I often get asked 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 flour labelled as ‘strong’ or ‘bread’ flour is a good idea when you are just starting out on your bread making journey. Your loaves will be more likely to turn out as you expect. However, 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.
I don’t use ‘very strong’ bread flour very often. However, this is a good choice for breads that are defined by their chewiness, such as bagels and pretzels.
Wholemeal or white?
Wholemeal flour will absorb more water than the same weight of white flour. For white flour you may need 330-350g of water to make a soft dough. With wholemeal you may need 380-420g of water to make a dough of the same consistency. This is because wholemeal flour has all of the grain – the endosperm (white starchy part of the grain), the bran (the outer protective layer) and the germ (the embryo that provides the nutrition for the growing seed). White flour is just the endosperm. The bran and the germ absorb much more water. You can find out more about the composition of the wheat grain in my article Understanding the Science of Bread.
Because it contains the germ, wholemeal flour will go rancid quicker so buy in small amounts and use quickly. It is best used as fresh as possible.
The bran pieces in wholemeal flour tend to shred the gluten strands as you knead. My preferred method for developing the gluten of a bread that has a high percentage of wholemeal flour is the stretch and fold method. This method is gentle with the dough and minimises the shredding of the gluten strands.
What about organic flour?
I would recommend that you buy organic flour if you can afford it. Non-organic flour will have been sprayed with fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides throughout the growing season. Some farmers spray their non-organic crop with glyphosate in the days before harvest so that the grain dries sufficiently before harvest. This makes the harvest more predictable and increasing the yield. Organic farmers have restricted access to fungicides, herbicides and pesticides and can only use them after approval from their certification body. Organic farmers also tend to be proactive in encouraging wildlife and caring for the soil on their farm. This is not to say that non-organic farmers aren’t, but it is something that organic farmers have at the forefront of their farming practice.
If you are making sourdough then organic flour will work better with the wild yeasts than non-organic because it is free from the use of chemicals whilst growing.
It is easier to get hold of heritage flours now than ever before. You can buy them 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 to glutenin proteins making them weaker flours. You will notice that they can more easily over prove because of their weaker gluten structure.
You may also have to add more or less water to heritage wheats than you would to a standard wheat flour. My advice would be to start with 300g of water for every 500g of heritage flour and slowly splash in a little more water as you mix. You want to achieve a soft (rather than firm) dough, with no dry bits but to avoid it being overly sticky. Mix the dough to the right consistency, cover it with a proving cloth, or large inflated bag and leave to rest for at least ten minutes. You may find that the flour has absorbed more of the water and turned into a stiffer dough. If this is the case then add a splash more water and mix it in using the stretch and fold method.
I suggest using the stretch and fold method when using a heritage flour. The weaker gluten structure of these flours makes them more fragile. The gentler handling of the stretch and fold method helps the dough to build a stronger gluten network.
Rye flour handles differently to wheat flour. The gluten that is present in rye is different to that of wheat. It is much weaker and doesn’t stretch and hold gas like a wheat gluten. Instead rye has a high percentage of complex carbohydrates called aribinoxylans. These absorb a lot of water and form a gummy substance that holds air.
Rye is much more prone to attack from amylase enzymes that degrade the starch gels causing the bread to collapse. This starch attack can happen if rye bread is left to long ferment in a warm room or in the first minutes of baking. Once the dough reaches 80C, the enzymatic attack stops. This starch attack results in an overly gummy bread. If this happens when you slice into it the crumb can stay mostly on the knife. The acidity of a sourdough starter can halt the enzymatic attack on the starches. Therefore, a bread made with a high percentage of rye should be made with a sourdough starter rather than commercial yeast. Honey, yogurt or buttermilk can be used in yeasted rye breads to help counteract the starch attack.
If you are new to using rye flour I would suggest that you start with a small amount , say 10-20% of the total flour weight and work your way from there.
In summary, my advice is that if you are a novice baker start with a flour that is labelled ‘strong’ or ‘bread’ flour. As your confidence with bread making grows try making a loaf with plain flour. Then 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. 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.
Want to learn more about bread making?
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.
You can join us for a fun, relaxing day learning how to make bread at our cookery school in Ironbridge.
Take a look at my YouTube channel for helpful bread making tips.
Stanley Ginsberg, 2016, The Rye Baker