On Gluten

Here in the States we’re used to talking about flours in terms of how much gluten (protein) they contain. Know the gluten percentage of a given flour and you know a fair amount about it: how hard or soft the wheat that it came from, how well it will perform in a cake or a bread, how chewy or tender your finished product will be, and so on.

Europeans gemerally do not talk this way. When they talk flour, they speak of “ash content“, which is also a highly descriptive measure, just very different from gluten content. And while we’re on the subject of Europe, I should point out that European gluten is very different from North American gluten. While ours is stretchy and elastic, theirs is firm and plastic, meaning it doesn’t “snap back” like ours does when it’s stretched. That’s nice, but it’s an advantage that comes with some disadvantages as well. If you’ve ever eaten a French blueberry muffin, you know what I’m talking about.

American flours have a gluten percentage that’s right around 10%. That’s about standard for an all-purpose flour. A few percentage points less and you’re into cake flour territory, a few percentage points more and you’ve got some serious bread flour on your hands.

But what determines how much gluten a flour has? There are two primary factors: the type of wheat the flour was made from and the extraction rate (more on that below). Hard red wheats, which tend to grow in the northern regions of the North American continent, are generally high in gluten. They make great bread. Soft red wheats, which tend to grow best in warmer Southern climates, are low in gluten and are generally better for things like biscuits and cakes.

But of course the way that wheat is milled also has an impact. As I mentioned below in the post on extraction rates, it’s the outer layers of the wheat endosperm (starch reserve) that have the most protein. Thus a high extraction flour is going to have more protein regardless of the type of wheat it came from, and a low extraction will have less.

When you consider that different mills use different varieties of wheats, grind and sift them to varying rates of extraction, and combine the finished flours in varying proportions to produce their final flours, you can see how all this can get confusing very quickly. Milling is a highly secretive business. Every flour company has what it considers its proprietary processes and blends, and few of us on the outside will ever know what they are. Still, now you know a little bit of the how’s and why’s of milling.

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13 Responses to On Gluten

  1. Laura G says:

    Gluten gets a lot if attention these days but it’s not the only protein in flour. It is possible to use the nutrition label as a guide for the gluten content but even American flours can have enough other proteins (the names of which escape me now) that the total protein does not necessarily tell you the gluten content.

    I think this disparity is greater in non-American flours. I lived in Australia and as I recall (memory bring fallible) the protein contents were pretty similar from type to type even though the bread flours acted like bread flour and the cake flour performed like cake flour.

  2. Tereza says:

    Why aren’t European-style flours available in the US? There’s demand for European-style bread, right? Do growing conditions prevent the cultivation of the right wheat?

    • joepastry says:

      That’s exactly it, Tereza, the wheats they grow in Europe simply don’t grow as well here. You can get European flours here by mail order, but they are quite expensive as you might imagine. Italian type 00 and French type 55 are the most readily available.

      Thanks for the question!

      - Joe

  3. Ellen in KY says:

    What about White Lily flour? That was always my mother’s choice for biscuits and I use it for cakes as well. It’s a “soft” flour and I imagine that its gluten percentage is below 10%. It does make nice cakes I will say.

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Ellen!

      Indeed you’re right. White Lily flour is a soft Southern flour, one that I use consistently for biscuits and cakes. It’s fantastic, and its gluten content is quit low, about 8%.

      - Joe

      • rainey says:

        That raises the question why a similar flour isn’t available outside the South. I’ve heard of the virtues of White Lily my entire baking life but, living in NYS and CA, I’ve never seen it or gotten to try it out.

        We lived in FL one year. I suppose I missed my chance to look for it there…

        • joepastry says:

          Hey Rainey!

          I don;t know why that is, other than people just don’t buy it outside those markets. Some stores in Chicago carry White Lily, but it wasn’t until I moved south that I could get fresh and in abundance. You can always mail order it! ;)

          - Joe

          • rainey says:

            I don’t think in the North and West we have that “biscuit culture”. Hell’s bells, I thought that was what White Lily was for. I didn’t appreciate that it could improve pie crust and cake texture as well.

            Not being all that into biscuits I think that must be why I didn’t search it down when we lived in Orlando.

  4. Nokanen says:

    Greetings from Finland, northern Europe. We haven’t had ash content printed on flour bags for at least two decades. We have a table of contents with percentages of fats, carbohydrates, fiber, protein and salt. That’s the standard. No-one lists ash content anymore around here. I remember wondering about it when I was a kid though, but that was early 80′s.

    Regarding protein content in European flours, here are some examples from Finnish flours that I have in my cupboard:

    whole wheat flour: 17% protein
    bread flour: 14% protein
    cake flour: 12% protein

    Another brand of cake flour is 11%.

    As a sidenote, even though whole wheat flour has plenty of glutein, a whole wheat dough won’t rise very high. Why is that? Methinks it’s because the bran particles in the flour are so hard, they shred the glutein network and break the bubbles.

    • joepastry says:

      Hello Nokanen!

      You are exactly right about why whole wheat flour doesn’t rise well…it’s all because of the bran.

      Those protein percentages are very interesting. As in Finland, millers here don’t print that key data on bags, they just use the nutrition labels as you described. It’s mostly bakers and baking bloggers that talk about protein percentages now!

      I love your country, by the way. I once spent a week visiting Helsinki and the surrounding area…it was lovely, the people were delightful and the food was excellent. I wish I could get cloud berries in Kentucky…were those ever good!

      - Joe

  5. Evan D. says:

    I’ve been thinking about gluten the past few days. . . I have a pack of 00 pizza flour in my pantry. The other day I set out to make some peach pies. I was in a hurry and so I used that for the crust. After hardly more than half an hour of resting, the dough was ready to roll out and did not spring back much at all. Turned out great. Very tender and easy to work.

  6. Lucian says:

    This is coming in late, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Canadian flours. Our all purpose flour tends to have higher gluten contents than yours (I think it was about 13%). Despite this, I find, and I have found many to agree, that it is suitable for both cakes and breads. In fact, upon using the specialized flours in comparison to AP flour, there was negligible difference. Is this due to the species of wheat grown here, or the milling, or are there other factors involved?

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Lucian!

      I haven’t worked specifically with Canadian flours, but I have no fear of hard wheats or high gluten. As you point out they have many uses aside from bread. And you’re right: in many applications you can’t tell how much gluten the flour has. It all depends on how you manipulate it!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

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