What Are the Functions of Flour in Baking?

Have you ever been in the middle of baking and wondered, “Why does this recipe call for flour? And why does it call for whole wheat flour, or all-purpose flour, or bread flour? And why wheat flour all the time?”

The last question is easy to answer. Wheat is plentiful and cheap. The United States alone grew 58 million tons of wheat in 2012 to 2013 season. It’s true that flour can be made from many types of grains, including corn, oats, barley, rye, rice and chickpeas. But even recipes that call for these specialty flours often use some wheat flour. So, we’ll stick to wheat because that’s probably what you’re using.

The Thick and Thin of It

Flour is used as a thickening agent. Wheat flour also holds wet ingredients such as oils, milk and eggs together. It can do this because of a protein called gluten, which develops as the wheat is worked. Most recipes call for all-purpose flour, which is a mix of refined hard and soft wheats. What are hard and soft wheats?

Hard wheat is harvested in spring and is high in gluten. It has a high mineral content and is just the thing for making bread. Soft wheat has a lower amount of gluten and is used for making cakes and pastries. The mix of hard and soft wheats are why all-purpose flour is ideal for most recipes that need flour. You’ve also seen those packages of self-rising flour when you go shopping. This type of flour has salt and baking powder, but it doesn’t store as long as all-purpose flour.

Cake flour is found on the other end of the spectrum. It is soft and silky, has little gluten and is often mixed with cornstarch. Though it’s used in pastry, I’ve actually seen it used to dredge chicken before it’s fried. Dipping chicken in egg whites and then dredging it in cake flour gives the crust an unbeatable crispness.

Bakers also tend to prefer bleached all-purpose flour, which is flour that’s been treated to not only whiten it but bulk up the gluten. Whole wheat flour has the bran, germ and the endosperm of the wheatberry, while refined flour only has the endosperm. Because it retains the natural oils of the wheatberry, whole wheat flour is perishable and should be used up quickly or stored in the fridge.

The Function of Flour When You Bake

Flour is the basic ingredient in baked goods and is usually mixed first with other dry ingredients like sugar, baking powder, baking soda and yeast. Salt is also an important ingredient, even if your bakes are sumptuously sweet. You won’t taste an eighth of a teaspoon of salt, but it will enhance the other flavors.

If you watch cooking shows on TV, you’ll notice that different chefs have different ways to retrieve their flour. Some just plunge the measuring cup into a gigantic jar full of flour and scrape it level with a knife. Others fluff up the flour in the container and use a spoon to fill the measuring cup. Still others sift the flour and dry ingredients to remove any bits, aerate it and make sure it’s perfectly smooth.

Flour is also used to dust pans so the baked goods won’t stick and to coat not only meats and fish but vegetables. One delicious recipe from Turkey calls for grated zucchini mixed with whole wheat, garlic and spices and fried as beignets.

Nothing smells better than homemade bread! Check out the video below: