Welcome To The Flour Test Conclusions
As of August 29th, 2002
And Updated November 9, 2006
I haven't tested all the flours on the market. Not even all the flours available in Colorado. Or even all the flours in my pantry. Still, I am seeing some definite trends. Trends that are worth commenting upon.
The first, and obvious, conclusion is that all flours are not the same. Even in a small geographical area. When I started baking, my mother told me stories of her coming to the USA from Germany as a young woman. She told me how all the flours in the USA were different from what she was used to and that she had to re-learn baking.
I'd love to get some flour from other countries. Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, and Italy come to mind. However, the cost of transporting flour in small qualtites makes it unlikely that tests of foreign flour will be occuring any time soon.
The second observation is that higher protein flours labelled as "bread flours" generally rose into more attractive breads than all purpose flours. However, the breads made with the higher protein bread flours generally had a lot less taste than those made with lower protein flours. As a side note, the pick of the ciabatta breads was one made with a mix of Wheat Montana Natural White and Rocky Mountain Milling's Artisan Flour. (There wasn't quite enough of the Natural White flour to complete the recipe.)
This isn't to say that all high protein flours are tasteless. When we ran our bakery, we REALLY liked GM's All-Trumps flour in the unbleached and unbromated version that seems to be available only west of the Mississippi river. At 14.3% protein, it is a very strong flour, but one that consistently delivers very tasty bread. And the bagels it makes are fantastic. I recently compared it to Pillsbury's Havest King and have to say that I liked the higher protein All-Trumps flour better. However, it is worth noting that life, and baking, are different 7,703 feet above sea-level, so your conclusions may be different from mine.
The third observation is that we try to predict a dough's characteristics, and that of the resulting bread, by the dough's hydration. However, each flour handled differently with regards to hydration. It was odd to see how one flour would be fairly dry at 80% hydration while another was too wet to hold its shape. While it is possible to use hydration measurements to repeat a recipe using the same flour, it may not be adequate to predict how a recipe will work with another flour. Given recurring reports that many national brands of flour are made differently to meet local needs and preferences, it may not even be enough to tell someone to use a certain amount of a certain brand of flour. The most consistent recipe we made was the Friend's of Carl Simple Sourdough Pan recipe. The instructions tell you to add flour until the dough holds together, isn't sticky to the touch, and is still soft enough to allow a seam to be easily sealed. However, there were differences between the breads even with that recipe that seemed to relate to the sort of flour being used.
Another observation is that different flours are better for different breads. The higher protein bread flours would be good to make tightly grained tasteless grocery store mass market type bread. More seriously, these characteristics also allow it to add body to rye breads without getting in the way of the taste of the rye bread.
The all-purpose flours seemed better at making plain white breads, giving a generally superior taste, with very good texture. I feel that it should be possible to work with these flours to obtain better crumb. Also, there is a promise in the mixture of high protein bread flour and all purpose flour.
The two whole wheat flours produced very tasty loaves, but the strong taste was not always appropriate for the bread type.
While some flours are better suited to making some styles of bread, it's worth noting that all the flours (except the cake flours) tested made good breads in each style. The differences were, by and large, between good and very good. And a few preconcieved notions were shattered. In particular, the rising of the Hungarian High Altitiude Stoneground Style Whole Wheat in the Friends of Carl Simple Sourdough Pan bread was quite remarkable and suggests that the widely held view that whole wheat flour can't or won't rise well is not terribly well founded.
At the end of the bake, the old saw that, "it's a poor workman who blames his tools" comes to mind. Yes, you can make better breads with some flours than others, but the differences are more often between good and very good than betwen poor and excellent. Once you avoid the bleached and bromated flours, you've moved a long ways towards better bread.