They say oils ain’t oils – well flours ain’t flours either!
Flour can have many quality aspects. How it’s milled, its protein levels, the taste of a particular grain variety, and the amount of nutrition in it (which can depend on climate, soils and many other things we’re only beginning to understand in the last few decades).
And then there’s the chemicals that have been added to it…
When you buy cheaper flours it’s likely it won’t bake as well because you may be getting poor quality flour that is perhaps weather damaged, and nutritionally bland.
And it will certainly have been grown using pesticides.
How do you determine flour quality? Well, it’s not always about protein…
Admittedly, protein is very important because the distinctive nature of protein in wheat makes this grain so loved by bakers of all kinds. However, if you’re only focused on protein when you’re choosing your flour you may not end up with the best quality flour and your baking (and body) will feel the effects!
Bread, pasta, and cakes are some of the most widely consumed foods in the world, and the ubiquitousness of these foods requires an enormous manufacturing industry. Consequently, flours have been adapted for food manufacturers’ requirements and this can mean the health of the grain is compromised. Depending on where and how your grains are grown and milled you may be getting more far more chemicals and additives than are good for you.
Some conventional white flours are heat treated and bleached for shelf-life. They may also contain potassium bromate a flour “improver” that helps it perform better when baking high-top fluffy white bread. Bromates have been linked to cancer, but fortunately you are unlikely to find bromates in Australian milled flours. Also, the hard white wheat mostly grown here tends to mill to a nice white flour meaning less need for bleaching.
Fortification of flour
Non-organic flours must contain folic acid. It’s regulated as a necessary fortification by the government to replace some of the natural folate that is removed through milling. But folic acid is a synthetic folate and there is increasing evidence that we humans don’t do so well when it comes to processing it. I go into all the science-y details in another blog.
If you are baking with non-organic flour you can be sure you’re eating pesticides, even if in very small doses. The list of herbicides permitted before planting is very long, while Diquat and Glyphosate are permitted for spraying on pre-harvest crops in Australia. Then the millers are allowed to use toxic pesticides such as Phostoxin (a Phosphine based gas), Dichlorvos or Chlorpyriphos-methyl to control the insects when the grain is stored in silos.
And yes, the government does regulate pesticide use, permitting small amounts of pesticide residues that aren’t considered harmful. Eating a little bit is not going to kill you, but eating it over the long term? Well, we don’t know because it is very challenging to study long term impacts. However, in the last decade researchers have started to consider the bigger picture: it’s not how much of one pesticide you get in some flour, it’s a question of how many different chemicals in your diet and in the environment are building up in your system and adding to the chemical burden your body must detox.
Not to mention the impact of pesticides on your microbiome, which is shaping up to be so fundamental to our general health it’s being linked with many chronic diseases.
You can read more about pesticide use in Australia in this blog.
Is the problem with wheat?
In fact, it is increasingly plausible that many digestive issues that people have with wheat come back to a disturbed microbiome, rather than as some have proposed, the breeds of wheat we’re currently eating. This is a big topic that I will go into in another time.
Most of the detrimental effects of the grain result from the focus on growing wheat for mass manufacturing.
For example, the way in which bread is made has completely changed over the last seventy years.
Understanding the grain
The wheat kernel, referred to as the wheat berry in USA and Canada, is actually the seed from which the new plant will grow. At the heart of the seed is the germ (what you get in “Wheat Germ”) and while it’s only about 3% of the entire kernel it’s a powerhouse of vitamins, trace minerals and healthy fat (eg: vitamin E-rich Wheat Germ Oil). The endosperm surrounds the germ and contains the greatest share of protein and carbs. Essentially, this is what becomes flour and makes up about 83% of the entire grain. The rest is is bran (approx 14%), which is the outside of the grain, containing lots of microbe-friendly insoluble fibre, more trace minerals and some of the protein.
Wheat is an ‘unhulled’ grain, meaning it doesn’t have a hard protective coating like spelt or barley, so it is the bran that protects the precious nutrients inside that will seed the next generation.
Milling the grain
At Kialla we believe that the secret to our organic flour is what’s not in it, and what we don’t do to it!
We don’t use a myriad of toxic insecticides to control insects in the stored grain. Instead, we use CO2 gas, aeration systems and good plant hygiene, and none of these leave any residue in the grain.
We don’t ‘over process’ our grains. When we mill white flour, we don’t add any chemicals and we reduce processing compared to larger conventional mills. All that we remove from a white flour is the outer bran layers and germ – leaving about 20% of the original grain. This results in a creamier coloured flour that is higher in the natural nutrients and minerals of the whole wheat grain.
In conventional milling the wheat grain goes through extensive processing to produce a highly refined white flour.
In some cases, the refined flour is also heat-treated so it’s more shelf stable. Depending on the type of wheat, flour may be bleached with Benzol Peroxide or Chlorine Dioxide to make it appear a whiter. This also artificially ‘ages’ it to ensure a more consistent performance for automated baking manufacturers.
It is common practice for conventional milling systems to remove specialty streams from the flour, selling bran and germ as separate products to maximise financial returns. This practice alters the baking characteristics of the remaining flour if you are wanting to create artisan-style loaves.
We don’t take everything out of the flour and then add some bits back in later.
Instead, we control the amount of milling the flour goes through. Our stoneground flours are milled the old-fashioned way using two millstones that grind the grain and retain the bran, leaving much of the healthy enzymes and fibre that our microbiomes love. For roller (or steel) milled flours the grain steps through several large milling machines. First the grain is cracked (producing the wheat kibble), and if we’re milling a refined flour like our White Unbleached the semolina will be sifted out from the bran.
If you’ve heard of semolina, it’s probably in relation to pasta wheat, however millers use the term to refer to the early stages of flour when the bran is extracted. It’s not unlike the difference between polenta and refined maize flour (corn flour). The endosperm and germ are still intact and there will be some small pieces of bran present. The flour will then go through several more stages of grinding and sifting before it arrives at the final form.
The only regulation in Australia for flour grading is the definition of wholegrain flours.
Wholegrain flours must contain the whole of the grain with nothing sifted out.
Wholemeal flour is white flour with the bran added back in, thus the difference in texture between the two.
A stoneground flour will always be wholegrain because the stone mill takes the grain from first crush to final grind with no sifting in between.
We also mill wholegrain flours through our roller mills, sifting out nothing. The oils in the grain will tend to give wholegrain flours a shorter shelf-life than refined flours unless they are stored in airtight containers in a cool environment.
Wholegrain flours will not work well at all for commercial bakeries using instant (or yeasted) doughs and this has led to the creation of wholemeal flours, which uses a different milling process.
Large conventional flour millers will refine all their flour and then add some of the bran back in to create Wholemeal flour, which is much better suited to large scale bread manufacturing but it is, in fact, more processed than wholegrain flour.
Australian wheat is white spring wheat and has a less robust flavour than the red wheat common in USA and Europe, allowing our wholegrain flours to be more easily substituted for all-purpose flour, although you do need to remember that even milder flavoured Australian wholegrain flour will not perform like a white flour.
European flour compared to Australian flour
If you’re following recipes by European bakers, you may come across terms like T85 and “000” flours.
The “T” system for French flours is a measurement of the amount of “ash” in the flour, which is the mineral or inorganic material in the grain. In essence it measures how much bran and germ is removed from the flour through the refining process. To determine ash a sample of flour is burnt and then the amount of minerals (unburnt material) that remain are assessed. This is a more traditional method based on the assumption that the mineral content will largely be in the bran and germ, and thus a refined flour will have a lower T score, although more recently millers are understanding that different types of grains may have more minerals in the endosperm.
T85 indicates 0.85% mineral content whereas T45 refers to 0.45% mineral content and so forth.
If you are seeing recipes referring to these flour grades, Kialla’s Bread and Pizza Flour is closer to T85, while our all-purpose White Unbleached Flour would be closer to T55. The latter is the only flour we apply an ash reading to ( 0.7%), primarily because we cannot exactly match the ash scores of French flours. Our soils have different mineral content, and our climates are very different.
The Italian system uses numbers like Tipo 2 and Tipo 00. This refers to how fine the flour is, with Tipo 2 being a semi-refined flour with bran removed and Tipo 000 being superfine with the texture of what we know as cornflour.
Kialla’s White Unbleached is very similar to Tipo 00, and our Bread and Pizza may be closer to Tipo 1, but again, because we don’t measure or mill flour in this way it’s difficult to compare accurately.
So how do you judge the best flour to use for what you’re baking?
Essentially both European systems refer to the ‘extraction rate’, which is simply how much of the bran and germ has been extracted from the whole grain as it goes through the mill. White flours have low extraction, meaning that more bran and germ has been extracted (which does sound a bit counter intuitive).
Whole grain flour is 100% extraction (i.e. nothing is removed), while refined flour is around 72%.
Our White Unbleached flour has an extraction rate of 77%
These grading systems have come about over the centuries according to bread characteristics that are most valued for the types of food a culture favours. The focus is less on the protein that modern bakers obsess over, and more on the level of refinement which dictates how the flour should be treated and the best things to bake with it. For example, T45 is best suited for cakes and pastries, but an Australian baker would choose a lower protein flour (around 10%) rather than consider ash content.
Bakers are interested in the science and craft of how flours performs. Italian and French bakers in Australia would have a different feeling for flour behaviour because they are have been trained to focus on other measurements not simply on protein.
Ash or the fineness of the grind doesn’t tell us about protein but it still affects baking characteristics.
This is something we will dive into with more detail in our next instalment.