Given that there are only three ingredients in sourdough bread (flour, water, salt) it makes sense that the type and quality of those ingredients would make a significant difference to the flavour of the bread that you make. We’ll look at salt and perhaps water another day but today I thought I’d have a look at some of the different types of flour that you can use.
Sometime, perhaps as long as 8,000 years ago, humans discovered that the grains from certain grasses (the ancestors of what we know as wheat, barley and millet) could be cultivated, eaten and most importantly stored to last through the long, cold, hungry winter. This discovery marked the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers and began the process of ‘civilisation’. All the great empires, from the Egyptians to the Romans to the British, grew, milled, ate and drank vast quantities of grain. Today there are tens of thousands of varieties which are grown all over the world.
I thought that talking about 30,000 different flours might be a bit much for a single blog post so I will limit it to the types that I have in the kitchen! I tend to get my flour from Shipton Mill, they have a very good online shop with a wide range of flours and quantities.
My ‘everyday’ flour which I use for the vast majority of my baking is their French Type 55 flour. This is milled from French wheat which tends to be softer and have a slightly higher ash content (I’m not sure what that means but it makes for very nice bread!). French flour comes in a range of ‘types’ related I think to the gluten content. Type 45 is roughly equivalent to our Plain Flour, Type 55 is roughly equivalent to our Strong White Bread Flour, higher numbers relate to various wholemeal flours. Shipton Mill do a range of white bread flours but I personally prefer the feel of working with this particular type. I’d strongly (subtle baking pun there…) recommend trying a few different sorts to see what you prefer working with. They all taste good!
While we’re on the subject of European flours another useful flour is Italian ’00’. This is very finely milled and is great for mixing with regular flour to make ciabatta and you can also use it to make pasta which is one of those things which is much easier to make than you would think!
Rye is the most common type of grain grown across northern Europe, it is particularly popular in Scandinavia and Russia. I think this is due to its hardiness and ability to grow even in those very cold climates. I generally avoid making 100% rye bread as it can be very dense and by mixing it 50/50 with wheat flour you can make a delicious, but much softer bread. Because Rye has a much lower gluten content (hence the denser bread), people who are intolerant to wheat are often able to eat and digest it much more easily.
One exception to the ‘don’t use 100% Rye’ rule is Pumpernickel. I have only made this once, when I was on a course at the excellent School of Artisan Food in Worksop but I hope to try it again sometime this month because it was delicious!
Another favourite type of bread to make is Soda Bread. This is much quicker to make because it uses baking soda instead of yeast as the raising agent. Because of this it doesn’t need to have a high gluten content so you can use plain flour to make it. This particular blend is a ‘light wholemeal’ where some but not all of the bran has been removed which makes it much richer and more nutritious than ordinary white flour.
The next two flours do not come from grains but rather from a seed and a nut respectively. Buckwheat Flour, or Blé Noir (black wheat) as it is known in France is ground from the buckwheat seed and it is very popular in Brittany. Because it has absolutely no gluten in it it does not make very good bread (although a little mixed into regular flour can add an interesting flavour) but it makes phenomenal crepes!
Chestnut flour obviously comes from chestnuts and, much like Buckwheat flour, is best when added to regular flour to give beautiful flavour to your bread.
So there we have it, a quick introduction to some of the different flours that I use. Do you have any other suggestions? What is your favourite flour?