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Baking bloopers: Or was it the wrong flour?

Thursday, December 20, 2001

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

All-purpose flour isn't.

Not all flour is equal. When using While Lilly soft wheat flour, you need two extra tablespoons to equal the weight of Gold Medal or King Arthur. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Baking bloopers
Did you measure wrong?

How bakers measure may be less important than what kind of flour they're using, says Shirley Corriher, a food scientist who recently won the Bon Appetit magazine award for Best Cooking Teacher.

"What matters is the protein content," she says. "You can have 10 cups of flour, exactly the same to the billionth of an ounce, but depending on the protein, every cup will take a different amount of water."

The amount of protein in flour affects its ability to make a flaky, tender biscuit or a light cake (low protein is best) as opposed to a hearty bread (high protein). Two little proteins in the flour, glutein and goliatin, join together to trap water and form an elastic sheet called gluten that enables bread to rise and create a structure. Too much gluten and you get tough pastries.

Better to advise the baker, Corriher says, "what the batter should look like. This should be soft and on the edge of sticky, this should be very firm, this should look like cottage cheese."

She recently gave a seminar for school cooks in Eau Claire, Wis. "They get 50-pound bags that say 'Flour.' They don't know if they should make great yeast rolls or wonderful muffins."

They can give their flour a test: Add a scant cup of water to 2 cups of flour. If they just barely get a dough ball, it's high-protein bread flour. If it's "soup," it's low-protein cake flour.

"If it's halfway in between, it's all-purpose," she says. "You can use it for yeast bread, but it's not as light. You could use it for pie crusts, but they'd be tough."

"All-purpose" is made from a mixture of soft (low-protein) wheat and hard (high-protein) wheat, thus striking out a middle -- some say mediocre -- ground between the two.

"There's no purpose for all-purpose," jokes culinary myster writer Diane Mott Davidson, who spices her stories with great recipes.

But she sticks to all-purpose as "Goldy Bear" bakes and solves mysteries. "I have to use things that are available everywhere. I can't very well send my readers to the King Arthur Web site to find flour."

Says Andrea Carros Schrenk of Bellevue: "I don't have all-purpose flour in my house." She is a certified pastry chef and teaches at Pennsylvania Culinary, Downtown.

To be sure, she is a professional baker, but she believes home bakers could improve by choosing flours best suited for each product.

The term "all-purpose" is a misnomer, according to "The Baker's Dozen Cookbook" edited by Rick Rodgers. "This flour is not good for all kinds of baking." It's mid-range protein with an average of 9 percent to 10.5 percent is "actually a little too high for silky cakes and a little low for hearty bread."

But Nancy Baggett, who wrote "The All-American Cookie Book," calls for all-purpose flour in her cookie recipes. "I wanted to make it easy on people -- I don't want to turn off the next generation."

In our cover photo, the bag of White Lily southern flour stands taller than either King Arthur "all-purpose," a higher protein flour, or the Gold Medal "all-purpose," which is in the mid-range in protein.

No wonder it gets confusing. Just ask Ruth Troup of Plum Borough. She once bought some Robin Hood flour on sale and slipped it into her formerly foolproof Marzipan Cookies, a Gold Medal recipe from 1960. "The dough was way too dry," she says, adding she'd "always heard that Robin Hood was for breads."

Deciding which flour works best for cakes is easy. Cake flour, of course, and bread flours will give the best structure for breads. But when it comes to cookies . . .

"Cookies are the world in microcosm," Corriher jokes. "Certainly, the type of flour can make changes. Following the same recipe, you can get flat and crisp, or soft and puffy."

Says Schrenk: "Not all cookies are the same . . . there are way too many nationalities, different textures and volumes."

For a chewy or flaky light cookie, normally she'd use a pastry flour. If she wants a dry cookie or is making a crisp cookie, she uses bread flour or a combination of pastry and bread flour. Examples are spritz cookies and Italian biscotti.

America's favorite chewy cookies -- chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter -- are best made with pastry and cake flours, which have higher moisture. "It gives a less heavy cookie," Schrenk says.

All-purpose flours can work in some recipes, but she'd rather choose a specific flour for a specific recipe. "All-purpose flour is formulated for home use, for a population that doesn't bake as much as it used to," she says. "It's too high in gluten to get tender, delicate pastries, and too low for pizza doughs, Italian and French breads."

Baking failures may be "poor selection of flour," she believes.

Yet it's no wonder the big baking companies take the middle ground for cookies, believing that many bakers will have only one kind of flour. In fact, Mary Bartz of the Betty Crocker Kitchens disputes the "all-purpose flour isn't" premise, though she recommends cake flour for scratch cakes and bread flours for bread machines.

In the General Mills-Pillsbury merger last month, both Pillsbury brand flour and Softasilk Cake Flour were spun off -- probably because of antitrust concerns. "I hated to see Softasilk go," says Bartz.

Consumers sometimes have trouble finding cake flours on supermarket shelves, because Softasilk comes in a box. In Pittsburgh, pastry flour was almost impossible to find until Crate began buying it in big lots and bagging it for consumers.

And then there's White Lily, which is made entirely from soft wheat and is the lightest, lowest-protein of the lot. In a recipe that calls for 1 cup of all-purpose flour, you would have to substitute 1 cup of White Lily flour plus 2 tablespoons just to get the same weight, says Belinda Ellis, consumer services manager at the Knoxville, Tenn., flour miller.

"Our soft wheat flour is for cakes, biscuits, pie crusts and cookies," says Ellis. "What makes White Lily bad for bread makes it good for everything else. Hard wheat is for breads, pizza, anything with yeast.

"I know I'm biased, but the idea of all-purpose, using hard and soft wheat in a middle-of-the-road flour, the same flour for bread and for biscuits, which is not best for either one ..."

Her voice trails off. The Southerners do have strong ideas about their biscuits and their flour. The company has a mail-order business for bakers who live north of the Mason-Dixon line but believe you can't make a light, flaky biscuit without a southern flour.

Bakers with bread machines got a rude awakening when they dropped in "all-purpose flour" -- some brands didn't have enough protein, and their breads came out heavy, even inedible.

Corriher told a story of a woman from New England who got a cake recipe from a woman in Georgia. The recipe called for "all-purpose" flour. "So she makes the cake with King Arthur flour, and it is the driest, worst cake she's made in her life."

What the cake baker didn't know was that the high-protein, unbleached King Arthur flour needs 1/2 cup more liquid than "the lady in Georgia had in her White Lily."

Bakers with bread machines got a rude awakening when they dropped in "all-purpose flour" -- some brands didn't have enough protein, and their breads came out heavy, even inedible.

Trouble is, it's almost impossible to assess a flour's protein content from the Nutrition Facts labels, which used to list the amount of protein in a cup of flour. Now a "serving" size for flour is 1/4 cup and there's a round-off rule, she says, "so nearly every flour comes out 3 grams per 1/4 cup, whether it's 2.5 or 3.4 grams -- that's a range of 10 to 13 grams per cup."

This leaves bakers with a dilemma. What did Grandma mean on her ancient recipe card when she scrawled 2 cups flour? Cake flour? Bread? Pastry? The elusive all-purpose? It pays to ask questions.

"A careful cook would not use all-purpose for all purposes," says Jean Anderson, the Chapel Hill, N.C., cookbook writer.

Things have improved at the publishing houses and magazines, says Corriher. "They used to just make you change everything to 'all-purpose' whether that was the best flour or not."

Today, there's more sensitivity -- and knowledge -- about how different flours work. When trouble comes, "Bakers think it's the humidity, but that has little to do with it -- it's the flour," says Corriher.

To mail order White Lily southern flour for cakes, biscuits, cookies and pastries, call 800-264-5459.

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