of them can be used as the chief ingredient of excellent quick breads, where there is less need for gluten.  This is especially true when egg is used. Usually, however, even in quick breads, a mixture of wheat flour with the other material makes a lighter product.

Source:  U.S.D.A., 1931

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