A question I get asked a lot is which flour is best for making bread. It is both an easy question to answer and a difficult one. The reason for this is that I could just tell you to use bread flour, also known as strong flour and that’s the easy answer.
If you look at the shelves of flour in a supermarket or your local shop or deli you will find a bag of flour that has the words ‘strong’ or ‘bread’ flour on them. Strong or bread flour has a higher protein level that plain flour. It is this protein that contributes to the strength of the gluten.
However, this is where it gets complicated. Looking for strong or bread flour is a good idea when you are just starting out on your bread making journey as your loaves will be more likely to turn out as you expect, but there is a whole world of flour out there waiting to be discovered.
Protein levels in flour
Plain flour has a protein level of about 9-11%. Strong flour has a protein level of 12-14%. Very strong flour has a protein level of 14-16%. You can check the protein level of flour by looking at the nutrition label. It will normally tell you how many grams of protein there are in every 100g. That number is your protein percentage. For most flours protein percentage roughly equates to gluten strength, the exception to this is heritage flours (see below).
Plain flour has a lower protein level than strong flour but don’t immediately discount it. It can produce a more tender crumb than a strong flour. British plain flour has a similar protein level to the flour that the French use for their baguettes.
Very strong bread flour is not one I use very often but it is suitable for breads that are defined by their chewiness such as bagels and pretzels.
It is easier to get hold of heritage flours now than ever before, especially at local delis or from mills that sell online or specialist suppliers such as Bakery Bits. Heritage flours include spelt, emmer, khorasan (aka Kamut) and einkorn. They all make delicious bread but can be a bit trickier to bake with.
The protein level of these flours does not necessarily give a reliable indicator of gluten strength. If you look at the nutrition label on a bag of spelt for example it might tell you that the protein level is 14%. There are two proteins in flour that make up gluten; gliadin and glutenin. Modern wheats have been bred so that the gliadin and glutenin are at a good ratio for baking. Heritage wheats have a different ratio of gliadin and glutenin proteins making them weaker flours. You will notice that they can more easily over prove because of their weaker gluten structure.
In summary, my advice is that if you are a novice baker start with a flour that is labelled ‘strong’ or ‘bread’ flour but as your confidence with bread making grows then try making a loaf with plain flour and definitely experiment with different flours that you find on the shelves of your local deli or that you can find online. Just remember that bread requires gluten and if you are looking at gluten free flour that is a whole different technique and the gluten will need to be replaced with either xanthan gum or psyllium husk. Gluten free flour includes buckwheat, teff, amaranth and sorghum.
If you would like to learn how to bake bread and transform from a novice to a confident bread baker then take my online masterclass Bread Made Easy.