It's all about flour: tips and tricks to recognize a good bread

What does bread mean for today's consumers? In an age when it is so easy to find bread for all tastes (naturally leavened, wholemeal, gluten-free, with special flour, with countless cereals, enriched with various seeds ...) and buy it almost everywhere (from the bakery at home to that of the supermarket), it is very difficult to choose between the various bakers. This is especially true, because everyone claims to make bread of the highest quality.

Yet, between mass-produced bread that occupies more and more space on the shelves, frozen products or injected with chemicals, the truth is that the consumer can no longer distinguish between what’s good and what’s not.

Bread has become more than a product: it is a fashion. This means that basically each of us can choose the brand that he or she prefers. Low-cost products are at hand, more or less tasty, easy to mass-produce, fuelled by demand and new processing techniques.

Just think that in the past, before the introduction of technologies for separating the grain from the outer shell, only wholemeal flour was consumed. Then there are the new bakeries that blend traditions with new discoveries to improve the product, but above all to protect a heritage and enhance consumer choice.

Bread fashion
Today we have (perhaps too much) plenty of choice.  Nevertheless, which bread to choose to eat well and healthy?  Eating bread is a healthy and balanced habit, carbohydrates are not to be avoided and gluten should not be seen as an absolute enemy for health. All this is true if you can recognise good bread, which is a quality artisan product, rich in nutritional properties and taste.

Today's bread is different from yesterday's

Today, most of the available cereals come from intensive agriculture. As selections and hybrids go through, productivity has certainly increased, but not necessarily the benefits to our health.

Digestive disorders and skin reactions are just a few examples of the consequences of modern nutrition. Gluten intolerance is the main cereal-related disease. It seems that part of the explanation for these problems lies in the role man has played in the selection of cereals: varieties that contain more and more gluten have been favoured, because they are easier to cook and process.

Old-fashioned bread, rich in nutritional properties
Hybridisation and genetic manipulation have also led to profound changes in the structure of cereal proteins and in the quality of starch. The result is a higher percentage of gluten with more resistant gliadins, kinds of starch with a higher allergenic potential.

The new baker

However, things are changing. A new wave of bakers is reviving the cultivation of varieties chosen with care for their taste and their virtues, often abandoned to give rise to industrial production. In fact, it seems that the ancient variety of wheat, not manipulated, is much better tolerated.

This phenomenon is part of a society where people no longer eat bread out of necessity, but for the pleasure of healthy eating, and learn to recognise the value and taste of traditional artisan bread.

A quality crust

The first basic ingredient: flour

A good bread consists of only three ingredients: flour, water and yeast. Without any additives or chemical agents. Flour is the most important ingredient; the first step to understand its importance is in the steps that lead to grain from flour.

The process of transforming grain into flour begins with the harvesting (cutting of the plant) and then the separation of the grains from the straw and chaff, the threshing. Wetting, i.e. the addition of water to the wheat, moistens the bran (the shell, rich in fibre, minerals and vitamins) and facilitates the separation of this from the central area, the endosperm (80-85% of the grain, rich in starch). Then the cereals are conveyed to the mill, which begins to strip the grain of the shell, and this is where we see a first important difference: the grinding through cylinder or stone mills.

Analysis of wheat germ
In the stone mills, grain is worked with a pair of stones that rotate at low speed, without overheating the grain unlike the cylinder mill, where a system of metal cylinders is used. Thanks to the stone grinding, it is possible to obtain flour of considerable value, not depleted of vitamins and proteins, which also give bread a more rustic appearance (due to the grain size). Whole grain is ground preserving all the organoleptic properties that give an authentic and characteristic taste.

Flour ground with stone mills ancient technique is therefore to be preferred in the choice of our bread because it is more nutritious and balanced.

The refining process and the different types of flour

With industrialisation, the evolution of the techniques and the demand in the field of bread, man has constantly improved his performance and, only in the last 50 - 60 years, white bread has been introduced. For a long time it was believed that the best way was to obtain flour as white as possible, because it was noticed that by baking it, the resulting bread came more voluminous.

In order to obtain flour of different qualities, following the milling of the wheat, the process of refining (or sifting), the sieving and the gradual elimination of bran and germ from the flour, was invented.

The process of sifting is applicable to many powders
In addition to the type of cereal (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, kamut...), the role of flour is closely linked to its degree of refining, the process of separating the noble part of the wheat from the bran by means of sieves with different meshes. The sifting rate is the quantity of flour obtained by grinding 100 kg of wheat. In other words, it represents the percentage of grain used for a given flour.

In relation to the residue of minerals and bran present in the ground grain, flours have been classified into 5 types: wholemeal (with a 100% sifting rate), Type 2 (at 82%), Type 1 (at 80%), Type 0 (at 72%), and Type 00 (at 50%).

It may be easy to mistake different kinds of flour
The flour richest in nutritional values is wholemeal flour, which contains all the proteins, fibres, vitamins and minerals, as the grain has only undergone a first phase of grinding. This is followed by Type 2, also known as "semi-integral", in whose composition we find the most similar quantities of fibres and wheat germ compared to raw wholemeal flour.
Wholemeal flours, undisputed wellness queens
Therefore, you need to pay attention to the labels and also to the products promoted as wholemeal, but which are actually composed of white flour with added bran. These are much less interesting from a nutritional point of view, as they do not contain the wheat germ.

Leavening: this unknown force

Another important factor in bread is leavening. A well-leavened bread is not only a beautiful and soft product, actually the too regular appearance of the famous bubbles does not tell us anything good. It must be said that a good leavening is the result of many factors, starting from the expert hands of the baker, the respect of the adequate leavening and baking time, as well as the yeast used (the best ones being natural yeast and sourdough).

The main role, however, is played by the ability of the dough to form the glutinous mesh, that is, the structure that retains the leavening gas and gives bread its swelling; 80% of this process depends from the variety of flour used.

The enthusiasm of watching bread leavening
Flours are distinguished by their strength (denoted by the letter W). Flour’s strength indicates its ability to absorb liquids as it turns into dough and retain carbon dioxide during leavening. What we are interested to know is that the strength of the flour depends on the protein content, especially that of the gliadins and glutenins that, together, make up the gluten. The higher the percentage, the higher and swollen the loaves will be.

The most powerful flours are wheat flours (Triticum), both hard and soft, and wholemeal (whole-wheat in the US) flours: this means that they will normally be present in the dough for a bread. Wholemeal flour will leaven less than a refined one, but the loaf will be richer in nutrients.

The spelt that never disappoints
A special mention goes to spelt flour (spelta and dicoccum): although it is included among the weak flours, spelt flour is, in fact, an ancient variety of flour very suitable for baking.

Advice from the new bakery

In summation, here are some tips from the new generation of bakers (who defend the tradition and values of artisan bread). To choose a good and genuine loaf of bread, even if you are not an expert or do not yet want to try putting your hands into the dough, you can:

  • Read the list of ingredients: look for the terms "wholemeal", "with germ", "stone-ground" to get as many precious nutrients as possible. Beware instead of the terms like "enriched wheat flour" or "multi-cereal", which do not necessarily indicate that the flour used is wholemeal and has not been refined.
Beware the list of ingredients
  • The crumb already tells us the story of bread. White-ish crumb? Better to avoid it, it rhymes with a total absence of taste. Cream-coloured or darker, it reveals the use of a traditional or semi-integral flour, worked at low speed. Finally, if the alveoli in breadcrumb are regular, it is a bad sign, once again proof of haphazard work.
  • The scent: like a good wine, you can feel the aroma of good bread. Rely on your nose then. First, the crust can exalt more or less roasted aromas and hints of liquorice, coffee, wood and others, which are released depending on the method of production and baking. As for the crumb, its scent can be sweet or more acidic, depending on the yeast. A slight fruity scent is a good sign: it indicates the use of sourdough.
A stone mill, plunge into the past for a healthier present
  • Shape and volume: volume is also an essential point. The more gluten there is, the more swollen, airy and therefore tasteless the bread is. We therefore prefer thicker breads, synonymous with slower production and less refined flours.
  • Let's not forget the taste: a bread made with quality flour, slowly kneaded and long seasoned has an inimitable flavour. A taste linked to the choice of ingredients, and in particular the sourdough, one of the signatures of an excellent baker, which gives slightly acidic or milky aromas.
The inimitable taste of homemade bread
  • The crust: Its formation is linked to the ingredients but also to the cooking process, which causes the browning of the sugars and therefore the colouring. Dense, dark, fragrant, crisp, four guarantees of taste and, above all, good conservation.

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