We talk a lot about using "quality" wheat in our flours, but how do we ensure the best possible organic products reach our customers?
It is the Miller’s job to transform the dormant wheat seed into flour so that it can be used by bakers and cooks to its full potential. Part of the craft includes knowing about different types of flour and how they will perform for the baker. Our Miller and President, Joe Lindley, has decades of experience listening to bakers and making flour that will help them bake more flavorful, nutritious, and consistent breads. Today, we are tackling protein, which is a common “measuring stick” for wheat. We will explain how the type and quality of protein in your flour can influence the bread you create.
What is protein in flour?
Glutenin and gliadin are two simple proteins that are naturally present in the wheat kernel and the resulting flour. During the baking process, these proteins are activated by the addition of water to form gluten. The terms gluten and protein are often used interchangeably in the professional baking world because of their positive correlation when present in flour. The higher the concentration of the simple proteins, the stronger the gluten bond in the flour. Gluten bonds influence the cell structure or ‘crumb’ of the bread and its ability to rise or trap gas produced from yeast activity. Assessing the protein quantity tells the miller, and later the baker how strong the gluten will be in the flour and what type of baking it is best suited for. For more in depth chemical analysis of baking check out Emily Buehler’s excellent book: Bread Science.
How do we determine the protein content in our flours?
According to an old miller’s axiom, “You can’t make good flour out of bad wheat,” so we take our testing process very seriously. At the beginning of the process, each farmer sends us a sample of harvested wheat, which we test before milling. We judge it on a variety of qualities, but one of the most important elements is protein level. If the wheat meets our high quality standards, we agree to purchase it from the farmer; then, we test it again when it reaches the mill to ensure it’s the same wheat and will perform well for our bakers.
How does protein affect flour quality and what does it indicate?
The protein level in the flour helps us decide what type of bread the flour is best suited for and generally ranges anywhere from 6%-18% at the extremes. If the protein content is too low (around 6%) the gluten won’t be strong enough to form good bread because the gluten can’t provide the structure to trap the gas from yeast activity and help the bread rise. Most wheat with this level of protein is used as animal feed.
For human consumption, a miller generally uses wheat with at least 8% protein. Anything from 8%-10% can be used for biscuits, or other soft pastry-like breads. From around 9% to 11.5%, the flour is considered ‘all purpose’. This flour is strong enough to bake a loaf of sandwich bread and some artisan breads, but can also be used in rolls, ciabattas, or pastries. Artisan breads and baguettes with hard crusts are generally made from flour that has an 11% to 13% protein level. Some bakers even prefer an exceptionally strong flour with protein levels 14% or higher for their artisan loaves to provide the best crumb structure and create high-rising, crusty breads.
What influences protein content in wheat?
Protein content in wheat can be influenced by the environment and growing conditions as well as the type or ‘breed’ of wheat. Hard wheat usually has higher protein content than soft wheat and white or red varieties may also differ slightly. There are many different breeds of wheat that have adapted to local climates and have consequently influenced the traditional baked goods for that region. For instance, soft wheat grows best in the Southeastern United States. It grows better with warmer temperatures and a slightly wetter climate, whereas (hard) winter wheat grows much better in a very cold, dry climate. Since soft wheat is more suited to our home state of North Carolina, it is not surprising that biscuits (best made with soft wheat) are a traditional favorite here.
How do you put this knowledge into practice?
The protein content of wheat that we're talking about here (that's made up of glutenin and gliadin) is responsible for the architectural structure of bread, and isn't usually listed on the side of the bag in the nutritional contents section. Your local miller will be able to tell you about the protein content in your flour and how protein plays a role in the labeling of different types of flour (all purpose, bread, pastry, etc.). By talking to your local miller, you can better understand and select the ideal type of flour for your baking needs. You can optimize your bread baking and get different results just by changing your ingredients to suit the kind of gluten structure, or ‘crumb’ that you want in your breads. We hope this blog post helps you continue to "Bake the Most of it!"
*Note on Super Sprout™: Super Sprout™ is a proprietary process that can be used to create flour with a variety of different protein levels. Generally, we use high protein wheat ~13% protein in our Super Sprout™ flour.
1. Pyler, EJ. (1988). Baking Science and Technology, Vol. 1. Sosland Publishing Company. Accessible online here.