You can gain a lot from slightly rethinking a classic ingredient.
Most of what goes into baked goods, the main ingredient, tends to be flour. Sure, there might be butter, eggs, and spices, but the wheaty bulk of your final product is largely flour, an ingredient that we tend to buy, portion, and store without much special thought. But given how key flour is to baked goods, rethinking your approach to flour can upgrade your baking—whether sweet or savory, pie or pretzels, everyday or holiday.
We’re here to help you better think about white flour, meaning white flour milled from wheat (without the bran and germ). This is the common refined white flour you see in big-brand bags on grocery store shelves. But we’ll also make a case for other flours.
Despite what conventional wisdom may hold, flour isn’t a wholly shelf stable product. It doesn’t have the indefinite staying power of tinned fish or cans of soup. Yes, flour can last in a cool, dry place in your pantry for more than a year—but that doesn’t mean it should.
Like apples or mozzarella, flour is a food used best on the fresher side. For comparison, think about coffee. When freshly ground, coffee is at its peak. The oils are intense, fragrant, and more alive than they ever will be again. With time, flavor diminishes. When grain is ground by milling into flour, the story is similar. Its oils are fresh and heady. It’s at its absolute peak, ready to be baked into pizza or pie crust.
How to Buy Flour
To maximize flour freshness, buy flour from stores where bags don’t linger on the shelves for too long. If you don’t use flour often, buy smaller bags, that way you can get through them and to new, fresh bags faster. Though not always practical, the best way to ensure you’re using fresh flour is to get yours from a local miller. If you go this route, be prepared to pay a little bit more—but often for more interesting grains, and just about always for more flavor. Also, be sure to talk to the local flour vendor, whether at a farmers’ market or the mill itself—to find out how suited that specific local flour is to your baking purpose.
When buying big-brand flour, skip the bleached stuff. Following milling, flour has an off-white tinge that will naturally whiten. But some large brands, with the goal of snowy white cosmetic appeal, will bleach flour using chemicals to maximum whiteness from the beginning. Bleaching, however, alters more than color. It may result, at the end of your baking, in small but undesired notes. Unbleached flour is flour in its natural state.
How to Store Flour
When rethinking flour, you can also think about storing. Keep it in a dry place that doesn’t get too hot. Temperature might be a concern in the summer depending on where you live. Whole wheat flour, locally milled flours, and other specialty flours tend to expire faster than big-brand white flours.
Consider Other Options
When upgrading your approach to flour, an expert thing to consider is protein content.
Flour’s protein level is highly influential in setting the final character of your baked goods. More protein means a firmer, crisper, more resisting bite. Less protein leads to a softer, more yielding texture. On the low-protein end, you’ll find cake flour (great for soft cookies and cakes). On the high-protein end, you’ll find hardier, whole-wheat flours (which not only bring more structure, but a wheatier flavor) and high-gluten flour (often used to make noodles). A safe approach is to default to all-purpose flour, which is just that: a flour with roughly average protein content, a versatile flour built for a wide range of baked creations.
If over time your baking becomes more intricate, you may want to start thinking more about protein and flour. Something as simple as choosing a flour with a low or high protein content can be the single difference between achieving a slightly pillowy versus a slightly crunchy biscotti, depending on your preference.
And finally, the last step you can take to upgrade flour is to grind your own using a mill designed for a kitchen. This is what many top bakers, pasta makers, and pizza artisans do. But thankfully, there’s plenty of perfectly good flour out there on the grocery store shelf, a fresh product ready to be transformed into great baked goods.