Jeff Yankellow, director of bakery and food services sales at King Arthur Baking, addresses the profound questions of what the most important qualities of bread flour are and what should bakers be seeking out regarding specific functions.

“There is an old-school mentality with flour for bread that the stronger the better. This is not true,” he explains. “Finding the right protein level and wheat blend for each process is the best approach.”

When inquiring about the best fit, Yankellow recommends telling the mill what you are trying to make and how, and then let them take these things into consideration.

“It is best when the miller also has some baking experience that is relatable,” Yankellow explains. “They should identify what characteristics they need most for the style of bread they are making. Do they need something to offset high fat and high sugar? Do they want light and fluffy or is a more chewy, wild crumb more desirable? Soft crust or crispy crust? Is there little fermentation or no fermentation?”

For automation, you may prioritize machinability and processing capabilities. For hand work a lot of that doesn’t matter.

Here is an example of how these things might matter differently to different bakers, he adds.

For long fermentation, flour that is predominantly winter wheat is generally recognized as having more tolerance.

For processes with no fermentation time, this is a non-issue. You can have two flours with the same protein made, one with more spring wheat and one with more winter wheat. One will work better for long fermentation than the other. Protein is not the ultimate qualifier.

“There is no one size fits all,” Yankellow, says. “There is one size fits most.”

Flour performance

Rob Ostrander, director of technical solutions, Ardent Mills, explains that while protein content is one measure for flour, “we prefer to emphasize flour performance in the specific application and process conditions, which are more important.” Are you looking to make a cake? Then lower protein or gluten is a must. Looking to make a pizza crust? Then protein becomes a bigger conversation.

Typically, retail bakers create their mixes to meet a specific, similar dough consistency, leaning on how the dough feels at the mixer. As bakers make their batches, they often make an adjustment in water level, based on their experience and desired product attributes they’re looking to achieve, Ostrander explains.

“There are seemingly endless types of flours, and blends of flours, that can be custom created to meet a baker’s end goal.” he says.

Sustainable demand

Josh Reasoner, milling technical service manager, ADM, points out that growing consumer demand for sustainable goods is spurring an uptick in carbon labeling, which indicates third-party certification of a brand’s commitment and environmental claims.

In fact, a reported 36% of global consumers are actively trying to cut their carbon emissions₁. Plus, 69% of consumers say the Certified Carbon Neutral label makes them more likely to purchase a product₂.

ADM’s US flour milling operations recently achieved net carbon neutral status – an industry first of its kind and scale. This is also the first step toward launching carbon neutral flour. Research indicates 73% of global consumers say they feel more positively about companies that are transparent about where and how products were made, raised or grown₃. With more responsible and sustainable practices, bakeries are better positioned to attract and retain consumers.

In general, there are a number of factors to consider for retail bakers when choosing the best bread flour for your desired applications.

“Many types of flour can be used for bread, so it’s important to match the protein content with the desired style, whether that’s white sandwich bread or a hearty artisan loaf,” Reasoner explains. “More protein supports a dense and chewy bread, and if the protein content is too low, it can affect the volume of the bake and whether inclusions like honey and seeds will be carried.”

Several ancient grains are appropriate for bread flour, he says. Barley works well as a wheat flour substitute because it contains the right level of gluten to produce a good rise. Spelt is a popular alternative, as it has a similar genetic structure to wheat with a sweet, nutty flavor, a chewy texture, and it’s easier to mill than some other ancient grains. Another great grain for breads is sorghum.

“Our HarvestEdge™ sorghum flour has neutral flavor and is sustainable, drought resistant and milled in a certified gluten-free facility,” Reasoner says.

Protein levels to consider

Bread flour encompasses both classes of wheat (Spring and Winter) and many levels of the protein scale- from 10.3 to 14.5 protein level. 

“One of the most asked questions we receive is how much water will a particular flour absorb. The answer is usually a moving target depending on what product they are making,” shares Tom Santos, who is a field sales rep at General Mills Foodservice and part of an esteemed team of dedicated flour experts known as the Doughminators™

“But one factor is always the same – the quality of the flour is vital. Without a consistent high-quality flour, the water absorption can vary which can lead to adjustments in formula.”

Protein content is important and varies by products produced. Again, because of the widespread damage to Spring Wheat Crop and subsequent higher pricing, a uniform protein level is very important. However, unvarying protein level across all grades of Winter and Spring wheat is the key to producing an identical product for the baker day in and day out, he explains.

“Brand trust, customers are very loyal to brands they built their business with. Customers develop a long term connection with brands they trust,” Santos says.

As for key trends, customers are experimenting more with whole grains, durum and semolina wheats to add different textures and tastes to products.

From breads to pizza, the consumer is looking for a new experience and sometimes an old recipe, like semolina bread, becomes a new staple, he explains.

Sprouted grains

Consumers today have a bigger appetite for sprouted grains. With less bitterness, and better nutrient bioavailability, they’re a deliciously simple way to eat healthy. As a result, sprouted grains are popping up everywhere – in breads and tortillas, cereals, pastas, snacks and more. Fortunately, getting the ingredients you need to satisfy this growing health trend is easy, according to Bay State Milling.

Starting with carefully sourced grains, Bay State Milling partners with trusted germinators who have led the industry for over a century. The result is the utmost in purity, consistency, quality and safety – a standard that’s confirmed with a rigorous evaluation of every BeneGrain® product sold.

A meticulously controlled germination process ensures BeneGrain® performs perfectly – in virtually any type of grain-based food application. A sweet way to transform whole grains Bay State’s sprouting processes are optimized to maximize the inherent qualities of whole grains.

This results in “better for you that’s available for you” whole grain nutrition, according to Bay State Milling. The highly controlled process activates enzymes increasing digestibility and bioavailability of nutrients while also delivering consistent performance and great taste.

“By carefully controlling the germination process, we can naturally improve nutrition, performance and taste. It’s a delicious win-win and a convenient way to satisfy consumer cravings for healthier options.” explains Colleen Zammer, senior director, marketing and product development, Bay State Milling.

Available in conventional and organic varieties, BeneGrain® gives you all the sprouted options you need for success

  • Sprouted Whole Wheat
  • Sprouted Brown Rice
  • Sprouted Amaranth
  • Sprouted Millet
  • Sprouted SowNaked Oats
  • Sprouted Quinoa
  • Sprouted Rye
  • Sprouted Sorghum
  • Sprouted Blends

Clean labels

Current research indicates that consumers are emerging from the COVID pandemic with a restored commitment to clean labels and simple ingredients, whether they are buying baked goods at the bakery, the box retailer or online, explains Dave Krishock, Grain Craft bakery technical support manager.

“One way in which bakers may help meet this commitment would be to substitute any bleached flours with unbleached flour,” he points out. “Bleach has no impact on the flour’s performance other than providing a whiter crumb in breads, donuts and layer cakes, so it can easily be removed from your products and your ingredient label. Fans of artisan breads tend to prefer the aroma, taste and mouth feel of darker, crustier and moister hearth loaves produced from the more “natural” unbleached flours available in 25- and 50-pound sacks.”

Krishock adds that it would be great if retail bakeries could performance-match types/brands of flour to make the profusion of baked goods they produce each day; however, they face a real conundrum as they often don’t have the financial resources to stock a variety of flours, they are severely limited by lack of storage space, or their supplier/distributor minimums are difficult to meet.

These challenges are compounded with the shortage of trained, retail bakers with the bench and hand skills to utilize one flour across a broad spectrum of products.

“For this reason, I believe retail bakers could consider reviewing their dough systems and processes to see if a change or adjustment in their processing might streamline their flour inventory requirements,” Krishock says. For example, the strength and reduced pH provided by a preferment, such as a biga, poolish or pate fermente’ may allow a baker to use a slightly lower protein flour for artisan breads, pizzas and sweet goods.”

Quantity and quality

Yankellow of King Arthur points out that protein is the go-to standard in the US. “This is good in that it is easy to communicate,” he says. “A baker can assume a lot of things about performance based on the protein. It also allows for an easy understandable language. But it’s far from perfect and is relied on too heavily to indicate performance. Bakers must be aware that protein quantity and protein quality are not mutually inclusive of each other. It is very possible to have flour milled from different wheat, having the same protein content perform very differently. The same one that may work great for one process may be terrible for another, and vice versa.”

The farinograph data for hard wheat flours, which indicates absorption and mixing tolerance, is helpful to some bakeries more than others. There are minimums one would want to see. Large commercial bakeries may make automatic adjustments to their process based on this data. Other bakeries may not pay any attention other than knowing that if the results change drastically the flour may perform differently. They are good indirect indicators of the wheat blend.

My final word, he stipulates, is that numbers are great indicators but baking is the single best way to judge, and baking multiple batches with the same flour over time is even better.

“We should never forget that baking is an art. Flour is one of the primary mediums of the craft. It is always going to be susceptible to changes that we are dealt by mother nature,” Yankellow says.