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?
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.
Part of the reason I’ve never gotten heavily into Continental flours here on Joe Pastry is because everything I’ve made here I’ve made with American flours. That’s not because I’m a snob (well, not a BIG snob, anyway) but because I know that for most people outside of Europe, European flours aren’t very easy to get, and when they are, they aren’t very reasonably priced. I’d rather that Joe readers who are interested in European pastries take them on using ingredients they can lay their hand to — not wait (or spend) until all the perfect ingredients have been procured. What results may not be perfectly authentic, but then…what’s that?
First let’s get a show of hands. How many people here have had someone brow-beat them with the term “ash content”? Come on, don’t be shy. There’s no shame in it. Put’em up. Yep, I thought so. There’s a certain type of bread head out there that simply loves to do that. But let me tell you, there’s nothing about ash content that’s hard to understand. Once you have a general sense for what it means, you’ll be able to go toe-to-toe with even the most heavily-tatted, ringed-and-plugged artisan bread bakers. Just don’t go making fun of the bleak industrial Throbbing Gristle and Mica Levi records they listen to. I won’t be able to help you in that instance.
But what exactly is “ash” and why do you find it in European flour? The answer is that there actually is no “ash” in European flour. Europeans use the term “ash” as a catch-all term for everything in their flour that is not pure wheat starch. Things like bran, germ, protein, minerals and other nutrients. The higher the “ash” content, the more of those kinds of things you find in the flour.
Europeans don’t talk gluten content like Americans do. They talk “ash content“. But that’s not to say that they ignore it. Gluten (protein) is implied in ash content for reasons the post on the subject, I hope, makes clear. But let’s talk about European gluten a little, because it’s different than ours, and that’s something that most people overlook when they’re trying to replicate a Continental bread or pastry.
As I point out frequently, not all gluten is the same. The stuff we know as “gluten” is actually a combination of different wheat proteins, and depending on the relative proportion of those proteins, the gluten in this-or-that flour can have very different characteristics.