Brown is all the rage these days – taking over as the new white in the health food industry. Whole-grain breads take precedence over pillow-soft white. Brown rice preferred over white. Brown eggs, though equally nutritious, have that fresh farm-to-table feel that drives consumers to pay the extra $0.69 for color. Even brown sugar, just white sugar mixed with molasses, somehow feels more natural than white.
Now, consider unbleached flour. As the name implies, the lack of bleach in the production process gives this grain a slightly darker, somewhat less-than-pristine white than its bleached counterpart.
The subject of bleaching flour is hardly new. The process dates back to the industrial revolution – the dawn of assembly lines and mass production on commodities like flour and bread. Millers could save time, money, and storage space with chemicals like chlorine gas and potassium bromate, which sped up the oxidation process and eliminated the time lapse flour needed to properly develop and age.
Unlike those farm-to-table garden goods, best when hot off the vine, freshly milled “green” flour isn’t the most ideal for baking. The gluten in wheat flour needs time and oxygen to develop and mature, resulting in a stronger, more elastic dough… and lighter, fluffier product. Also with age, the flour naturally becomes whiter and paler in color.
But there’s one caveat: natural oxidation takes about one to two months – a time interval that translates to years in today’s fast-paced food industry. Bleach replaced the natural aging process with a chemical process, offering the added bonus of a whiter, more appealing product.
So is there reason to be alarmed? Not unless the flour is processed with potassium bromate. Since the early 1900s, this chemical was used as the primary strengthener in freshly-milled flour, and is the standard against which all other maturing agents are judged. During the 1980s, however, bromates were linked to cancer in laboratory animals. While the FDA has encouraged bakers to stop using it, no ban has yet been placed in the United States on the potential carcinogen. The ingredient is outlawed in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe; and in California, products that contain it must carry a warning label. An "unbromated wheat flour," in the ingredient list indicates that they’ve chosen to eliminate it from their process.
Today’s high-speed commercial bakeries rely heavily on the consistency of bleached flour. The bleaching process is completed in about 24 hours, yielding a uniformly mature flour every time. Corporate companies rely on this consistency for their products – just think if that Chips Ahoy didn’t look and taste the exact same each and every bite. But as home bakers, most of us don’t run a Nabisco operation in our kitchen everyday.
“The difference between bleached and unbleached flour is basically indiscernible to the home baker,” says Sharon Davis, of the Home Baking Association. “The bleaching process helps commercial bakers with consistency. Spread, texture, volume, and quality of grain must be exact each and every time… but for the home baker, the only thing bleach has to offer is a whiter bread or cookie. “
We didn’t just take Davis’s word for it. We put it to the test ourselves. With a picky panel of Cooking Light food editors and test kitchen professionals, we baked and tested 4 different recipes in a side-by-side comparison using bleached and unbleached flour. Two higher fat-to-sugar-ratio recipes, sugar cookies and vanilla pound cake; a batch of buttermilk biscuits, and brioche – a yeasted egg bread. The verdict was unanimous – substituting unbleached flour was far from compromising, and in some cases, actually preferred. Our sensitive palates detected a slightly nutty, earthier flavor in the buttermilk biscuits made with unbleached flour – and even a bit fluffier than the bleached version. Visual differences were minimal, see our example below – and if anything, more desirable in the browner-is-better mindset of late.
Whether or not you choose bleached flour over unbleached is a matter of preference. For the home baker, bleached flour merely offers visual appeal – a whiter, brighter flour that only sometimes translates in the final baking product. But neither, no matter how enriched they may be, are a true whole grain.
Starting last year, Cooking Light began using whole grains and whole-grain flours as the default over refined. We plan to continue this trend moving forward, but on the few occasions in which we do call for all-purpose, we prefer unbleached flour – one less chemical process to worry about, a few extra carotenoids, and the nutty aromatic appeal of the (slightly) less processed grain.