At its heart, bread baking is the art of turning dry, relatively flavorless ground grain—flour—into a delicious food with great complexity and variety. There are many tricks to the bread baker’s art, but no escaping the fact that it all begins with flour. Here’s what you need to know about the main types out there—and what they mean to a bread baker.
For most of us, wheat is bread and bread is wheat. Without wheat there would be no bread, or at least no bread as we know it. Even when a bread is made with other flours, the aroma that spreads through the house when a loaf is in the oven is first and foremost wheat, comforting as a favorite flannel shirt on a chilly day. It entices like the whiff of steak on the grill, onions caramelizing in a pan, or coffee beans fresh from the roaster. Its flavor is both sweet and savory in a way that few other foods are. But good bread is more than the allure of wheat. Equally important is texture, and only wheat can produce both the beautiful crust and light airy interior (crumb, in baker’s terms) of a loaf that both nourishes and delights. It’s true that all grains contain protein, but only wheat has the right amount of two key proteins, glutenin and gliadin, that combine to form gluten—the strands that create a network of air chambers, which form the crumb structure of bread. Water is all that’s required for glutenin and gliadin to come together and rearrange themselves in this way, enabling the baker to stretch dough as it’s prepared. When it’s baked, the gas released by fermentation inflates the gluten and—presto!—you have the architecture of the classic loaf of bread.
Not all wheat is ideal for the bread baker. To achieve an effective gluten structure, you need white flour that is relatively high in protein, about 11.3 to 12.7 percent. You can make bread with flours with a lower or higher percentage of protein, but I’ve found that this range is the “Goldilocks zone” for my breads. It allows me to gauge my fermentation quite accurately, and the result is a better developed dough and a more full-flavored bread. Some flours don’t list the amount of protein on the bag, but that information is usually available at the website of the flour company. Even better, farmers or millers at your local farmers’ market may have flour with this midrange of protein. Ask them. Even if the percentage is a little lower, the added flavor provided by a locally grown and milled flour is worth the trade- off.
It’s quite possible that some local farmers and millers are producing great bread-making flour in your region. I urge you to check this out and, if it’s available, to try it. Local grains will have an affinity for local yeasts. If it’s a little lower in protein, try mixing it with a good-quality bread flour, such as King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill. That way you’ll get the benefit of high protein from the commercial flour combined with the unique qualities of local flour. Farmer’s markets and health-food stores (or the health-food aisle in many supermarkets) are a good place to look for specialty flours.
Some of my breads use for medium whole-wheat flour. This simply means the flour has a higher bran content, rather than most of it being sifted out; as a result, this flour will have, much of the nutritional value of whole kernels of wheat. Without getting into a microscopic explanation, the little bits of bran in whole wheat, though nutritious, inhibit gluten development. The result is a moister crumb without any extra chewiness. Whole wheat bread is never as airy as bread made with pure white flour.
Finally, you may see flours labeled “stone-ground.” This refers to the way in which the grain is milled and means it is passed through a series of metal rollers or stone grinders. Stone grinding generates less heat, so I believe it is less damaging to delicate starches, but this is just my opinion. You can certainly make good bread with conventionally milled grains. When given a choice, though, I go for old-fashioned stone-ground.
After wheat, rye is the second most important grain for the bread baker. In much the same way that wheat flour comes in varieties ranging from white to medium to dark (100 percent whole wheat), rye does as well. These gradations are a function of how much of the original kernel remains in the final flour, with paler flours having more of the outer layers of bran and endosperm removed. Darker, more whole grain flour absorbs liquid more readily.
You may have noticed that rye bread is often denser than wheat. This is because although rye has the same gluten-forming proteins as wheat (glutenin and gliadin), it doesn’t have them in the same ratio as wheat; when compared to wheat, rye has only 10 percent the amount of glutenin. Still, rye has its own signature flavors and aromas, expanding the baker’s arsenal, and I find it indispensable to sourdough starter and as a supplement to many of my commercial yeast starters. It adds a note of aromatic sweetness that reminds me of premium vodka, and the accelerated way it interacts with yeast jump-starts and amplifies fermentation. In a final dough mixture, white rye adds a distinctive sweetness. Dark rye also contributes a deep brown color that makes for an appealing appearance: one that says “put some cold cuts or hard smoked cheese on me.” I find rye to be an ingredient that plays well with others; it’s great in a supporting role but challenging as a solo act. When it’s the primary flour, it makes for a super-dense bread—something I want to make only occasionally and only for specific reasons, like to serve with smoked wild salmon.
Oats can grow and prosper under conditions that won’t produce thriving wheat. I think that’s part of the reason oats were traditionally used for animal feed in many places where wheat wasn’t cultivated. They don’t contain gluten-producing proteins, however, and for that reason they’re daunting for bread makers because they don’t contribute to the crumb of a loaf. I think you may already have a good idea about where I stand on the gluten issue. For most people they provide good, high-quality nutrition. The bottom line is that I rarely use oats in flour form.
I wish we had a tradition of using cornmeal more often in bread. It’s high in natural sugars, so it turbocharges fermentation and adds sweetness. As a baker who likes to work with local grains, it’s hard to find anything more genuinely local or American than this amazing grain, which was first hybridized more than ten thousand years ago by Native Americans. Although they lacked the wheel and other technological advances, the fact that they created corn from its genetic forebears out of the combination of three wild grasses points to a very sophisticated grasp of agriculture. Corn does have a small amount of gluten; however, it’s chemically and structurally different from wheat-based gluten, so it doesn’t create the same sort of air pockets and crumb. That said, the sweet butteriness it brings to a loaf is attractive. Plus, when cornmeal is fermented, it basically creates a mixture similar to a bourbon mash. This gets my vote right away. On the downside, breads made with cornmeal tend to stale quickly, so they should be eaten within a day or so.
Buckwheat isn’t a grain in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, it’s the seeds from a plant related to rhubarb and sorrel. Historically, buckwheat flour was used to fortify dough when wheat was at a premium. Today, buckwheat is mostly used as a cover crop that helps replenish nutrients in the soils of fields where wheat and other grains are grown. I particularly like the idea of using a plant that helps soil stay fertile. Happily, buckwheat also imparts some wonderful and unique flavor characteristics to bread. When fermented, it contributes deep, nutty aromas and light alcohol notes without increasing acidity. As with wheat and rye flours, there are lighter and darker forms of buckwheat flour, but in this case the color has little effect on nutritional value. I’ve also found that it doesn’t affect how buckwheat flour interacts with other ingredients.
Excerpted and adapted from Bien Cuit by Zachary Golper and Peter Kaminsky. Reprinted by arrangement with Regan Arts. Copyright (c) Zachary Golper and Peter Kaminsky, 2015.