One of the weird things which is not standardized across the world, or even across Europe, is flour. The UK has strong flour, plain flour, and self-raising flour. Italy has a number system to designate different types of flour, from most refined (00) to least refined (2). In the US you can find all-purpose flour, cake flour, and bread flour. I think that a lot of these differences come from the different baking cultures in various countries: in the UK self-raising flour is used to fuel their strong cake eating and baking habit, while Italy’s reliance on pizza, pasta, and bread as staple foods dictates the use of heavily refined glutinous wheat flours.
But is all of this differentiation really necessary, especially when it comes to baking bread? In theory, modern bread flour is highly refined flour milled from wheat with a high protein content, which is supposed to help the bread trap the carbon dioxide released by the yeast during rising. I can understand that high protein (gluten) flour should give a more elastic dough but I can come up with at least two arguments for why you shouldn’t worry about this too much and just use whatever is available to bake with.
The first argument is simple history. Wheat has been milled into flour for thousands of years, but for most of this time, there was no such thing as ‘refined’ flour, but you can be sure that people baked with it anyways. Sure there were probably different types of wheat which were more suited to different end products, but all flour was whole-wheat flour-which these days is often seen as an additive, rather than the only flour used to bake with. The odd thing about whole-wheat flour is that it has even more protein than bread flour, yet it has a reputation for resulting in denser bread, which is apparently due to the fact that the bran and other unrefined products present in the flour interfere with the development of gluten strands. Aside from the fact that I think that this type of bread should be embraced because it is delicious, I think that the difference in protein content between bread flour and plain flour has a minor contribution to texture compared to the difference between whole wheat and any type of refined flour.
My second argument for not worrying about flour types too much is the success of no-knead bread, which already seems to throw half of the rulebook out of the window by saying that kneading is not necessary. At first read this method seems crazy because almost other bread baking method says that kneading is vital, if not the most important step, because it results in the formation of gluten strands in the bread dough. However, the no-knead method says that gluten strands will form anyway, as long as there is sufficient moisture and as long as the dough is given enough time to rise. Once again, I think that the difference between different types of flour is minor compared to the influence of rise time and water content on the final texture of the bread.
My theory of bread baking is to simply use the cheapest flour you can find as the base of the bread and then to add other types of flour, seeds, nuts, etc to the dough to give it better flavor and health benefits. I always try to get the best quality ingredients for the price, which in this case means looking for flour without any additional additives, but I still go for cheap because I know that I can improve my bread mix later on myself. I don’t bother measuring my ingredients either but I probably usually go with a mix of 50% white flour, 50% whole wheat (or rye, spelt, etc). As I have mentioned before, some of ingredients I like to add to give my bread a boost include oat meal, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.
In my bread making career I have had good results using almost any kind of wheat flour. I used to knead my dough but found that it was very difficult to get the right water content: add too much water and you end up with a sticky mess, add too little and the bread will be tough to knead and will not rise well (and it is almost impossible to add more water after starting to knead with too little, because you just end up making the outside of your dough ball wet). Now I use the no-knead method where the key is to add water while stirring until you don’t see any more dry flour (too much water will just result in a sticky dough but the bread will still bake okay). The theory of using a wet dough (not soupy wet just slightly wetter than normal) is that it helps form gluten strands because water is required for these strands, but it doesn’t matter if you force the water to hydrate the flour by kneading or if you just let a wet dough sit there for a while to hydrate the flour.
The other good thing about using a wet dough is that it seems to rise better in general. Usually, bread recipes say to limit the amount of seeds you add to the dough because it inhibits rising, but I have accidentally dumped an entire bag of sunflower seeds in my dough before with no ill effects. I have also used much higher proportions of whole wheat flour than is recommended, probably up to 80% or so, and I don’t think that the texture of my bread has changed significantly. In fact I think that the next step might be to start experimenting with 100% whole wheat flour, or even using pure rye or spelt flour, which contain less gluten than wheat flour.
So at the end of the day, my experiences have shown me that it just doesn’t matter too much what type of flour you use, and half of the types available in the shops are probably just marketing gimmicks perpetuated by the food industry. The difference in performance between the various types of refined flour is negligible, and if you use the no-knead method, any differences in ability to rise can be countered by adding a little extra water, and even doughs with high quantities of seeds and non-wheat flour can rise effectively given enough time.