From artisan loaves that are crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside to delicate tender crumbed sponge cakes. Flour is the main ingredient. If you’re longing for perfect baking results understanding how flour works in baking will get you on the right track.
Flour puts the spring in your sponge and the bounce in your bread.
The snap in your biscuits and the short in your pastry.
But it can also put the rock in your cakes and the flat in your breads.
Any and all of this is possible due to the protein flour contains. In wheat based flours this protein is gluten. Whilst gluten’s properties literally keep our bakes together, it can also result in severe reactions in those who are allergic or intolerant to it. Understanding how gluten functions helps when it comes to substituting wheat flours for gluten-free varieties making perfect baking possible even for gluten free bakers.
Flour gives bakes structure.
Have there been times when you’ve run out of flour just 10 or 20g shy of what your recipe called for? And not wanting to go to the shop for more you followed the recipe anyway? Yep been there, done that. Or maybe you’ve just wanted to replace it with an alternative?
What was the outcome?
You may have been lucky and there may not have been any noticeable difference. The outcome will have been determined by how much you changed the recipe and how important the quantity and type of flour was to that specific recipe.
What Makes Flour Such a Vital Ingredient?
Flour adds strength and elasticity to bakes. How much is determined by the amount of protein the flour contains. Different flours such as bread flour, plain flour, or cake flour contain different amounts of protein. Strong bread flour contains more protein than regular plain white flour but both of these flour types contain more protein than cake flour.
To understand how gluten does what it does it’s important to understand proteins.
Proteins are large molecules that exist as long chains. It’s these long chains that give doughs their stretch and why flour with a higher protein content is used to make bread and pizza doughs.
Two conditions are necessary for the development of gluten.
- Presence of a water based liquid. Necessary for two proteins in flour to combine and form gluten.
- Manipulation, e.g. kneading, mixing, beating, etc. This strengthens any gluten formed in step 1.
Effectively controlling these two things is the key to perfect baking. It is why recipes tell us not to over mix our cake batter, to add the minimum amount of liquid to pastry and biscuit doughs, and not to over-knead them to keep the gluten development to a minimum.
This is also why baking can be confusing because these ‘rules’ are the opposite of what we do when making bread or pizza based doughs. Here there is a period of prolonged kneading to maximise gluten development to give the dough its strength and elasticity.
But it also explains why it’s so hard to find THE perfect gluten free bread. Because finding one that lives up to its gluten containing counterpart is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But if there’s no gluten this means no elasticity and gluten substitutes like xanthan gum can only do so much.
Minimising gluten development for the perfect baking of cakes, pastry, and biscuits.
If you’ve ever baked a cake that’s dense and tough as old boots, firstly you are most definitely not alone. Secondly, you probably overdeveloped the gluten in your flour by over beating your batter.
It’s such a fine line isn’t it?
Mixing your dough enough so all the ingredients are combined, but not mixing so much that an excessive amount of gluten is developed.
Here’s what you need to look out for after adding your flour to know when your batter is perfectly mixed;
- No dry ingredients visible, especially at the bottom of the bowl where that stuff likes to hide.
- A smooth, silky, even coloured and textured batter.
- Any add-ins like nuts and dried fruit should be evenly distributed.
When you can answer yes to all of the above, stop mixing.
For biscuits and pastry your aiming for short and crumbly. Overdevelopment of gluten will make it tough or rubbery. Think stretchy rubber bands and then try to avoid that like the plague, here’s how.
- Use the minimum amount of liquid to bring your dough together.
- If you’re using the rubbing in method give this step the attention it deserves. Coating the flour in fat repels makes it harder for the liquid in the recipe e.g eggs or milk to reach the grains of flour and develop the gluten.
- Rest your dough in the fridge this will relax any gluten that does form.
Maximising gluten development for the perfect baking of bread.
If you’ve only ever made cakes and biscuits then you may be tempted to take what you know about baking those items and apply that to bread making. However, whilst cakes and biscuits require a delicate touch, bread needs you to be more aggressive and put those muscles to work. Making doughs for bread and pizza, maximising gluten development is the key. The long stretchy gluten chains give bread and pizza it’s chewy texture. The stretch allows the dough to rise and expand without tearing. So how do you maximise the gluten?
- Use flour high in protein to make bread and pizza doughs.
- Add just enough liquid to start gluten development then increase the strength and elasticity with kneading.
- Knead the dough by stretching it away from you in one direction then pull the dough back towards you. Gluten strands start off all tangled like a ball of wool. Kneading straightens out the strands, aligning them parallel to each other. These parallel gluten strands make the dough elastic and stretchy and ready for proving.
Tips for working with gluten free flour.
It’s easy to see why, those bakes where gluten development must be kept to a minimum, are the ones that are easily adapted to work with gluten free flours. Here are some tips for working with gluten free flours.
- If you struggle to make pastry that isn’t tough and chewy try making it with gluten free flour. In the absence of wheat there is no gluten to develop resulting in a short tender pastry that’s perfect for pies and tarts.
- Avoid adding too much liquid to gluten free doughs, xanthan gum, the gluten substitute dissolves in water and this can make the dough difficult to work with. Chilling helps with this.
- Add additional xanthan gum to gluten free flour when making bread or pizza dough. This increases the strength of the dough.
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Learn more about how baking ingredients work in my other blog posts HERE, or if you have a specific question, add a comment to this post. 😊