North American versus UK flours

If you are using an American recipe book for making bread in the UK it can be hard to understand why your bread doesn’t quite look like the one in the book.

The flour that we use in the UK is different to American/ Canadian flour. We can buy Canadian extra strong flour which will replicate the recipe most closely. It’s useful to try and understand the differences between the flours so that you can understand which flour will best replicate or why your bread turns out differently.

Understanding protein in flour

First of all, when using flour it is important to understand protein levels as this will effect how the recipe turns out. Protein levels roughly correspond to the amount of gluten in a flour. You can look at the nutritional information on the side of the packet for the protein amount. If it says 14g per 100g it will be 14% protein. The higher the protein amount the stronger the gluten. Gluten stretches during fermentation and the carbon dioxide released by the yeast gets captured much like blowing up a balloon. The stronger the gluten, the stronger the balloon and so the more holey the crumb of the resulting loaf. A weaker protein will result in a more compact crumb.

Protein levels are affected ny a number of factors. Firstly the variety of wheat – hard wheat had a stronger protein content and soft wheat has a lower protein content. Whether the wheat is planted in the winter or the spring will affect the protein strength. The amount of nitrogen in the soil will affect the protein amount. The higher the nitrogen, the higher the protein. The weather just before harvest will affect the protein amount. If it rains before harvest this can lower the protein level.

Wheat can be tested for protein level and mills will routinely test for protein level before they accept the wheat.

North America Versus UK Protein Level

The conditions that wheat grow in the US and Canada means that the bread flour in North America has a stronger protein level than in the UK. A high protein flour in the UK will normally be 14-15% and these require a good level of nitrogen in the soil and good growing conditions to achieve this level. In America/ Canada bread flours can exceed 16%.

What level of protein is needed?

What you are baking and the results you are expecting will determine which flour you choose. Bread requires a higher protein amount because it benefits from stronger gluten to get an optimal fermentation and rise. However, some breads benefit from a weaker protein amount. In the UK and Europe our recipes have been made for the weaker protein of our wheats. Hard wheats are most often used for bread making because of their higher gluten content.

When baking cakes and pastry a weaker protein level is beneficial. A high gluten level would result in a tough rubbery texture. Soft wheats with their lower protein/ weaker gluten amount are most suited to cake and pastry.

North American Flour Types

All Purpose Flour is as its name suggests a flour that can be used for most baking. It is a blend of hard and soft wheat and has a protein level of 8-11%. In the US it can be bleached or unbleached.

Flour labelled as Bread Flour in the US has a protein amount between 12-14%. It can contain ascorbic acid as a bread improver.

Cake Flour is milled from soft wheat and has the lowest protein amount of 8-10% and can be bleached.

Pastry Flour is milled from soft wheat and has 9-10% protein and is somewhere between all purpose and cake flour.

High Extraction Flour is usually stone milled flour that has been sifted and so contains some of the bran and some of the germ.

00 Flour is a finely ground white flour and comes in different protein amounts for different purposes, i.e 00 pizza flour

UK flours

In the UK you can get an increasing range of flours, both stone milled and roller milled. The flours most commonly available in the supermarkets are as follows:

Bread flour – wholemeal and white are available and have a protein amount of 12-14%. It tends to be a blend of UK and Canadian wheat.

Extra strong bread flour – This is usually Canadian wheat and has a protein amount of 14-16%

Plain flour -white flour with a protein amount of 9-11% and suitable for cakes and pastry making

Self raising flour – Plain flour with a raising agent added. Suitable for cakes and scones.

Flour cannot be sold if it is bleached in the UK under current rules. White flour in the UK has to be fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamin under the Flour Regulations 1988.

You can read more about flour here

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