An Abundance of Flour

July 2011
AN ABUNDANCE OF FLOURS

By J.T. Stratton

“Flour” is that substance made from any finely ground dried seed or root which is used to bake bread. Usually flours are made from the seeds of plants in the grass family called grains. Abundance sells a wide variety of flours in the bulk section, all of which are certified organic. In the adjacent baking section we carry many specialty flours, some of which are organic and some not (be a label reader!), including gluten-free baking mixes, New York grown wheat, rye and buckwheat flours ground by the local Small World Bakery and over a dozen more exotic varieties of flour.

 

These alternative flours can be substituted for up to 25% of the wheat flour in your usual recipe to produce cakes and crusts with unique colors, textures and tastes. A few tablespoons of barley or chickpea flour can transform a recipe from ordinary to extraordinary! Whole-grain flours retain their germ, which is the living part of the seed which will begin to grow. Nineteenth-century food purveyors noticed that de-germed grains produced flours with a longer shelf life. Fatty acids present in the germ started to oxidize when the grain was milled; but the germ also contains essential amino acids, vitamins and micronutrients. Flours made without the germ don’t go rancid as quickly, so shelf life trumped good taste and nutrition.

 

The whole wheat vs. white flour issue is similar. Since the Middle Ages the peasants ate thick brown and black breads, whereas the aristocracy ate the lighter breads made with more wheat. The flour becomes whiter yet if you discard more of the seed coat, but “white flour” made from wheat grown in northern climates still tends to be brown in color when baked. Imagine if your social status depended on the whiteness of your bread!

 

Bleached flour is similarly problematic, since it is usually whitened with chemicals. Abundance does not sell bleached flours. Our flours contain the germ, so should be used quickly or refrigerated for longer periods. Pastry flour is a finer grind of flour more suitable for cakes and cookies. Bread flour has more gluten for a more stretchy dough that rises better. Our white flour (unbleached and with the germ) is more all purpose.

 

Semolina is special wheat flour with a higher percentage of gluten, used mainly to make pasta. Barley is our most ancient grain, domesticated in the Near East 10,000 years ago. Add barley flour to breads and crusts to produce soft dough with a nutty flavor and crumbly texture. Rye can grow in poorer soils and northern climates where wheat may be problematical. Rye flour by itself has lower gluten content than wheat but also more soluble fiber. Rye is usually paired with savory cheeses, caviar, smoked fish, sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres.

 

Teff is the wonder grain of Africa, containing all 8 essential amino acids packed into this smallest of grains. It is gluten-free and is used to make injera bread, the spongy pancakes served in Ethiopian restaurants. Rice flour is also free of gluten. It produces a crunchier texture and is used to produce crackers, pastas and Asian noodles. In baking, it is commonly used in combination with many other ingredients.

 

Corn meal is well known and needs no further commentary. Polenta is a particular coarse grind of corn meal used to make mush in Italy (a peasant food originally made with chestnuts). Masa de Harina is the cornmeal used for tortillas and tamales. This corn has been cooked in limewater (alkalinized water) before it is milled, to remove the indigestible hard chaff, make the corn easier to grind and give it more flavor, aroma and available niacin (critical for preventing pellagra!).

 

Buckwheat is not a member of the grass family so its seeds are technically not grains. Since buckwheat contains no gluten, it is extremely hard to make noodles that will hold together. Buckwheat noodles have become a real artisanal specialty in Korea, Italy and Japan. Buckwheat flour is dark and flavorful, and more often used in pancakes. Chickpea or garbanzo/fava flour is similar. It gives a slightly “beany” flavor to baked goods or pancakes and is used to make a quick hummus.

 

Soy flour is high in protein and can be used to replace up to 30% of the regular flour in a recipe. You can enhance the nutty flavor by roasting the flour beforehand. Be sure to reduce your oven time slightly, as soy flour tends to brown quickly. It is also used as a thickener in soups and baked goods. For an egg substitute, try one tablespoon of soy flour mixed well with one tablespoon of water.

 

Quinoa is the super grain from the Andes. It contains all 8 essential amino acids and is easy to digest. Quinoa flour added to wheat flour produces a slightly nutty flavor and a harder texture. Sorghum is a slightly sweet African grain that is high in protein. Its flour adds a sweet and nutty flavor to baked goods, plus a crunchier texture. Arrowroot flour is made from the dried roots of a tropical plant. It is used as a thickener, like cornstarch.

 

Coconut flour is high in fiber and protein but low in digestible carbohydrates. It imparts a rich, sweet texture to baked goods.

 

Tapioca flour is from the root of the cassava plant, also known as yucca, a Puerto Rican staple vegetable that is cooked like potatoes. The flour is used to make breads, pancakes and even tapioca pudding. It has a natural sweetness that is especially good when used to thicken fruit pies. Potato flour is used to impart a vegetable richness to breads. Use it to make gnocchi or dumplings, in addition to fresh mashed potatoes. It produces a good, creamy base that is used for soups made from other vegetables as well.

 

It is our hope that you will enjoy a more varied and wholesome diet by exploring some of the more unusual flours offered at Abundance.
 
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