My ambition with these international flour sections is to offer something different from the usual table-type “world flour” charts. While those things do make a certain rough sense, they can mislead as much as they can inform. For the fact is there are very few true equivalents when it comes to international flours. Though flour looks uniform to the eye, it’s actually a highly complex system packed full of variables. I’m hoping to convey a sense for those variables in these sections, show why “equivalents” — especially American equivalents — are almost always going to be an imperfect match, but also perhaps open the door to some creative problem solving.
So, French flour. Why is it so different from American flour? Well firstly and most obviously, because French flour is made from different strains of wheat. That may not sound very important, but subtlety counts for a lot in baking, and it’s surprising the effect that a small difference in the character of, say, wheat protein (gluten) can have.
Second, French flour is milled according to different standards. Many French bread flours are what we call “straight” flours. A straight flour is what you get when you grind a wheat berry, remove most of the bran and germ, but then don’t sift the grindings into various “streams” which you then mix and match in varying proportions, (as most American millers do). This makes a difference, especially as you get into higher extraction flours which contain more of the outer endosperm. That region of the wheat berry has bits of bran in it, not to mention trace minerals and other nutrients that help yeasts to grow and digest starch. And all those things have an effect on the way a dough ferments.
So: very different stuff. The good news is that these days a lot of French flour can be bought online. Helping you determine which type you need is the part of the intention of this post.
Setting out here, an important thing to know is that French flours, like many other European flours, are not labeled by their intended use as flours are in the States (i.e. all-purpose flour, bread flour, pastry flour) but are ranked according to their so-called “ash content”. At first glance the ash content system seems mysterious, even impenetrable, but as I’ve written previously, the ash content system isn’t a difficult to figure out. French flour types are labeled things like “T45” which means that this particular flour type has an ash content of 0.45%, or thereabouts.
So let’s get into some of these, shall we? Thanks very much to readers Alan and Cynthia for their very helpful contributions. I invite others to add to — or correct — what is here. Reliable, under-the-hood information on flour is always hard to come by. Milling is a secretive trade. Any additional pieces are welcome, and will be useful to others as this post evolves.
Type 45 is a very fine, very white, soft flour that American bakers think of as “pastry flour”, and it is. It’s great for tart crusts, short breads and sponge cakes. Like American pastry flour it’s very starchy and low protein, taken as it is from the very center of the wheat berry. For this reason — because that weird Euro gluten is less of a factor — it performs quite like American pastry flour. Which is not to say it’s an exact match, just close enough for joconde, as it were.
Interestingly, in French homes, T45 is more commonly used as a sauce thickener because of its baby powder-fine grind (as I’ve written before, homemade pastry is something of an oddity in France). Occasionally you’ll see Type 45 pop up in French bread recipes, usually for things like brioche or croissants where, in combination with the slightly hardier T55, it delivers a very light crumb.
Speaking of which, there’s T55. This is the type that most readers ask me about, because you see it listed quite a bit in baguette recipes. A useful way to think about T55 is as a sort of French “all-purpose”. Just as with American AP, it’s a pantry staple in most homes, used for everything from pancake batter to coatings for pan-fried meats and fish. It has that same medium protein and medium grind.
Which is not to say it resembles American AP in everything. As the protein level rises, the functional differences between French flour and American flour become more apparent, especially in breads. Here the firmer, more moldable gluten helps loaves stand taller in the proofing and baking steps. And that’s a big advantage when it comes to volume. It’s not surprising then that T55 is the go-to flour for baguettes. However it’s also a standard for laminated dough. Having done a lot of laminating in my time, I can tell you that an extensible (not elastic) gluten makes rolling croissant and puff pastry dough a whole lot easier. American bread flour works very well for laminated dough also, I should note. It just takes a little more work.
With T65 we’re into serious bread territory. This is a white flour that employs the maximum amount of hard outer endosperm without getting into the very outermost, bran-containing endosperm layers. So it’s the beefiest of the French flours from a structure- and volume-creating standpoint.
You could make the case that T65 is the most alien of the French flours from a performance perspective. Because Continental gluten behaves so differently compared to American gluten, and because there is so much of that gluten present in T65, it’s the hardest flour to find a true “equivalent” for. I’ve seen this flour in use, and have been awed by the way it can create even a large bread loaf that seems to defy gravity.
That said there are some senses in which French bakeries use T65 like American bakeries use American high-gluten flour: as a mix-in flour to beef up lighter doughs (you sometimes see a proportion of T65 in baguette formulas) as well as to give strength, and hence volume, to doughs that have a high proportion of whole wheat flour in them.
From this point forward in our climb up the ash content ladder, bran comes into the picture in increasing quantities. Case-in-point French Type 80 flour, which is a bit of an odd duck as far as American bakers are concerned. T80 has a very high extraction rate, incorporating a few of the wheat berry’s outer bran-containing layers. This is what accounts for its every-so-subtle beige tinge. So it’s a very “hard” flour.
But “hardness”, it’s important to note, doesn’t always translate to rising ability. Because when you start swapping out endosperm for bran, the overall protein content of the flour is going to start to go down, as is the case with T80. So while the ash content number would imply an even higher gluten content and even stronger rise than T65, the reality is actually the opposite. You have less gluten, and even more than that you have gluten-undermining bran in the mix. Thus the performance of T80 is going to be more along the lines of T55.
I confess I know little about how T80 is used, though I can speculate it’s a lot like some of the so-called “white whole wheat” flours that have hit the American market over last decade or so. It’s probably great for making country-style loaves, being higher in flavor and nutritional value, and delivering more texture.
“Light whole wheat” is probably the best way to describe T110. With a good amount of bran and even a little germ in it, it’s the kind of flour that reader Alan (an anglophone who lives in France) likes for whole wheat sandwich bread because it delivers lots of whole wheat feel, but not so much bran and germ that a dough made with it doesn’t rise well. This flour, like most high extraction flours, is often blended with other, lighter flours to make breads of various kinds. That’s not to say that it can’t be used on its own to make a wheat bread loaf, it will just need a boost from some vital wheat gluten.
Reader Alan reports that he can swap T110 directly for American light whole wheat flour, which isn’t surprising since just as with T45 pastry flour, gluten really isn’t a focus here. This flour is more about the flavor and the texture.
T150 is a full-on whole wheat flour, with all the high fiber (bran), germ and nutrients you’d expect in an American whole wheat. And while I haven’t ever worked with it, my guess is that it performs, for all its under-the-hood technical differences, more or less identically to American whole wheat. Which is to say that while it’s going to be packed with nutty flavors and aromas, it’s not going to deliver a particularly voluminous loaf of bread unless a.) it’s cut with a lighter flour in the mix, or b.) it’s spiked with some vital wheat gluten.
So that’s what I know. Readers who have something to add here: go for it.