Baking bread series: The flour power

As the most basic of all staples, good bread is as hard to find as it is to make. Asking for bread can result in a variety of baked goods, depending on where you find yourself in the world.

If you are in India, it will most likely be a flat bread; in Latin America, a corn kind; in Japan, it might be a milk bread; and in Scandinavia, the answer will probably contain rye.

Bread comes in many forms, so for the purpose of this conversation, I would like to focus on the most basic bread-baking tradition, the one that hails from the ancient Egypt – a leavened wheat bread.

Whether it is an Egyptian loaf, a French baguette or a Portuguese pão alentejano, the basic bread contains nothing more than flour, water, salt and leavening. Mixed together, this harmonious quartet creates miracles performing together with the environment, the heat and the time. In the end, just these four ingredients are capable of delivering the boldest and biggest flavours. Understanding them thoroughly is what lies behind good bread, so let’s get to know them better.


It is for a good reason that wheat is the most commonly used bread flour. Wheat carries a unique ability to become viscoelastic, namely to be able to stretch and expand without tearing. This ability comes from gluten, a protein that is formed when two other proteins, gliadin and glutenin, form webs of interlocking strands when in contact with water. These strands are elastic and extensible (stretchable).

When it comes to wheat flour, the more protein it contains, the stronger the gluten it can develop. Higher levels of protein absorb more water, which, in turn, builds more malleable and cohesive, hence stronger, gluten strands that are capable of creating volume in the presence of leavening (to be discussed in the next issue).

Low-protein flour creates weaker gluten, which does not carry an equal capacity to expand so it most often results in flat, cake-like loaves. This kind of flour is more suitable for light sponges, biscuits, and scones etc., as it lends itself well to enrichments, such as eggs, butter, oil and sugar.

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At the same time, flours with lower levels of gluten sometimes can be found thirsty for water. These are often whole wheat flours that due to the milling process contain the whole grain, bran and germ, hence are capable of drinking more with the same level of protein (see illustration).

Some bakers believe that, in bread, the grain should define its flavour. This philosophy has recently brought back the culture of ancient grains, which lost their position to higher yielding crops at the turn of 20th century. Milled as a whole, such grains as emmer, einkorn or kamut are known for their flavour capacity, high protein and delicate gluten.

Protein content is often expressed in percentages. As a rule of thumb, anything between 7% to 9% will most likely be called cake or pastry flour. All-purpose flour is commonly between 10% to 12%, and is suitable for pastry and bread, as the name suggests. Anything above 12% would be a strong bread flour. Though different countries follow different flour naming conventions, the percentage of protein should be the guiding criteria when choosing flour for bread.

As a member of the original quartet, flour defines the subsequent techniques and ingredients of the process. Understanding its properties is an essential step for consistency and success, but it is not the only one.

Join me for the next conversation when we will be talking about leavening, which is quite possibly the most dynamic community of microorganisms there is.

By Dr. Irina Mikhailava
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Dr. Irina Mikhailava, a chef and a good food champion, happily residing in the Algarve and eating all over the world with an appetite for learning, sharing and writing. Instagram: incompanyoffood