Bread, the staff of life! As those intrepid black-robed Jesuits moved into the wilderness of North America they brought with them the pillars of civilization: grape vines (for wine), wheat (for Communion bread), and bees (for bee's wax candles). So this a primer on the wheat flours used in baking.There many kinds of flour. Each has its own characteristics which make each work better in different applications. Largely, there are wheat flours and alternative grains flours. No one in my house is gluten intolerant so my knowledge there is minimal. My focus here is on wheat flour. At the end of this section is a guide to making your own sprouted flour.
The Whole Kit and Kaboodle...
Whole wheat flour is whole grain, that is the whole grain is ground. It is shades of brown with a nutty aroma when fresh ground. There are two varieties of the hard grain common in the states: red and white. Red grain is a more assertive, slightly bitter tasting type. White has a softer, more mild taste. The bran of each absorbs more liquid than the white and interrupts some of the rise without the addition of vital wheat gluten (more protein).
You can also buy whole wheat pastry flour with a very low protein content. It usually ground very finely to allow it to more readily absorb moisture. It is so soft it doesn't make good breads but makes light biscuits when cut with regular red or white whole wheat. It does, however, make great cake. If you try cookies or brownies or other things like that with 100% pastry grain they will spread to the ends of the Earth and sit in a puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West. But they will taste good. You can grind whole wheat and whole wheat pastry flour at home. The grain keeps almost indefinitely and you can grind small amounts to ensure your flour is fresh. Freshly ground flour is soft and light and may take more than a recipe calls for if designed for store bought flour. Like snow, it clumps and sinks over time and becomes more compact.
Get a Rise Out of It...
Acid helps to cut with bran (orange juice is a great addition) and soaking the flour softens it enabling oven spring. Oven spring is that additional rise that the bread gets in the oven. Soaked flours also open cells walls to liberate vitamins and minerals. Soaking for a long time can actually make things worse in delicate items like cake and pastry as it also activates gluten. These won't rise as well and get tough. Gluten is strands of protein that give height and loft to baked goods. They are usually tightly balled up. Kneading stretches them out and they start to line up. At first you will notice how the dough will pull back as you stretch or roll. Resting it gives the dough the stands time relax. It's a process the French called autolyse. Whole wheat needs more time to rest than white. You can activate or untangle all the gluten by kneading. It's like untangling a ball of yarn by pulling all the knots open. Or, you can use autolyse. This soaking cuts all the gluten and is like cutting up a tangled ball of yarn so you can untangle short little pieces. In cake, you don't want the gluten active. Light soft cake is the goal not tough pieces that have the texture of a cellulose sponge. That's why soaked cakes don't rise and are often tough.
The Great White Way...
White flour comes from grain that is polished to remove the outer bran layer before it is ground. White flour is less nutritious as the oils and fiber are removed to make it shelf stable. Wheat flour needs to stored in the fridge; white goes in the pantry. It is also often bromated, or chemicals are added to rough up the outer walls of each piece of flour so they absorb and hold onto moisture better. Bleaching agents are used to give it a bright color and help with oven spring. Is you ask me, I can do with out it. I keep a small amount on hand and it is always unbromated and unbleached. You can't grind white at home because the grains must be polished first. There are a few basic kinds of white flour you can buy at the store: bread flour, all purpose flour and cake flour.
This has the highest protein and produces the loftiest and chewiest breads. It is great for pizza! Bread recipes need bread flour, duh.
This is a mid-range protein, neither very soft nor very hard. It makes good biscuits and fair cakes. The bread it makes is mushy and soft and had the texture of a Build-A-Bear stuffing. Thanks, but no thanks. I use it for very occasional use. Like gravy. Or a rare batch of white flour brownies.
This has a low protein content making it better for soft, tender cakes with delicate crumb. The store brands are bleached with, well BLEACH and are bromated. King Arthur has a cake flour blend that is neither and tastes fab-U-lous. Check it out.
There is one more flour: pastry flour. Usually only found at high end shops and by mail order, it has crazy low protein and makes awesome croissants and puff pastry. It makes nothing else and might not be worth keeping around for standard use. The pastry chef (or should I say pastry furher) when I was working was intense about it. But I have made very good puff pastry without it. But I wouldn't tell him. Check out the King Arthur catalog for recipes, mixes, flours and baking utensils. I drool over it like my sons drool over the Cabella's catalog. They also have an incredible whole grain baking book I adore. The brownie recipe is unbelievable. The catalog link is to the right.
What's in Store for You?
Remember in keeping any processed or ground grain product is that long term storage is your enemy. Whole wheat flours should be wrapped or put in a storage container in the fridge or freezer immediately after grinding or buying. Their delicate oils go rancid quickly and the broken cells walls bleed nutrition. Further, the fans that dehumidify fridge and freezer space extends storage time because it reduces mold BUT that double edged sword makes your flours more dry and require more liquid which reduces the spring of baked goods. So wrap well, use quickly and don't grind or buy more than you can use quickly. It is not economical to buy so much at a sale that it has to be thrown away. Refined flours don't go rancid but they do get dry and the flavors go stale. They also need to be used quickly. They can also develop weevils. Sorry, but all grains are plants that have had insects feeding on them. Weevils are small moths that start as little worms in your grain products. The larvae cannot tolerate freezing but the eggs can, though they will not hatch in freezing temperatures. If you buy more than you will use quickly, store well sealed in the fridge or freezer. This will also keep them from spreading from one product to another like the flu in a nursery school.
Sprouting or Malting...
There are many reasons to enjoy sprouted or bulgur flour, the best is that it is pretty darn good! It is sweet and perfect for cookies, sweet rolls, muffins and cake. As the seed converts the sugars to give them fuel to grow, you dry them to stop the process and grind the kernels into mild and sweet tasting flour. This sprouting process also metabolizes other minerals, vitamins, and nutrients which (supposedly) makes it digest like a vegetable (read: easier). Some people who have trouble eating grains report that they can eat them sprouted. If there is one thing we do well it's eat. So while I don't need to sprout, I like to sprout.
Sprouted flour costs an arm and a leg. Shiloh Farms sells it for $7.95 for two pounds and King Arthur for $8.99 for the same amount. Not calculating in the value of my time or the gas to dry or the electricity to grind, just the grain alone for my sprouted flour costs a paltry $1.12 for two pounds. There's a pretty good savings there especially considering the amount of flour I use. You will need a way to dry the flour (an oven with a low setting will do) and a way to grind it (a super-duty blender can do it albeit coarsely). And you will need wheat (or spelt) which can be bought in bulk at health food stores.
First things first, you have to trick the wheat berries into thinking they are planted. There are starches in the berries which give them the nutrients they need to grow until they can rely on their leaves and photosynthesis. It is these starches which convert into simple sugars and make the flour sweet. If you go too long, you can convert the ALL the starches and the berries will metabolize all the sugars and there won't be any left for you. It's still good, just not AS good. I have found the process to go quickly, much quicker than "Nourishing Traditions" suggests.
Start by soaking wheat berries 8 or so hours in water to cover and a generous amount over. You can do this in a bowl, a small mason jar or a big one gallon beauty.I have to recommend a container with a lid. Lids keep water in. If you have to ask why that's important to me, you might not need it. There are seven cups in this jar. I like to start this in the morning when starting breakfast, then after dinner they are ready for stage two. Ready is a tiny white nub poking out the back. Stage two is keeping them dark and damp. This continues the process of tricking them into becoming sweet.
I take that same plastic jar and put a nylon net bag over the top and secure it with a thick rubber band from organic broccoli. Then I turn it over and drain it into the sink. I rinse it with plain old tap water (because I am trying to prevent mold, and the water does not enter the seed too much), shake the seeds around in the water and turn it out over the sink again. Then I rest it on another plastic container. Any container that will catch the draining liquid will work, I just use what is handy. The jug rests on top and the excess water drains from the grains and I can keep it in the pantry.
I want the seeds to stay damp, but not wet, and dark but still warm so don't put them in an unheated space. They need to trigger the response they would have if planted and activate the appropriate enzymes. Rinse the grains before every meal and before bed and put back in the dark. The sprouts will be ready when they are as long as the seed itself. Each variety will have its own length of time so just keep an eye out.
About 36 hours later (though I have let them go 48 hours) they are ready to dry. They should have little sprouts about the length of the kernel and not more than twice as long. Once they start, they seem to run with it. You can use an oven with a low "warm" setting and a convection fan. Pile the plump and tailed wheat berries on the half sheets and pop them in the oven. Then bake the little critters until hard and totally dried. They should be rock solid hard. While drying they smell faintly like freshly watered grass. You can also use a dehydrator with screens to prevent the grain from falling though. Window screen material and nylon netting also work well and are way cheaper than the purchased screens. Then I run them through my mill. I grind them into flour and keep it in a BPA-free plastic container and keep it in the fridge.