It’s gluten! Holla!

Behold my beautiful challah.  Nice, huh?  I made this challah recipe from “Baking with Julia” for the first time when I was in high school, pre-culinary school.  The original recipe calls for “high-gluten flour, bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour”.  Woah nelly!  Are those flours all interchangeable?  From whole wheat flour, to bread, all-purpose, cake, and pastry flour, in recipes, each produces a different crumb and texture.

Harold McGee, food science pioneer, writes in his book “On Food and Cooking”, “Chew on a small piece of dough, and it becomes more compact but persists as a gum-like, elastic mass, the residue that the chinese named ‘the muscle of flour’ and that we call gluten.  It consists mainly of protein, and includes what may well be the largest protein molecules to be found in the natural world.”  Gluten content in flour is generally as follows, starting from the highest gluten content: whole wheat flour > bread flour > all-purpose flour > pastry flour > cake flour.  High levels of gluten add the elasticity and chewiness you would find in a bagel or a sourdough baguette.  Hmm, those things are delicious . . . gluten all around!  Actually, McGee writes, “Not all baked goods benefit from a strong, elastic gluten.  It’s desirable in yeasted breads, bagels and in puff pastry; but it gives an undesirable toughness to other forms of pastry, to raised cakes, griddle cakes, and cookies.  For tender preparations bakers intentionally limit the development of gluten.”  This can be accomplished primarily by choosing a low-gluten flour like all-purpose, pastry, or cake flour, by reducing the time kneading, adding more sugar, controlling water content, and by adding fats or oils.

So back to that challah.  The dough includes whole milk, eggs, and sugar, indicating that this bread is not a gluten friend.  Therefore I would save your money on the harder to find bread flour (Whole Foods) and suggest using all-purpose flour instead.

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Leveling with measuring

In my 8th grade home ec class we learned to sift the flour before measuring and then level off with a flat edge.  Liquid measurements must only be measured in liquid measuring cups to right below the meniscus.  Do I actually do any of this?  Not a lot.  Do most home cooks?  No.  Most home cooks have one set of dry measuring cups they use for everything and things turn out mostly fine.  Mostly is the key word.  Savory cooking benefits from some serendipity in measuring inaccuracy.  However, pastry cooking does not.  If you’re making tollhouse cookies, you can argue that it doesn’t matter but try making french macarons with a “more or less” attitude and you’ll end up with a mess.  Most professional cooks and recipes use weight rather than volume measurements for a reason.

Here are my tips to improve your recipe consistency and quality.  Invest in a kitchen scale.  They’re not expensive!  Convert favorite recipes to weight measurements.  This improves your consistency so your (or mine and Berkeley Cheese Board’s) world famous cornmeal cherry scones turn out the same way every time.  Don’t bother converting teaspoon or tablespoon measurements.  Ingredients like sugar and liquid can also stay in volume measurements.  Just make sure to get the finicky things like flour into a neater weight measurement.  To close, here’s a present: a handy chart for conversion.

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