We Americans are hung up on gluten. And not just because gluten sensitivity, along with pseudo-disorders like fibromyalgia and dysautonomia, is one of the more popular maladies du jour. Bakers obsess over it: is this flour high gluten or low gluten? As if the answer to that question will tell us everything we need to know about it. Much of the rest of the civilized baking world doesn’t look at flour that way. In places like France and Italy the main concern is grind, i.e. how fine or course it is. That’s because they recognize — in a way we don’t — that not all gluten is created equal. Which is to say gluten is not like charisma, where you’ve either got it or you don’t. Rather gluten is more like singing talent: highly variable among the members of the chorus.
Gluten can be firm or yielding, elastic or extensible, viscous or sticky depending on the type of grain it was extracted from. The gluten in rye, for example, is made up of entirely different proteins as compared to that of wheat. Instead of wheat gluten’s glutenin and gliadin combo, rye gluten is composed of a very weak combination of gliaden and glutelin. Sounds similar, acts different. Thus it’s possible to have a flour that’s absolutely packed with gluten, but which doesn’t behave in the way we Americans might expect from a high gluten flour. Italian “00” flour is one such animal, for though it’s technically high in gluten, the gluten it contains isn’t stretchy. Rather, it’s hard.
Why the difference, since Italian “00” flour is made from wheat, right? Indeed it is, only a different variety of wheat, one that’s better suited to growing conditions in Italy. But even here in the States, the quality of gluten in various wheats (oh yes, we grow many types here) can be highly variable, due to genetic differences among strains.
Millers of the pre-industrial era understood this, and so had a simple test to determine if the wheat a farmer was wanting to sell them contained gluten suitable for bread making. They’d mill a little of it, then mix the flour with water and work it into a rough dough in their hand. Then they’d rinse the dough to wash away the starch, leaving nothing but a small wad of developed gluten (you can do the same thing in your home sink). Lastly they’d chuck the gluten up onto the ceiling. If it stuck, the load of wheat was good enough to be milled into bread flour. If not, well then, the cattle or hogs might enjoy it.
Nowadays of course milling is largely standardized, which is not to say that all flours are created equal. Every brand you come across is made from its own secret blend of wheats, which means all those flours will perform a little differently depending on what you’re making. Finding the perfect flour to reproduce, say, grandma’s Parkerhouse rolls, is pretty much a process of trial and error — and why my baking cabinet contains about a dozen different kinds of name brand and artisan flours.
The wife, she thinks I’m crazy. But I tell her look at it this way: I could be spending all my time playing fantasy football.