Italian Flour

The Italians throw us something of a curve ball when it comes to flour classification. Whereas just about everyone else on the Continent thinks about flour in terms of ash content, Italians think in terms of grind. Their naming system reflects that, with Type 00 being the finest grind and Type 2 being the coarsest. But just as with the ash content system, the Italian numbering system tells you more about the flour than you might think. It gives you important clues about about the flour’s composition.

The lower the flour’s number on the grind scale, the lower the flour’s extraction rate. Meaning that a Type 00 flour is made from the starchier, softer inner wheat endosperm, and a Type 2 flour is going to be made with that, plus a high proportion of the very outer, harder, bran-containing endosperm. Granted, the number system doesn’t explicitly say that, but whereas an American would hear “low extraction” and think “wow, that must be a pretty fine grind”, an Italian would hear “fine grind” and think, “wow, that must be a pretty low extraction rate”. So it’s the same thing, but where we state the extraction and infer the grind, Italians state the grind and infer the extraction. I trust that makes at least a little sense to everyone, yes?

Here I should say that Italian pastry and bread flours are made almost exclusively from what Italians call “soft wheat” (grano tenero). The rest of the world simply calls that “wheat”. Their “hard wheat” (grano duro) is what we call durum. Compared to durum wheat, food grade stainless steel is soft. So don’t be misled by the words “soft wheat” that you see on the Caputo package or in the Amazon description. You could be buying some pretty strong, high gluten flour. But more on that below.

A note about durum, the word it self means “hard” in Latin. Ground, it has a distinctive yellow color. When it’s ground coarsely into little granules it’s called semolina, which isn’t really a flour so much as it is a pasta building material. This is not to say durum is never, ever used for bread, but it’s a lot less common in bread than Italian “soft” wheat. Think of it as something akin to a specialty flour, one that we’re not really going to get into in this post. So let’s proceed.

Type 00

This flour causes a lot of confusion on this side of the pond, and for good reason. It can send very mixed messages. On the one hand it’s an extremely finely ground flour: powdery and soft to the touch. This lulls most American bakers into thinking it’s a low protein cake flour. But that’s not necessarily so. Yes, you can buy a Type 00 that’s only about 8% protein. But you can also buy a Type 00 that’s over 12% protein, which is pretty darn strong for something that resembles baby powder. So you need to check the package. There are low protein 00 flours made specifically for pasta and gnocchi, and also higher protein 00 flours for bread (“panifiable”) or pizza (“pizza”, or did you get that one already?). The bag should tell you. If not in words, then in pictures (for those of use who no speak Italiano).

I use quite a lot of both high and low-protein 00. But while I’m sure a low protein 00 would work very well for pastry, I don’t typically use it for delicate things like sponges and other fussy little cakes (which you don’t see all that much in Italian cuisine anyway). However I definitely use low-protein 00 for cookies, biscotti and tarts, all things that Italians are rightly famous for.

High-protein 00 is my go-to for flat breads, and that category obviously includes Neapolitan pizza, where the pliable, extensible — and demonstrably not elastic — gluten makes for easy rolling, and produces firm but not-too-chewy crusts. Remember, it’s elastic North American gluten that creates pizza dough you can spin and stretch. Italians simply spread theirs. ‘Nuff said.

Type 0

Type 00 gets all the attention in America, but Type 0 is definitely worth getting your hands on. Like Type 00, Type 0 comes in different iterations, higher protein and lower protein.

Lower protein Type 0 is Italy’s version of all-purpose, a lot like French T55. You find it in every home, where it’s use for everything from fish batter to cookies and cakes. Speaking for myself, on the rare occasions I can acquire it cheaply, I use Type 0 for single-layer Italian-style cakes: olive oil cake, almond cake, things like that. And of course it’s also great for bread. It makes excellent fine-crumbed sandwich-type Italian breads, but also works very well with wetter doughs: ciabatta, focaccia and the like. Type 0 gives the crumb of those breads a sort of lovely creaminess that you don’t get with any other flour in my opinion.

High protein Type 0 is Italy’s high gluten flour. Called “Manitoba flour”, because it’s made from Canadian wheat, it’s considered, rightly, a “foreign flour”. But then it’s only been since the 70’s that wheat has outpaced corn as Italy’s leading grain. For nearly three centuries before that…oops I’m getting into history again. Forgive me. Like a lot of high gluten flour, high protein Type 0 is mainly used to add strength and structure to bread doughs of various kinds, particularly those with a lot of whole grains in them. Manitoba is especially good for rustic country-style loaves that require long rise times because of its breakdown-resistant gluten.

Type 1

Type 1 is very similar to French T80 in that it is a high extraction flour that has a lot of the hard outer endosperm in it, and those layers contain bits of bran. So it’s a got a rustic, old world sort of feel to it and an ever-so-pale brown color. Like T80 it’s very hard, but because bran takes up space in the bag that would otherwise contain protein-rich endosperm, Type 1 has less protein than you’d expect. Add in the fact that bran also undercuts rise and structure, and you have a strong, flavorful, but not especially high-rising flour, one that probably needs to be fortified with either a little vital wheat gluten or some of that handy Manitoba flour mentioned above.

I expect that like T80 this flour is probably used to add a little character to what might otherwise be fairly plain vanilla loaf-type breads and flat breads.

Type 2

Here we have Italy’s answer to “light whole wheat” flour. It’s a little lighter than French T110 with an ash content of 0.95% (not the 1.1% or so you might expect) but it probably performs about the same, just a little better-rising. I’ve never seen or worked with any of this myself, but I’d speculate that it’s great mixed with lighter (or stronger) flours to produce wheat sandwich breads, wheat pizza crusts, as well as all sorts of rustic country-style loaves.

Integrale

“Integrale” means “whole” in Italian (yes, I’m a cosmopolitan sort of man) so this would be a 100% extraction, true whole wheat flour. Like French whole wheat flour, it likely performs identically to North American whole wheat flour, though no doubt there are some flavor and even functional differences for those who are truly into it. Still, its total absence in online stores (at least in this hemisphere) says to me that very few North American bakers, even commercial bakers, are willing to pay the extra price to obtain the real article, even for an Italian bread. That would mean, by extension, that the domestic stuff works every bit as well. Just guessing.

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