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Baking with industrial flour: Are you doing justice to the 'SOURDOUGH'?

The artisan bread movement over the last few years has inspired an increasing number of individuals in India to choose baking as an area of study and build expertise in.

The SOURDOUGH bread is synonymous with the best version of what a loaf of bread can be along with the tremendous nutritional and health benefits that the long fermentation process brings along with it.

These benefits are definitely a function of the quality of the flour used. Afterall, an end product is only as good as its raw ingredient/s. One can only do justice to a loaf of sourdough bread, when they imbibe the spirit and values of creating 'real' artisan food.

In this interview with Tasting Table, Chris Bianco puts it aptly, "All those things for pizza, you find out ... like, "Can I make great pizza with crappy flour?" Not in my opinion. Can you make things that taste good that are not good? In my opinion, yes. There's a lot of s**tty food that tastes pretty good if you put enough sugar or salt or whatever that is in the back part of our brain that makes us crave things or gets us addicted."

Unfortunately, due to sheer prevalence, low prices, and ease of access to highly treated wheat flour aka maida (all purpose flour) in the urban Indian marketplace, most of the individuals have chosen it to be a medium for baking their sourdough loaves and other baked products.

As a result, there is no dearth of gorgeous instagrammable baked products, account after account, but very few with a focus on texture, flavour, nutrition, quality of raw ingredients, using seasonal produce, traceable sourcing and so on.

Now let's take a deeper look on what one is really getting when they buy 'all purpose flour' aka 'maida', which is typically defined by its extremely white color and why it might be compromising the ethics and integrity of artisan bread movement.


The freshly milled flour aka green flour is generally not considered reliable for baking at scale to get consistent results by the commercial baking industry. Aging ie resting the flour to oxidise naturally for few weeks changes its color and "improves" dough handling properties.

Talking about color, the unbleached flour is typically pale-yellow in color, which comes from xanthophyll or its esters. As per wikipedia, Xanthophylls are yellow pigments that occur widely in nature and form one of two major divisions of the carotenoid group; the other division is formed by the carotenes. The name is from Greek xanthos and phyllon, due to their formation of the yellow band seen in early chromatography of leaf pigments.

The process of aging oxidises xanthophyll (when flour comes in contact with air) and converts the flour color to off-white.

The process of bleaching also achieves the same (well, making the flour extra-white) while skipping the two weeks period and making it happen in a few days and is used by roller mills to avoid the process of storing large volumes of flour and save the costs in the process.

The principal agents used for bleaching are:

  1. Nitrogen Peroxide

  2. Chlorine

  3. Chlorine Dioxide

  4. Nitrogen Trichloride

  5. Benzoyl Peroxide

  6. Acetone Peroxide

  7. Azodicarbonamide

The first patent for the process of flour bleaching was granted to John and Sydney Andrews of Belfast in 1901, which used Nitrogen Dioxide in their treatment. As per this article, in 1906 the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Pure Food and Drugs Act, the first federal law to directly address the safety of chemical additives in America’s foods. One such additive was the bleach nitrous oxide, a compound used by industrial millers to give wheat flour the ultra white color so prized by consumers at the turn of the twentieth century.

In today's date, so many of these bleaching agents are banned in European Union due to their ill-effects on human physiology.

Along with that, bleaching degrades the quality of gluten in the wheat flour, and thus creating a need to add flour and dough improvers additionally. It also destroys the flavour and aroma of natural wheat flour, along with leaving a distinct subtle aftertaste.

In conclusion, the breads made by sourdough process of long fermentation won't be able to derive any benefits from such a flour which is practically flavourless and devoid of all the nutrition.


Oxidising Agents:

Oxidising agents may be used for just bleaching, or just dough improvement, or both bleaching and dough improvement.

For dough improvement: These agents lead to oxidation of sulfhydryl groups (-SH) in gluten proteins, and leads to increased number of intermolecular disulfide bonds (-S-S-). This cross linking allows gluten proteins to form thin, tenacious network of protein films that comprise the vesicle for leavening. The results is a tougher, drier, more extensible dough.

Let's dive a bit deeper into that and understand these disulfide bonds.

Disulfide bonds are the only covalent side-chain cross-links found naturally in proteins. They can occur both intramolecularly and intermolecularly.

In monomeric proteins (like Gliadins), disulfide bonds are formed as a result of protein folding. When two Cys residues are brought into proximity with proper orientation, oxidation of the sulfhydryl groups by molecular oxygen results in disulfide bond formation. Once formed, disulfide bonds help stabilise the folded structure of proteins.

Protein mixtures containing cystine and Cys residues are able to undergo sulfhydryl-disulfide interchange reactions.

Oxidising agents which serve primarily as dough improvers, and exert their action during the dough stages (rather the flour stage) include:

  1. Potassium Bromate

  2. Potassium Iodate

  3. Calcium Iodate

  4. Calcium Peroxide

  5. Ascorbic Acid

Reducing Agents:

While oxidising agents modify the flour by strengthening the dough, reducing agents intentionally weakens the dough by breaking the bonds between flour proteins. L-Cysteine is one of the most commonly used reducing agents. As per Bakerpedia, "Reducing agents are used especially with high strength flour and high-speed processes to reduce mix time, lower energy input, improve machinability, and improve loaf volume. The characteristics of reducing agents depends on the source. Some of the protein based reducing agents include L-Cysteine and Glutathione. Sodium Bisulfite is commonly used reducing agent in cookies and crackers. Ascorbic Acid when used in absence of oxygen acts as a reducing agent. Proteases are used to decrease mix time and increase elasticity but are not reducing agents.

Dough Conditioners:

There are some inorganic salts which are used as dough conditioners to facilitate the growth of yeast and aid control of pH, they include:

  1. Ammonium Chloride

  2. Ammonium Sulfate

  3. Calcium Sulfate

  4. Ammonium Phosphate

  5. Calcium Phosphate


Emulsifiers such as Calcium Stearoyl-2 Lactylate are used to improve the mixing quality of the dough and to improve the loaf volume.

Hydrocolloid Gums:

Hydrocolloid Gums are used to improve the water holding capacity of the dough and modify other properties such as retard retrogradation and staling of bread, and retard migration of moisture to the product surface during subsequent storage. Some of the most commonly used hydrocolloid gums are Methylcellulose and Carboxymethylcellulose.

The usage of enzymes needs a blog post of its own.

The roller milled low ash content wheat flour has it own place and uses in the baking industry, however it is the harsh treatments and addition of chemicals to no end which are detrimental to the health of children, adults and elderly alike, which can't and shouldn't be ignored. At the end, it is for the individuals in the artisan bread industry to introspect and decide if they want to make good food with crappy flour, and how they want to take forward the responsibility of feeding the communities around them.

We hope this was helpful, and you could learn something new about specialty wheat. If you have further questions and would love to know anything in specific, please carry on the discussion on our discord channel in #whatthebread thread.


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