Baking German Bread - Which Flour Should I Use?

Flour Types and Uses

Wheat Flour
Fotosearch/Getty Images

When a person first starts to bake bread, they are excited just to achieve an edible product. Later in their bread baking career, they want to bake bread just like they do at the bakery. And if they have been to Europe, they really want to be able to duplicate European style breads.

Baking European Style Bread

Duplicating European style breads has always been difficult for the home baker, but as knowledge of artisan and professional baking becomes more available on the internet and in acclaimed baking books, the tools and ingredients have also become widely available.

For instance, instead of only three different flours in the grocery store (white, wheat and cake), we now have many more from which to choose. Inroads have also been made on duplicating crusts in a home oven and scaling down bakers' formulas to work in a family setting.

Still, following a German or European recipe, especially in the original language, poses hurdles. One of the biggest hindrances to recreating bread eaten in Europe is where to find the ingredients that are most similar to the original.

How Flour is Milled

Flour, for instance, is a widely varying ingredient, depending on where it was grown, how it was ground and treated and even on the weather during the growing season. Flour mills take this into account when producing their product, but the exact combination of wheat and milling methods and conditions are still often considered trade secrets. That is why, while you may be able to use any all-purpose flour for a recipe, you will achieve the best results if you use the same brand and type of flour called for in the recipe or by the cook.

There are hundreds of varieties of wheat which are used to make flour. They are commonly categorized by the time of planting (winter or spring) and whether they are high or low protein (hard - high protein or soft - low protein), which indicates approximate gluten levels.

White flours are milled from soft and hard wheat strains which are separated into streams through sifting.

The streams are recombined to create flours with various properties. The first sifting removes much of the bran and germ and leaves "straight flour" or "100% extraction flour". The middlings are removed and used mainly for animal feed, but may also be added back in later to achieve a whole wheat product.

Whole wheat flours are commonly made by recombining various streams of flour and adding back sifted and ground bran and germ. This increases the shelf life and results in a uniform product. Some people like to grind their own wheat and rye just before baking and no sifting takes place. The flour is fresh and behaves differently than mature flour. It is assumed to be more nutritious.

Straight flour is then sifted into "patent flour" (high quality white flour), leaving the "first clear flour", which contains some residual germ and bran and is grayer in color than patent flour.

Hundreds of streams can be obtained from each milling process and then blended to create flours specific to baking preferences and geographical areas. Some flour mills make flour that is the same when purchased all over the country. Brands such as King Arthur Flour and Gold Medal Flour are two of them. Other brands are highly localized and are produced with the baking habits of the area in mind. In the southern US, for instance, the local flour is most likely a low protein flour good for biscuits and cakes.

Go to page 2 for a list of flour types.

Types of Flour

Pastry and cake flours are characterized by low protein content (low gluten) which results in a crumbly texture preferred in cakes, pie crusts and biscuits. These are more or less equivalent to German 405 flour, French 40 flour and Italian 00 flour.

All-purpose flour can be made to make some white breads and is good in yeasted cakes. Its equivalent is German 550, French 55 and Italian 0 flours.

This is an approximation since small differences exist between how finely ground the flour is and the "recipe" or composition of each flour from different mills. It is best to try various flours in the same recipe and then keep buying the one that gives you the best results.

High gluten or bread flour is a white flour with a high protein content, used to increase the stretch in white and mixed flour breads. Its equivalent is thought to be German 812 flour, French 80 flour and Italian 1 flour.

First clear flour is now on the market for home bakers, although it has been available to bakeries for some time. It contains some of the outer endosperm after the first sifting and is grey in color. It has a distinctively different taste from the patent flours and is used in the US in Jewish rye breads and in Germany with medium rye flours to make "Graubrot". Although it should be less expensive than patent flour, its rarity makes it more expensive at present.

The equivalent to first clear flour is German 1050, French 110 and Type 2 flour in Italy.

Whole wheat flour is made from the entire wheat berry but there are many grades and variations. Normally, whole wheat flour is ground between iron rollers, which produces heat and destroys some nutrients. Stone ground flours are supposed to retain those nutrients for a time.

Both regular and stone ground, whole wheat flour can be fine or coarsely ground. If you use coarsely ground flour, your product will be dense, due to the bran, which are made up of flat, sharp pieces, which shear the gluten strands. One way around this is to create a sponge or mash which softens the bran over time.

The German equivalent to whole wheat flour is called Type 1700. However, much of the bread in German bakeries uses little if any whole wheat flour. This is changing as people look for healthier foods.

Graham flour is a type of whole wheat flour invented by Sylvester Graham an American. It is coarser than regular whole wheat flour and has no direct German equivalent.

Also worthy of mention are semolina and farina flours and cereals. Semolina is made from coarsely ground Durham wheat, a very hard wheat with high protein content. It is used to make pasta and couscous and is known as "Hartweizengrieß" in German, where it is made into pudding and dumplings and noodles like "Spätzle". Finely ground semolina is used in bread such as pizza.

Farina is a product made from the germ and endosperm of soft wheat, ground and sifted. It cooks up differently than semolina; it does not set up as much as Durham wheat products and gives you a silkier product.

Some Germans use farina in pudding and cakes, although others use semolina for all recipes which call for "Grieß". You may know it as "Cream of Wheat" breakfast cereal. In German it is called "Weichweizengrieß".

The word "Grieß" refers to the size of the particles. The miller can set the grinder to produce middlings of different sizes. Below 150 micrometer diameter size is considered flour, above that they are often called grits or groats.

Ash Content and Extraction Rate

The numbers on German flour packages represent the milligrams of ash left per 100 grams flour burned in a muffle furnace at 900°C. The higher the ash content, the more bran is left in the flour and the closer it is to whole wheat flour. The ash content is correlated with, but does not completely represent the extraction rate.

Many US companies decline to give out this number (Gold Medal Flour, email communication) but promise a consistent product over time.

The extraction rate describes the degree of separation of the bran from the endosperm and is measured in percent. A 100% extraction rate or straight run flour is not the same as whole grain flour. It is the first separation of the endosperm from most of the bran and germ. About 72 pounds of straight run flour is obtained from 100 pounds of wheat. The rest is middlings, which is fed to animals or reground for whole wheat products.

The lower the extraction rate percentage, the whiter the flour. Both extraction rate and ash content help a professional baker determine how much liquid, yeast, time and other ingredients to use with the flour to achieve the correct end product. As for home bakers, we must depend on trial and error and assume that the flour mill will make the product the same, from batch to batch.

Bleached and Enriched Flours

Flour contains carotenoids which are yellowish. Bleaching makes flour white. It also oxidizes the surface of the flour, which helps in gluten development. This results in a fluffier baked product. Maturing agents are also added to increase gluten development. This would happen on its own, but adding these agents speeds up the process.

Through artificial bleaching and maturing as well as removal of the bran and germ, many vitamins are lost. These are partially replaced by enriching the flour specifically with B vitamins and iron. Calcium is sometimes added as well (see FDA regulations here).

Table of Wheat Flour Types and European Approximations

Go to page 3 for information on rye flour.

Rye Flours for Bread

Germany is one of the few countries which uses rye flour extensively. Rye was brought from Asia in prehistoric times and was grown extensively during the Middle Ages as a bread grain and for alcohol distillation. It grows in poor, sandy soil and under mixed weather conditions, while wheat grows best in a warm dry climate, so despite poorer yields than wheat, it was grain of choice in colder areas.

There is some speculation that rye fell out of favor in France and Italy as wheat flour became more available due to the prevalence of ergot (Claviceps purpurea, a fungus) in rye grain. While ergot can infect wheat and other cereal grains, it prefers rye as a host. It also grows well under cool and moist conditions, where wheat does not. When grain is highly infected with ergot and not cleaned before grinding into flour, humans and livestock can be poisoned and even die (more on the history of ergot here).

Germany, Poland and other East European countries relied on the rye crop to grow in unfavorable conditions and measures have been taken to reduce or even eliminate the fungus from the grain. Measures include cleaning the seed and applying various fungicides.

Rye flour breads are still made and consumed because of tradition, taste and because rye has many health benefits. In 2010, researchers in Lund, Sweden published research that shows that even light rye flour (without the bran) is good for your blood sugar levels.

The bran also contains important minerals and vitamins.

Rye Flour Chemistry

Rye flour can be tricky to work with because sugars (carbohydrates) called pentoses (xylose, arabinose) reduce the ability of the gluten proteins to form stretchy, hollow areas which help trap the gas in bread, but are themselves responsible for trapping water and building the crumb "scaffold".

Starches in the flour help this scaffolding hold together and create a bread that does not crumble.

However, since these starches can be cut into many smaller pieces by alpha amylases (a type of enzyme) which would reduce their ability to interact with the pentoses, a low pH is used (sourdough) to inhibit the amylase. (See also this entry on "Sauerteig".)

All these interactions make the crumb of rye bread denser than that of wheat bread. Often, rye is used together with wheat flour to make what the Germans call "Mischbrot".

Definition of "Mischbrot"

"Mischbrot" (lit. mixed bread) is also called "Graubrot" (gray bread) in southern Germany or "Schwarzbrot" in Austria and Switzerland. It is defined as bread made with sourdough or yeast and a mixture of wheat and rye flours. Many, if not most, breads in Germany are technically "Mischbrote".

  • "Roggenmischbrot", or rye mixed bread, contains 51 - 89% rye flour.
  • "Weizenmischbrot", or wheat mixed bread, contains 51 - 89% wheat flour.
  • "Mischbrot", or mixed bread, is a 50 - 50% mixture of wheat and rye flours.

As the amount of rye flour in a bread increases, the longer the bread stays fresh and the stronger it tastes of rye. The more wheat flour, the higher the bread rises and the "milder" it tastes.

There is also a popular rye bread called pumpernickel, which was a West Phalian specialty (Osnabruck and surrounding area). It consists of cracked and whole rye berries which are soaked overnight in hot water, then packed into a closed mold and steamed for 16 - 24 hours. Modern production has reduced this time to 12 hours by adding yeast or sourdough to the mixture to help the heat penetrate through the dense dough through rising. Beet syrup is often also added, but the taste and aroma comes from caramelization and the Maillard reaction during baking. It can be stored for several month to several years and was used in the Middle Ages as emergency rations.

Table of Rye Flour Types and European Approximations

Sources: