Is high gluten flour strictly necessary?

Good question, reader Molly. High gluten flour will definitely give you a better overall bialy-eating experience. Like a bagel, a bialy should be dense and firm and/or chewy. The extra protein in the flour provides that texture boost. Think of the protein (gluten) molecules as little springs. During the kneading process they attach to one another creating a stretchy network throughout the dough. That network stays more or less intact even through the baking process, so when we bite down the result is “chew”.

Here I should point out that not all gluten is created equal. The gluten in European flour differs from the gluten in American flour in that when it’s developed it’s more firm than it is chewy. The result is that European bread dough is not as elastic as our own, and that offers distinct advantages when it comes to shaping and baking breads and crusts. Their doughs don’t “spring back” or need to be rested like ours do. Which reminds me that I’ll need to include a resting step in the recipe if I want a broader depression in the center of my bialys when I bake.

Polish-Jewish bakers in Bialystok never had to worry about their bialys bunching up in the oven — but I do! Thanks for reminding me, Molly!

5 thoughts on “Is high gluten flour strictly necessary?”

  1. I don’t use white flour (digestive issues) and the whole white wheat flour that I do use doesn’t have enough gluten in it for the fluffy bread I like, so I add vital wheat gluten to it when I’m working with yeast. Once in a while I add a bit too much and my bread’s a bit chewy, but we all like it that way, thankfully. I am so trying bialys next time I caramelize a large pan of onions!

  2. What do you exactly mean when you say that European doughs don’t need to be rested like American ones?

    All our recipes here in Europe define two to four resting periods, depending on the type of bread. If you read what European artisan bakers write, most of them heavily stress that long enough resting periods are crucial. And every youngster learning to bake tries to get away with either shorter rests or by leaving one rest out before admitting that you can’t make good bread like that.

    Also, isn’t “European flours” a bit too broad generalization? For example, French bread flours are very different from Finnish ones. You can’t take a French or Italian recipe and expect to reproduce it by just substituting that South European flour with a North European one. (You can adjust hydration to compensate for stronger flour and you’re a bit closer to target, but still not there.) Milling practises also vary from country to country. As the USA is a large country with varying climates, I would expect that your flours would also vary but I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me, is California flour similar to or very different from, f.ex. Maine flour?

    That being said, I’ll go and get my old dough from the fridge right now. If we want fresh bread on the dinner table, I need to get on with it because my recipe calls for three rests that sum up to about three hours.

    1. Hello Nokanen!

      You’re quite correct on all these fronts. All bread doughs need resting. That is, rising and proofing periods — sometimes very long ones depending on the bread in question. Also, flour is not just “flour”. In Europe as in America they can vary quite a bit according to grind, strength, ash content, wheat strain, blend, the list goes on. That’s all quite, quite true.

      Even so there are some differences between American and European flour where it is safe to generalize, at least to some degree. One of them is the character of the protein (gluten) in our most common wheat flours. The protein in the wheat strains we’ve developed over here have a somewhat annoying characteristic, specifically that it is very elastic. That comes from the shape of the protein molecules which are curly and spring-like. When — through the addition of water and by the action of kneading — our gluten is “developed”, those molecules bond to one another end-to-end, creating a network that is extremely, irritatingly elastic.

      The end result is that our doughs, when rolled flat and then laid out on a tables, spring back to an alarming degree. The tension of all those tiny springs tries to gather the mass back into a ball. Apply heat and the effect is greatly magnified. This is a particular annoyance with pie crusts, which even though are made with very weak low-gluten flours and lots of fat (to weaken the network as much as possible) shrink up terribly in the oven if they are baked too hastily.

      To combat this, we give our pastry, pie and occasionally bread doughs extra resting periods, during which gravity goes to work on the gluten networks, stretching them steadily and breaking them into pieces. Even ten minutes of resting can do a very springy pizza dough a world of good. The same goes for bialys, which will contract more in the oven than they ordinarily would without a gluten-relaxing rest.

      Now then, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as an elastic European dough. However what is generally true is that European gluten tends to be firmer — and as a result more plastic — when it is developed than American gluten and so the effect is effects generally reduced on your side of the Pond. This is especially true in Southern Europe where pie crusts, pizzas and even very thin sheets of dough can be worked strenuously and then baked right away with no ill effects. It’s a great aggravation to an American baker I don’t mind telling you.

      Again, every last European flour doesn’t behave exactly this way, however it is an often remarked-upon difference between flours here and over there. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. Joe, you keep amazing me with your wealth of knowledge and readiness to share it. Thanks! I had no idea that gluten can be so different between wheat cultivars. I sort of thought that gluten is just gluten, and such a simple structure that it’s probably always pretty much the same. Foolish me.

    But so do some people think that water is just water, yet any experienced brewer would be shocked at such a notion.

    It is true that none of our flours here in Finland make a too springy dough, no matter what part of the grain is used in the flour, or how fine the milling is, or how long I knead it. The problem is usually the opposite.

    1. Hey Nokanen!

      Thank you very much — but somebody had to tell me as well, I definitely wasn’t born with it! 😉

      I remember I was almost literally beating my head against the wall trying to figure out an Italian bread many years ago. Finally a friend suggested I email a food scientist he knew in Italy. Like you I was stunned to discover that wheat protein wasn’t the same the world over. But it certainly explained a lot! It was one of those revelation moments that opened the door to deciphering many other Continental formulas. I continue to be frustrated by how elastic our doughs are compared to European ones, it’s the reason I’m so worried about the sfogliatelle I’m making next. But at least now I know why I’m having the trouble!

      Cheers and thanks again for the note!

      – Joe

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