When I first started learning to bake sourdough bread, I had no idea that using a different flour for the same recipe could give me such a different bread result. All I knew back then was ‘white flour’ and ‘whole wheat flour’.
What type of flour is best to use for sourdough bread? If you’re a complete beginner, organic strong white bread flour made from hard wheat is the best option. This flour will:
- give you the easiest and strongest gluten development
will be easiest to knead and shape
- will give the best rise in the oven
But learning about different flours and their properties is very useful. This knowledge will help the sourdough baker really stretch their baking skills and produce a variety of different types of bread. Here’s my complete guide to different flours, their properties, their pros and cons, and how/why to use each of them in a sourdough bake.
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Organic Flour vs Non-Organic Flour
When it comes to sourdough bread, we are counting on natural organic wild caught yeasts. Therefore, it is logical to choose organic flour whenever possible to bake sourdough bread, as it is natural and chemical free.
Non-organic flours are often bleached, which means they are chemically treated to whiten and age the flour. Organic flour tends to have a higher mineral content and so sourdough starter is better able to utilise the minerals from the flour without the interference of added chemicals.
What Happens if I use non-organic flour to bake sourdough bread?
Using non-organic flour:
- gives a less flavorful loaf
- still gave a good rise and structure to the bread
- made my sourdough starter smell much more acidic and ‘chemically’ (rather like nail varnish)
- sourdough starter seemed less active
Using an organic flour:
- My sourdough starter smelled more like ‘baked bread’ or ‘fruity beer’
- gave a much more complex flavor profile
- sourdough starter became very active and gave good rise
The theory is, that using organic flour contains a slightly different profile of mineral content, and doesn’t contain the added chemicals in it. So, when it is fermented, it gives a more natural and diverse range of flavors than standard non-organic wheat flour.
The truth is, a strong, mature sourdough starter will still bake good bread even if using a non-organic flour. So if you’re in a pinch, or on a budget, don’t worry too much. As long as you try your best to feed your sourdough starter with a good quality organic flour, your starter should be strong enough to still bake excellent bread whichever flour you use for the rest of the bake.
Whole Wheat Flour vs White Flour
Using whole wheat flour compared to white flour, in whichever variety of wheat you use, will have a huge impact to the flavor and texture of the bread. Whole wheat flour contains the entire grain of wheat. This includes:
- The bran – Found on the outer part of the wheat berry
- rich in fiber and minerals
- This is the part that give most flavor to sourdough
- The endosperm – The inner most part of the wheat berry
- rich in starch, and made up mostly of carbohydrates and proteins
- This is the part that is important for gluten development in bread
- The germ – A small part of the wheat berry
- rich in vitamins and healthy fats
White flour on the other hand contains a lot less of the bran and germ. It has mostly the endosperm left, depending on how finely it has been milled.
Using whole wheat flour in sourdough bread will give you:
- A much more complex flavor profile, due to the range of minerals found in the bran.
- A more dense and heavy texture of bread.
Using white flour will give you:
- A lighter, softer textured bread with a more open crumb (larger holes and a more aerated structure)
- A milder, more simple flavor profile
The more wholemeal you have in your sourdough, the more dense it will be, but the more flavor it will also have. This knowledge enables you to manipulate the bread by using different ratios of whole wheat to white flour, and produce a loaf that is exactly how you like it in terms of flavor and crumb.
Protein Content in Flour
The percentage of protein in each type of flour differs, and it is important for a bread baker to understand which protein level is right for them. There are many different proteins found in wheat, which when hydrated, kneaded and/or fermented, produce gluten. Gluten of course is what gives bread its ability to increase in volume, maintain structure, and develop into bread. As fermentation produces gas, gluten strands help to hold up the dough and trap the air inside the bread.
The more protein you have in your flour, the more gluten can be developed in your dough. Protein content can range from 7% to 15%. The lowest protein flours being more suited for crumblier textured goods such as cookies and pastry (sometimes known as soft wheat), and the highest protein flours are more suited to chewier foods, such as breads (aka hard wheat). If you’re a beginner bread baker, going with a flour that is at least 12% protein is a good option. Higher protein flours make doughs that are easier to knead and shape, and will produce higher rising loaves of bread with good structure.
Strength of Flour vs Protein Content
The protein content can give you an idea of how much gluten can be developed, but the QUALITY of the gluten can better be determined by the strength of the flour. The strength of flour is actually measured by something called the ‘W Index‘, but when it comes to buying flour, the best way to judge if a flour is high in the W Index, is to look for the words ‘strong‘, or something of that nature on the label. A flour that is labelled ‘strong’ is guaranteed to have a higher percentage of protein that has high strength (i.e.highly extensible and stretchy).
Different Varieties of Wheat
In addition to the general information about flour I’ve mentioned, different varieties of wheat will have different characteristics. It’s useful to understand these, so that you are better able to experiment with different flours and flavors with greater success. Here’s a closer look into the some of the possible flours you can use for your sourdough bread, and what affect they may have on your bread result.
This is the most common type of wheat in the US. There are a few variations of this type of wheat:
- Hard red winter wheat
- Hard red spring wheat
- Hard white wheat
All of these wheat varieties (assuming they are white, NOT whole wheat) are an excellent choice for a beginner sourdough baker for a few reasons:
- They all have a high protein content
- They are all strong wheat varieties, producing ‘bread quality’ gluten
- They are easy to handle when making sourdough and will not be as sticky
- They are very widely available
Heirloom Varieties of Wheat (aka Ancient Grains)
Heirloom wheat are traditional forms of wheat that have made a big come back in recent years. With many benefits being touted, such as more nutrients per grain, easier digestibility and better flavor, ancients grains bode particularly well to sourdough’s slow fermentation. In fact, experimenting with heirloom varieties in sourdough bread baking can bring a whole mix of potential complex flavor combinations to sourdough bread! Here’s some information about each one, and what you need to know before using them.
Spelt flour is the more common of the heirloom varieties, and known to be less harsh on the digestive system. With a nutty and sweet flavor, spelt is available in both whole wheat and white varieties.
- Protein Content – 17%
- Strength – Low on the W Index (i.e. not considered a strong wheat)
- Special Characteristics –
- A 100% spelt sourdough bread will be slightly more difficult to handle than modern wheat.
- Spelt is highly extensible (due to its high protein level), but doesn’t have a lot of elasticity (as it’s not very strong). This means that although the dough can stretch out a lot, it won’t spring back too easily. The resulting loaf will have a denser texture and flatter shape, but a wonderful slightly sweet, nutty flavor.
- Spelt is also less absorbant, so you may need to use less water in your recipe.
Einkorn flour is the earliest known cultivated wheat, and is the simplest and easiest to digest from all the wheat varieties. It has a wonderful unique flavor and produces a beautiful golden colored bread.
- Protein content – 18.2%
- Strength – Low
- Special Characteristics –
- Although higher in protein than other wheat varieties, the gluten structure is a little different; It should NOT be kneaded too much, or it will lose it’s integrity and become a big lump of runny mess!
- Einkorn tends to give sourdough bread a more crumbly but light texture.
Available as both dark rye (whole wheat rye) and light rye (sifted to remove the bran), rye flour and sourdough are like best friends. There’s a reason why many artisan bakeries often add rye to their sourdough breads, and it’s because rye is like a super food for wild bacteria and yeasts, and is notorious for being the perfect addition to sourdough, adding wonderful complex fruity flavors.
- Protein content – 15%
- Strength – Extremely Low
- Special characteristics –
- Rye contains enzymes that make it highly active, which means it ferments at a quicker rate.
- With such a low strength, using 100% rye will make it impossible to knead, and will only bode well to pouring into a loaf tin, giving you an extremely dense but tasty loaf.
- Rye absorbs more water than modern wheat, so you may need to add more water than usual if adding rye to your loaf.
- But it also retains moisture well, even after it’s baked, which perhaps compensates a little for the compromise in density levels.
Tips when Working with Different Flours in Sourdough Bread
Now that you have some background knowledge about what to look for in a flour, and different characteristics that flours have, you can start experimenting with different flavors and textures! It’s important to note that each flour will come with its own learning curve. And the more you bake with it, the more you will learn to manipulate your sourdough until you achieve that perfect balance of flavors and textures. Here are some tips to start you off on your journey to sourdough success.
Tip #1: Perfect your First Loaf
This is especially important if you are new to baking with sourdough. Start off with an easy to use flour, and get good at this first, before starting to experiment with other flours. A good starting flour is organic strong white bread flour. This flour is relatively easy to handle, and is more likely to give you a successful loaf of sourdough bread with a high rise, and open crumb. Once you feel confident making this type of loaf and understanding its behavior, you can move on to other flours.
Tip #2: Get to Know your Flour and Make Notes
When working with a new type of flour, use the guide above to understand its unique characteristics and adjust your recipe accordingly. For example, if a flour is more absorbant, be ready to add extra water in to the mix and make note of how much water you have added in. If it is a more active flour, make note of how much quicker it fermented. Making notes means you will improve with every loaf of sourdough you make, because you will be able to look back and see what affected the bread.
Tip #3: Add a Little at a Time
Using new flours, will inevitable be more difficult to use than ordinary bread flour. So one way to soften the learning curve is to add a small proportion of the new flour (maybe 10%) to begin with, and note down the difference it made to your usual loaf. Think of it like training, the more alternative flour you add, the more you will learn to handle different flours.
Tip #4: Use Loaf Tins for Support
If you end up with a dough that is particularly difficult to handle, make use of a greased loaf tin to bake your bread in instead of a banneton. A loaf tin will help hold up the structure of your bread by supporting the sides and will force the bread to rise upwards rather than outwards.
Sourdough bread is a delicious and healthy option for anyone looking for an alternative to store-bought bread. By using the right type of flour, you can make your own sourdough starter and create a variety of different flavors. We hope this guide has helped you get started on your sourdough journey!