Wheat flour is a key staple in United States. We use it in baked goods, such as bread, cakes, and muffins, and as the main ingredient in pasta and noodles. But flour plays other roles in cooking as well. It’s used to thicken soups, stews, and gravies. Meats are often coated with flour before panfrying to help them brown better. It’s hard to find an American kitchen that doesn’t contain a bag of flour.
For thousands of years, flour was milled by grinding kernels of wheat between stones. Although you can still find stone-ground flour, today most flour is milled by the roller process, in which seeds are alternately put through a series of high-speed steel rollers and mesh sifters. The rollers crack the grain, allowing the endosperm to be separated from the bran and germ. The endosperm is then ground to the desired consistency. For whole-grain flours, the bran and germ are returned to the flour at the end of the process.
Types of Wheat Flour
There are many types of wheat flour, and some are better for baking than others.
Wheat flour: nutrition
The vast majority of the wheat flour we eat is white, or refined, flour. White flour has been stripped of the bran and germ of the wheat kernel, and thus has lost most of its fiber and many of its natural nutrients. White flour is usually enriched with a few vitamins and minerals, sometimes even with fiber, but not all of the nutrients are replaced. Typically, white flour is enriched with iron and the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, providing generous quantities of these nutrients. In addition, large amounts of folate are often added.
Unlike refined flour, whole-wheat flour is made from the entire wheat kernel—bran, germ, and endosperm. Because all of the healthful parts of the grain are used, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals are plentiful in whole-wheat flour. Just 1/3 cup is an excellent source of the B vitamins thiamin and niacin, plus large quantities of the minerals copper, iron, and selenium.
Whole-wheat flour also contains small amounts of vitamin E—about 6 percent of the RDA in 1/3 cup—embedded in the unsaturated fat found in the wheat kernel’s germ layer. This means whole-wheat flour must be refrigerated or frozen in order to prevent the oils from going rancid.
Wheat has gotten a bum rap over the past couple of decades. From fear of carbs to fear of gluten, it has taken a persistent beating. However, wheat in and of itself is not harmful unless you have celiac disease, wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity syndrome.
Still, the American food supply contains a lot of wheat, particularly in processed baked goods and pasta. It’s a good idea to eat a variety of grains, and to choose whole grains when possible. To add variety to your meals, check out these Non-Wheat Flours.
For a full listing of nutrients in wheat flours, check the National Nutrient Database:
How to Store Flour—Without Bugs
Flour is susceptible to bug infestation, but these tips can help keep your supply insect-free.
How to use flour
When measuring flour, use a dry measure. These are the metal or plastic cups rather than the glass or plastic see-through liquid cups. To get an accurate measure, scoop the flour into the cup, and then level the top with the back of a knife or your finger. Don’t pack the flour down or you’ll wind up using more than the recipe calls for.
If a recipe calls for sifted flour, use either a sifter specifically made for this purpose or a fine-meshed sieve. Sifting flour is not done to remove debris, but rather to lighten the flour so it isn’t packed down. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sifted flour, sift the flour into a bowl or onto a piece of waxed paper, then scoop it into the cup, leveling the top. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of flour, sifted, measure the flour first and then sift. This is often done when flour is combined with other ingredients.
Also see How to Buy Pasta.
Published March 31, 2016