A plain case for raising standards: Flours vary by much more than the colour of their packets, as Joanna Blythman discovered in our bread and cake baking test

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Indy Lifestyle Online
UNLESS you are an experienced home baker, the chances are you do not pay much attention to the flour you buy. Most of us just grab a bag off the shelf, registering that it is brown or white, plain or self-raising, and think no more about it. But why should our appreciation of flour be so rudimentary?

Consumers are demanding better and more precise information about all areas of food production, but because flour is a staple, we tend to treat it as an unremarkable commodity.

The millers have responded accordingly. With a few notable exceptions - mainly new 'traditional'-type flours that carry little stories about their production methods - bags of flour offer minimal information, and most of that is incomprehensible to anyone who is not a trained nutritionist.

This would not matter if flour were a standard product - if the differences in performance between different flours were minimal. But they are not, as we discovered when we held our Independent flour testing.

We asked Taste Trials, experienced tasting organisers, to put on a blind tasting that would highlight for us the differences between various flours in the same category.

We selected two standard British

recipes - a basic wholemeal bread and a classic Victoria sponge - and had them baked in the most straightforward way possible. The bread was made with readily available dried yeast (Homepride Harvest Gold). The sponge was made with self- raising flour, rather than using raising agents added separately to plain flour. Eight different flours were tasted in each category.

We rounded up tasters with a fair degree of expertise and know-how on baking. Hugh Lillingstone, who makes Innes bread, Britain's most outstanding sourdough bread; the boulanger-patissier Richard Bertinet, head chef at Rhinefield House, Brockenhurst, in the New Forest; and Jean-Christophe Novelli, chef-patron of Gordelton Mill Hotel, near Lymington, Hampshire, gave us the professionals' view.

Jean Charles Carrarini, who sells one of London's best ranges of international breads at Villandry in Marylebone High Street, applied his buying and tasting skills. Emily Green, this newspaper's restaurant critic, came along as a dedicated home baker.

I represented the millions who recognise good baking when they taste it, but do not always succeed in making it.

To the untrained eye, the results looked the same. All the breads looked like breads and the sponges like sponges. But what was fascinating was the flavour and differences in texture that could only result from the sort of flour used. Among the breads, appearance varied marginally. Some loaves turned out squatter than others; some looked almost orange in colour while others were purplish-white.

Certain flours produced an interesting crust-centre contrast, while others were almost homogenous. Some smelt nice and wheaty but had little flavour. Some flours produced a loaf with the appealing flavour that recalls Irish soda bread. Others were reminiscent of pet shops and dusty barn floors.

Although appearance among the sponges was more standard, it was almost incredible that they had been made to exactly the same recipe. Certain flours proved so characterless that, tasted blind, you would have thought some of the sponges contained up to double the amount of sugar and vanilla, when in fact they were identical.

The next thing that stopped us in our tracks was consistency, which ran the gamut from highly refined, stick-to-the- roof-of-your-mouth in the manner of Sixties-style cake mixes, to moist, buttery and fairly pleasant.

THE BREADS

THE BREADS caused us the most grief. There was absolutely no argument about the outright favourite - Tesco's Stoneground 100 per cent wholemeal flour - and it was also the cheapest. Here was a bread that generally pleased us with its agreeable wheaten smell and taste, a distinct crust-to-centre contrast and a nice even texture.

(Sadly, its labelling was typically unforthcoming: an apparently arbitrary recipe for asparagus flan in place of basic details about milling methods, how it might be expected to perform and so on).

Next in order of preference was Allinson Original wholemeal flour for bread baking and Sainsbury's Stoneground Strong wholemeal flour, both of which looked and smelt good and had a professional technical appearance. Neither thrilled on flavour, though, with comments such as 'dry' and 'dull' often noted.

The controversial flour in the bread tasting was Crowdy Mill Traditional Organic Wholemeal Stoneground. This was a model for its packaging, offering lucid and useful descriptions of production methods and likely results. Some tasters rated it tops, pointing out its rugged, almost 'old-fashioned' crust, wheaty flavour and moist centre. But other tasters did not like the crumb texture and disliked what one called a 'paper-like aftertaste', resulting in a lower aggregate score.

None of the tasters was really enthusiastic about any of the breads, few of which seemed to show any of the notional virtues associated with this most basic type of loaf.

Dried yeast was identified as the main culprit. Readily available it may be, but everyone agreed that it worked too rapidly for bread- making, masking any good, wheaty flavours in even the most carefully produced flours with a commercial yeast, beer-scummy flavour. We all felt sorry for ordinary consumers just trying to make better-than-average bread at home.

The active bakers all stressed that bread- making is a process with many variables. Too many flours, they felt, were killed by 'modern' milling methods. Then consumers were not given start-to-finish instructions for achieving the best result with their chosen flours.

The advice was to concentrate on buying the best flour: slowly milled in a traditional way so that the life is left in. And if you cannot stand the thought of making your own sourdough starter, seek out fresh yeast and allow it the time to do its work. One practical suggestion, if you are in a rush: make Irish soda bread, rather then a rushed wholemeal loaf.

Results, wholemeal (from best to worst): Tesco Stoneground 100 per cent, Allinson Original, Sainsbury Stoneground Strong, Crowdy Mill Traditional Organic, Safeway Homebaker Strong 100 per cent bread flour, Waitrose Strong Plain for bread-making, Dove Farm organic 100 per cent Stoneground, Marriage's Strong.

THE CAKES

AGREEMENT was easiest to reach on the Victoria sponges. First, by a huge margin, came Dove Farm Self-Raising Organic white flour. This flour seemed to have enough inherent taste and flavour to stand up to the sugar and vanilla. It was praised for giving an 'authentic', 'pleasantly rich' flavour and a good, close crumb.

Next preferred were Tesco's SR Unbleached flour ('moist' with definite flavour) and Sainsbury's SR flour ('looser' sponge, 'you can actually taste the eggs').

The outright booby prize for sponge went to McDougalls SR Supreme Sponge flour, labelled as 'specially milled for lighter sponges'. Tasters hated (not an exaggeration) its 'powdery' consistency and overwhelming dominance by sugar and vanilla.

One taster suspected it was made with artificial sweetener. Others scathingly slated it as 'a classic Fifties sponge', 'tastes bought not home-made,' said another.

The one wholemeal SR flour we tasted - Sainsbury's Superfine SR wholemeal - was undeniably light, but the consensus was that it was still too rough and dry for cake baking.

As for the basic Victoria sponge recipe, comments must be censored. The sooner it comes off the nation's menu, we agreed, the better. 'A killer mixture of dead white flour, sugar and fat,' said Hugh Lillingstone. 'Very English,' was the diplomatic verdict of our French tasters.

One taster was particularly blunt. 'If I was forced to eat this, I'd leave home,' he said.

Results, white self-raising (from best to worst): Dove Farm Organic, Tesco Unbleached, Sainsbury's SR, Homepride SR, Safeway Homebaker SR, Waitrose Superfine, McDougalls Supreme Sponge flour.

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