Coming on strong: choosing the best flour

On bags of flour in UK supermarkets the words “strong white” and “plain” – and occasionally the ridiculous “strong plain” label, courtesy of someone presumably doing their bit to discourage all home baking – are emblazoned on the packs as if they meant something. Now when I write a recipe and in the ingredients ask for “strong white flour”, all I mean is go and buy a bag of flour labelled “strong white” and use it. If you push me, I‘ll explain that in the UK, strong flour is typically flour for breadmaking, and plain flour is flour for cakes and biscuits. But to be really honest, the truth is much more complex as I frequently use plain flour for bread recipes, and strong white flour for cake recipes.

There’s a thread on our forum about home baker Jack Lang’s exceptional baguettes made with plain flour, and over on moneysavingexpert.com there’s a thread about using low grade flour for a great result. So when forum member Blue posted asking about strong white flour I thought it was time to start unravelling the mysteries. As I started writing this I’ve realised that it could be the first in a series, as there is so much to explain about the flours we use.

Plain white flour: the essentials

Plain flour refers to a relatively low-protein white wheat flour that has no particular attributes. Because of this it can also be of a poor or variable quality, as it isn’t required to meet any general industry criteria. One technical director of a large milling company told me the believed much of the plain flour sold was rubbish; my view is that there is always a characteristic in any flour that can be used in a good way, and the trick is to identify it. I tend to go for a branded plain flour or larger supermarket own-label (not the value range) as these larger companies usually set specific in-house criteria and put their suppliers through a few hoops to meet them.

Plain flour: what to expect using it

Plain flour will produce a bread dough that will not tolerate long fermentation without falling apart, and will produce a dense soft crumb that tears easily. The addition of a small amount of Vitamin C (1/2 x 250mg tablet crushed per 500g plain flour) produces a dough that will hold gas better, producing a lighter crumb, and roll and shape easier, and is helpful if you’ve run out of strong white flour and need to use plain flour as a replacement.

Best for: buns, soft rolls, griddle-baked flat breads or pita

In cake making, it will produce a soft texture that tends towards crumbling. Fruit cakes will slice better without crumbing, and cookies will bake chewier, if you use a mixture of a strong white flour (see below) and plain flour in the recipe.

Best for: batters, scones, biscuits and pound/Victoria sponge type cakes of a UK style.

Plain Flour: what to replace it with

Using Italian 00 instead of plain flour: If baking powder is used reduce it slightly. By the way, Italian 00 produces a lovely light scone.

Using plain flour instead of Italian 00: in breadmaking, use a mixture of half strong white (see below) and half plain flour, but the dough produced will not be as stretchy and extensible. 00 produces a much crisper result that can’t be imitated with either flour. In cake making use slightly more baking powder but no other changes

Using UK plain flour instead of US all-purpose flour: US recipes will often have a higher sugar/butter ratio to flour and stress UK plain flour too much. Reducing the butter/sugar in the US recipe will help to produce a better result with plain flour. Also, I find a slight increase in the baking powder helps to produce a lighter result with plain flour. In yeast baking, a combination of strong white flour and baking powder

Using US all-purpose flour instead of UK plain flour: If the baking powder in the UK seems high decrease it slightly, and increase the liquid in the recipe slightly as all-purpose flour is selected/milled so it will hold slightly more moisture during mixing.

Using French T45 or T55 (Euro T450 or T550) instead of plain flour: French millers produce flour with the expectation that it will colour quickly in the oven and, in breadmaking, can sustain a longer rise than UK. So slightly reduce the sugar and fat, and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 10% – 15% for the best result.

Using plain flour in place of French T45/T55 (Euro T450/T550): In cake baking, replacing 1/4 of the flour with strong flour will produce a better result, and yeast baking the addition of a little vitamin C will produce a lighter and more elastic dough. Increase the liquid in the recipe very slightly.

Strong white flour: the essentials

Strong white flour refers to a relatively high-protein white wheat flour suitable for breadmaking. As virtually all flour is milled from a selection of grain varieties, rather than the grain from a single field or single variety, for strong white flour millers choose a selection of wheat varieties to that will produce a dough that most bakers make: in the UK, that is a tight commercially-yeasted dough that is risen quickly, shapes easily without flowing, and bakes to a pale crust without over-colouring. This of these qualities as the key characteristics that strong flour is milled to produce, as it’s then easier to tweak and troubleshoot your way to a perfect loaf.

Strong white flour isn’t our traditional British wheat flour, but was introduced in the late 1800s by combining imported either Hungarian, Australian, US or Canadian wheats in order to create a flour that could withstand the rigours of machine dough processing, and since it soon dominated our markets even small bakers adapted their methods in an attempt to soften this tough flour.

Most strong white flour in the UK is roller milled, and so I often buy generic and whatever’s the best value. Sometimes that’s a branded flour from Hovis or Allinsons, other times it’s from Lidl. Though I like stoneground white bread flours I don’t really consider them “strong white flour” as the bran they contain slightly softens the crumb and gives a different look and taste to what I’d expect from roller milled flour. So I treat stoneground white bread flour like a light wholemeal flour, and I’ll cover this area in more detail next time.

Extra-strong flour is wheat flour has even more of this resilient protein than strong flour, and is very useful when mixed with rye or wholewheat flour in order to improve the round shape of the final loaf. But otherwise, it’s usually more than you need for typical home baking.

Strong white flour: what to expect using it

Strong white flour usually contains high levels of a type of protein called glutenin, causing the dough made from it to be able to hold its shape rather better than stretching easily. Where dough made from an Italian 00 flour or French T55 can be pulled and lengthened easily, dough made from strong white flour needs to be coaxed gently into performing a similar act otherwise it will tear. Though strong white flour will contain gliadin, the stretchy protein, don’t expect the same extensibility with dough made from it. However, high speed mixing, especially with the additional of a crushed vitamin C tablet, will produce a very elastic and stretchy dough from this flour.

Best for: dough that requires good oven spring, and tight shapes. Breads that need to stay moist and soft for a few days, as the protein absorbs moisture and avoids it drying quickly.

Sometimes you need to add a little malt or sugar to strong white flour to sustain a long fermentation. The biggest market for strong white flour in the UK is for bakers – at home and in bakeries – making dough that is risen and baked fairly quickly. Because of this, the millers choose a selection of wheat varieties that don’t contain very high levels of natural sugar as they won’t be used up during a short fermentation and could both leave the crumb gummy and heavy, and cause the crust to brown too quickly. And in the UK, pale bread has a strong fan club. Now curiously, the glutenin found in strong white flour is perfect for long fermentation but…as the natural sugars in the flour are kept low, the resulting loaf will have a pale greyish crust, look slightly anaemic, and the final rise will be lengthy. If you add a little malt or even dark ale to the mix the additional “sugar” in the form of maltose will help to correct this.

Best for: short (2-3 hr) to medium (4 – 6 hr) fermentation; beyond that consider adding additional malt or sugar to sustain the fermentation.

Even the best strong white flours are remarkable bland, so think about cutting this flour with a little wholemeal flour to deepen the flavour. You can happily replace up to 10% of the weight with wholemeal flour without affecting the texture or appearance greatly.

Best use: when cut with a little wholemeal flour it produces an exceptionally well-flavoured bread. Otherwise, consider increasing the flavour of fermentation or the other ingredients used.

For cakes with a high level of fat, like a buttery pound cake, strong white flour can be uses in place of plain flour without it being too noticeable. In fact, if you have a cake that tends to crumble, then using strong white flour should correct this. You might need to add a little liquid to achieve the same consistency, but you’ll have to judge this for yourself. I find strong white flour gives a very good result when used for rich fruit cakes or gingerbread. It’s less good used in a sponge cake, or other low fat cake.

Best for: fruit cakes and gingerbreads.

For biscuits and traybakes, strong white flour instead of of plain flour usually produces a good to very good result.

Best for: biscuits etc that requires a chewy soft consistency.

Strong white flour: what to replace it with

Using Italian 00 instead of strong white flour: in breadmaking, reduce the liquid in the recipe by 15% 20%, and reduce the rising temperature to about 21C  – 24C.

Using strong white flour instead of Italian 00: in breadmaking, use a mixture of half strong white and half plain flour, but the dough produced will not be as stretchy and extensible. Increase the water slightly to help make the dough more elastic. 00 produces a much crisper result that can’t be imitated with either flour. In cake making use slightly more baking powder and slightly more liquid, but no other changes.

Using UK strong white flour instead of US all-purpose flour: For breadmaking just add a little extra liquid when making the dough, otherwise no changes needed.

Using US all-purpose flour instead of UK strong white flour: For breadmaking, use slightly less water than suggested in the recipe.

Using French T55 or T65 (Euro T550 or T650) instead of strong white flour: Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 10% – 15%, and reduce the rising temperature to about 21C  – 24C for the best result. As T55 or T65 will colour quickly in the oven, reduce the oven temperature towards the end of baking to stop it burning.

Using strong white flour in place of French T55 or T65 (Euro T550 or T650): In bread baking increase the dough temperature slightly, and for long shapes roll the dough out in stages to avoid tearing it. Consider adding a little malt or sugar if you intend to extend the rising time beyond 6 hours. Expect the crust to be slightly tougher and chewy, and less brittle and crisp, when using strong white flour in place of T55 or T65.