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Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:01 am

Flour power

 

For years I’ve been asked why I always specify unbleached all-purpose white flour in my recipes. And for years, my answer has been the same, “Yes, you can substitute bleached for unbleached flour. But why would you want to?” Today my answer is the same, with a minor exception.

Growing up in an organic-centered household, unbleached flour was inevitable. Whole wheat was king, but we used unbleached for anything requiring white flour because chemical (aka artificial) bleaching destroys most of wheat flour’s nutrients. “Enriched” flour adds them back, but why go through the process of eliminating naturally occurring nutrients and replacing them with artificially constructed equivalents?

The reason most flour is artificially bleached is cost. In reality all “white” flour is bleached. White (wheat) flour consists only of wheat berries’ endosperm. The outer bran (which provides most of wheat’s fiber) and inner germ (the part from which most nutrients reside) are removed. After their removal, all “white” flour is a grayish-yellowish color. The difference is that unbleached flour whitens naturally by oxidation. This takes time and warehouse space.

Decades ago, industrial milling operations began expediting the process by treating flour with chemicals, taking minutes instead of weeks. Most common is to gas the flour with chorine oxide, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as a flour-bleaching, aging and oxidizing agent that is “a powerful irritant, dangerous to inhale, and lethal.” Other flour-bleaching agents include oxides of nitrogen, nitrosyl and benzoyl peroxide mixed with various chemical salts.

All flour-whitening chemicals’ health risks are controversial: the Food and Drug Administration says they’re safe, but many European countries ban them. None are environmentally friendly. Naturally bleached flour is creamy-colored; chemically bleached flour is dead-white. For me it was no contest.

Even so, when White Lily Flour became available locally, I was excited, even though it comes only bleached. For years, I’d heard this iconic soft-wheat Southern favorite produced the lightest, fluffiest biscuits. But the results were mixed: Yes, the biscuits were noticeably lighter and fluffier, but they were also noticeably bland. I’d never thought white flour had much flavor – bleached or unbleached, but the same held true when using bleached flour for cookies – they just weren’t as tasty.

A 1999 comparison by Cook’s Illustrated magazine provided confirmation: “the four bleached flours … did not perform as well as the unbleached flours and were regularly criticized for tasting flat or carrying ‘off’ flavors, often described as metallic.” Their highest performance and taste ratings went to King Arthur and Pillsbury unbleached flours.

Cook’s Illustrated said that “consumers prefer chemically bleached flour over unbleached because they associate the whiter color with higher quality.” I’m not sure that’s the reason, nor that unbleached flour costs a few pennies more. My guess is that the reason chemically bleached flour sells better is because it occupies a much larger place on grocers’ shelves – and that most people don’t understand the difference.

So I abandoned White Lily. But recently my husband found a biscuit recipe from Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, a luxury resort and working farm. We’ve never stayed there (it’s über-expensive), but its cuisine is legendary. The biscuit recipe specifies White Lily flour, and he was determined to use it. The recipe was lengthy, and the results disappointing. But we decided to use White Lily with our regular biscuits. Yes, they were less tasty, but also incredibly light and fluffy; they literally melted in our mouths.

So I’m sticking with unbleached flour. But there might be rare occasions that I’ll decide otherwise.

This master recipe makes biscuits and scones that are as absurdly easy as they are delicious. Simple enough for even a child to make, they’re light and fluffy even when using unbleached flour. Known as cream biscuits/scones, they’re quick enough to make for a midweek supper or a weekend breakfast/brunch treat that will earn you rave reviews with minimal fuss. The recipe can also be used for making fruit cobblers, dumplings or potpies.

Master biscuit and scone recipe
• 1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
• 3 T. sugar
• 1 T. baking powder, preferably Rumford or other baking powder that does not contain aluminum salts*
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 c. heavy cream
• Melted unsalted butter for brushing the tops

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Pour in the cream and mix until a stiff dough forms. (If the mixture is too dry, add milk by the tablespoonful.)

Turn onto a lightly floured surface and lightly knead for about 30 seconds. Brush the tops with melted butter.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until nicely browned.

For biscuits: Pat or lightly roll into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle or oval. Cut the dough into rounds of the desired size and place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.

For drop biscuits or scones: The easiest of all. Use two large spoons or a portion (aka ice cream) scoop to drop the dough onto the baking sheet.

For scones: Pat into a 12-inch by 6-inch rectangle. Cut into 3-inch lengths crosswise, then cut each rectangle into triangles. Place on a greased pan – preferably lined with parchment paper – at least 2 inches apart and brush with melted butter. Sprinkle with the sugar and place in oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until nicely browned. Makes 6-8 biscuits or 6 scones.

Cream biscuits and scones are delectable “au naturel,” but you can create endless variations with this master recipe. The following are suggestions, but don’t be afraid to experiment. All should be added to the dry ingredients before mixing in the cream.

Sweet variations:

• Sprinkle coarse sugar on the tops after they’ve been brushed with butter.
• Cinnamon raisin – 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/3 cup raisins.
• Other dried fruits – 1/3 cup dried cherries, cranberries, blueberries, apricots and apples (cut larger fruits into bits), etc. Use with or without cinnamon or try other spices, making sure they’re not overwhelming (for example, too much clove can be too much of a good thing).
• Cranberry orange – A variation on the dried fruit above. Use a pinch of or omit the cinnamon and add 1 tablespoon freshly grated orange peel.
• Nut – 1/3 cup lightly toasted chopped nuts can be used alone or in combination with dried fruits. If using both, add 1/4 cup each. Add an additional 1/4 cup untoasted nuts to the sugar sprinkled on top if desired (nuts can also be added to savory versions below).
• Lemon poppy seed – Add 1/3 cup poppy seeds and 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon rind.
• Fresh fruits – Fresh fruits can be wonderful, but if they’re too juicy, you can end up with a doughy mess. Blueberries and raspberries work well, but avoid such fruits as diced peaches. Use 1/2-3/4 cup.

Savory

• Cheese – Add 1/3 cup Parmesan or 1/2 cup grated cheddar or Swiss. Sprinkle the tops with additional grated cheese. Can also be combined with herbs.
• Herbs – Add 2 tablespoons minced fresh or 2 teaspoons dried herbs to the dry ingredients. Use less of strong-flavored herbs such as rosemary. Herbs can be used singly or in combination. Suggestions: rosemary, marjoram, herbs de Provence (a combination of herbs), thyme and lemon thyme.

*Most baking powders contain aluminum salts. They can impart a tinny taste, most often discernable in biscuits and scones because they require a larger proportion of baking powder to the other ingredients than, say, cakes. There are some health concerns about aluminum salts, but unless you use a lot, it’s probably not that big an issue. But, as with unbleached flour, why not use something that’s not only healthier, but also makes a better product? Rumford baking powder contains no aluminum salts and is available at Food Fantasies and some local grocery stores. There are other varieties of non-aluminum salts baking powders; check the labels.  

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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