For those of us who can digest wheat, the war on gluten has subsided. So, what’s next? It might be tending to your own sourdough starter or buying an assortment of whole-grain options at the farmers’ market; it could even be milling your own flour at home. As Jake Novick-Finder of the Brooklyn restaurant Gristmill says, “It’s the base of everything you bake.” Yet few people seek out quality flours like they do olive oils, vinegars and even salts.
Good flour isn’t just about taste, either. “When you buy locally grown or milled grains, you’re also helping to do your part to protect the environment and support your local farming economy,” Novick-Finder says. When the more delicious option is also the more sustainable one, why stick to supermarket brands?
To get in-depth flour guidance and sourdough starter tips, we talked to two of the best in baking: Novick-Finder and Bien Cuit’s Zachary Golper.
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Keep It Simple
“When buying flour, stay away from flours that contain unnecessary added ingredients,” Novick-Finder says. “All you want is the grains themselves, ground up. Stay away from ‘bleached’ flours and flours that have been overly processed or refined, and go for freshly milled and local, when possible."
King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour: $12.34 on Amazon
Choose the Right Flour for the Right Baked Good
“Locally-grown whole wheat flour works best with sourdoughs,” says Golper. “Sifted [white] bread flour with 11% or higher protein is best when focusing on crumb structure and a voluminous, airy loaf. Lower-protein, sifted flour is best for cake. High-fat items like cookies and brownies are fine with high or low protein. Buckwheat flour, teff flour, rye flour, semolina flour, chickpea flour, oat flour—any other variety flours you may find are all great, but only if you have a good recipe to use them with.”
Bob's Red Mill Organic Buckwheat Flour: $8.95 on Amazon
If you’re not working from a recipe while experimenting with flours you’ve never used before, the results will likely be disappointing.
“Experimenting without a strong foundation in baking or some good recipes can have horrible and largely ineffective results, unless you're lucky or a savant or both,” Golper says.
Only Buy What You Need (and Freeze the Rest)
“I only suggest getting what you know you'll use in a few weeks—and only the flours your recipes call for,” says Golper. “Once you open a bag of flour, its shelf life diminishes quicker than you might think. This is especially true with whole-grain flours, which still contain the bran of the grain and the essential fatty acids, so they go rancid eventually at room temperature.”
He recommends storing any unused whole-grain flour in the freezer, very well-wrapped, to prolong its shelf life.
Bob's Red Mill 100% Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour: $10.87 on Amazon
Go Local for Your Starter
“For biological reasons, in most cases, using a locally-grown, whole-grain flour is your best bet,” says Golper. “You can start a sourdough with barley, wheat, rye, oat, teff, spelt...the list goes on. But whatever grows in your region, that's the grain to use for your first ten days or so of your sourdough's life. Then you can switch over to whatever you want.”
Golper goes with whole-wheat flour for his sourdoughs because it’s a steady food source.
“At any point, I can take some of my starter and make another with it,” he says. “Teff and rye also make good grains to steadily feed your culture with. In any case, I recommend using the unsifted format of the flour you choose.”
Brown Teff Flour (5 Pounds) by Anthony's: $19.99 on Amazon