When you see flour on the ingredient list of a baking recipe, one thing’s for certain: You’re going to have to deal with gluten.
Gluten—the strong, sticky, stretchy protein that forms when wheat flour and water mix—is remarkable stuff. It gives structure to baked goods and helps wheat flour morph into many different foods: al dente pasta, fluffy waffles, crisp pastries, chewy artisan bread. But not every baked good requires the same amount of gluten.
Yeast-raised doughs rely heavily on gluten for structure, so lots of it is welcome. That’s why, for example, in his pizza dough recipe, author Peter Reinhart takes a few steps to encourage gluten development. He uses unbleached bread flour, which is higher in gluten-forming proteins than all-purpose flour. He adds salt and plenty of water. And he mixes the dough for several minutes.
However, encouraging gluten to form is the last thing you want to do when making chemically leavened baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and scones, as well as flaky or tender pastries. (And if you’re like me, you bake these kinds of things far more often than you do yeast breads.) Excess gluten makes biscuits leaden, pancakes rubbery, and piecrusts tough.
Fortunately, limiting gluten is a fairly simple matter. Here are four things you can do.
1. Start with the right flour
Well-stocked supermarkets carry a variety of wheat flours: all-purpose, cake, whole wheat, bread. You might also see flours made from grains other than wheat—rye, rice, corn, oat, buckwheat—but they form little or no gluten, so we won’t discuss them here. The various wheat flours, however, all contain gluten-forming proteins, though the quality and quantity of those proteins differ (for amounts, see the table below). What you’re baking should determine which flour you choose.
Bread flour and durum semolina (used for pasta) contain the most protein and form strong, high-quality gluten. These so-called hard flours are ideal for yeast-raised breads and pasta, because the strong gluten gives the heavy dough structure and the finished product a pleasantly chewy texture.
Pastry and cake flours contain less protein and form weaker gluten. With their low levels of weak gluten, these “soft flours” produce a more tender product, so they’re usually preferable for cakes, cookies, biscuits, and many pastries.
True to its name, all-purpose flour is a decent choice for almost everything. Though rarely used in bakeries, all-purpose flour has a middle-of-the-road protein content that allows it to work well in most recipes the home baker would want to make. Sure, cakes made with cake flour might be more tender, and loaves made with bread flour might rise higher, but the differences are subtle.
Whole-wheat flour, by the way, is very high in gluten-forming protein, but it’s not the best choice for lofty yeast breads because the shards of bran in the flour tear the strands of gluten, inhibiting its development.
Protein Content of Wheat Flours
Flour contains starch, protein, moisture, and a trace of fat. But protein is what most interests us, as its quantity and quality determine how flour performs. (Percentages are approximate, as every brand of flour is unique.)
Protein content (%)
|Whole wheat, bread, durum semolina||
*Regional all-purpose flour brands in the South and Pacific Northwest may contain less protein, closer to the amount in pastry flour.
2. Beware of Water
Gluten doesn’t even exist until flour becomes wet. Water is what coaxes the two wheat proteins glutenin and gliadin to combine and form gluten. So by adding or withholding water from dough or batter, you can encourage or deter gluten’s development. When you want to maximize gluten, a moderate amount of water is ideal. But if it’s tenderness you’re after, you can deny your dough water or drown it—depends what you’re making.
Flaky and tender pastry doughs are better off thirsty. It’s not mere fussiness when a pie dough recipe tells you to dribble water into the dough drop by drop; it takes just a little too much water to create excess gluten and a tough piecrust. The same is true with biscuits and scones.
Cake batters and some bread doughs need to drown. Once the gluten in a dough or batter is fully hydrated, adding more moisture actually dilutes and weakens the gluten. In cakes, excess moisture along with low-protein flour and various softening ingredients contributes to tenderness. In artisan breads, excess water weakens the dough’s gluten network, resulting in a crumb that has large, appealing holes rather than a fine uniform texture.
3. Handle with Care
Stirring, kneading, folding, mixing—all these actions help gluten stretch and organize itself into a network. The more you mix, the stronger the gluten becomes.
Yeast doughs generally benefit from ample kneading, which elongates and smooths the gluten strands into a stretchy network that can expand and rise as the yeast ferments and releases gasses.
With many other baked goods, though, overmixing and forming too much gluten is a worry. Piecrusts and biscuits are especially tricky because you need some gluten to provide structure—otherwise the crust will crumble and the biscuits will slump—but it’s easy to overdo it and create a tough result. Generally speaking, when tenderness is desired, it’s wise to mix briefly and with a light hand. When it comes to piecrusts and biscuits, there’s really no substitute for experience. It may take trial and error before you strike the perfect balance between tenderness and strength.
4. Understand how other ingredients affect gluten
Fats weaken gluten. Solid fats, oils, and egg yolks coat gluten proteins and prevent them from forming long, strong strands. Ever wondered why shortening is called shortening? Because it shortens gluten.
Fat can also make flour water-resistant. For example, when making tart dough, the first step is to thoroughly work the fat into the flour. Once coated with fat, the flour granules don’t absorb much moisture when you add wet ingredients such as eggs, cream, or water. So less gluten is formed, and the tart crust stays tender.
Sugar hinders gluten; salt helps it. Sugar molecules encourage tenderness by attaching to water molecules before they can bind with glutenin and gliadin. Again, no water means no gluten. Salt, on the other hand, makes gluten stickier and stronger.
Did you know?
The magic of wheat dough—i.e. its ability to shape-shift into so many different baked goods—lies in the balance of two qualities: plasticity and elasticity. Plasticity allows a modest ball of dough to change its shape, as when it expands into a plump, round loaf, while the dough’s elasticity, or tendency to hold its original shape, keeps the loaf from expanding too much and popping like an overinflated balloon.