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When I was taught to bake bread one of the tips I was given was to warm the flour first.

It's a step I often skip as I haven't really found a quick way to warm it through evenly (but gently) and I don't usually have the time.

Today, for various reasons, I had time to sit the flour by a nice log fire for 2-3 hours and ... hey presto ... the dough was a joy to work with, smooth and elastic etc.

How important do others rate warming the flour? Any tips for doing it quickly that don't involve a "low oven" since I haven't found that very successful.

Edit

For those who haven't heard of it before ... perhaps the intention is to avoid shocking/chilling the yeast when you combine the warm water (yes, of course the water has to be warmed) with the flour. Just wondering.

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Never heard of it, but warm the water, yes. +1 For @Sobachatina –  BaffledCook Oct 22 '10 at 8:31
    
Would this have to do with helping instant yeast (if you use instant) or getting the bread to the appropriate temperature for a rise? –  justkt Oct 22 '10 at 12:15
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My Zojirushi bread machine actually does this. Not sure exactly what temperature it targets, but it spends a good thirty minutes or so warming up the ingredients before mixing/kneading. –  derobert Oct 27 '10 at 20:03
    
@justkt I'm using dried yeast –  Tea Drinker Oct 27 '10 at 21:36
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8 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

One kitchen I used to work in had a dry store that was basically a shed and in winter when the flour would be particularly cold we would always warm the flour before making bread. It always worked beautifully. The thing is you're looking for the overall best temperature for your dough for the yeast to be active. So it's no good mixing warmish water with cold flour - your dough temp will keep the yeast sluggish. That was our theory anyway.

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I've heard or read about the practice of warming the flour as well. A quick search on Web reveals that it is not so uncommon: "...*Warm flour in a warmed bowl*..." I believe that -as nunu's answer implies- it is practiced mainly in industrial kitchens where flour is stored in cold places and batches are made in big quantities. For homes, I believe that room temperature is enough for flour as a starting point and I don't warm the flour at all. Further warming of the dough, the warmth of water etc. are something else, for sure. –  marenostrum Oct 26 '10 at 12:55
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This is interesting- I've never heard of a bread recipe that called for warming the flour. Smooth and elastic is primarily a function of flour/water ratio and kneading.

Warmth may make a difference in texture but it's biggest impact is in promoting yeast growth.

Rather than warming the flour, I warm the water in the microwave for a minute before adding to the recipe. Make sure it isn't so hot that it will kill the yeast.

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I also haven't heard about warming the flour. Do you have a thermometer to check what temperature your flour is before and after warming? If you store it in the fridge or outside that could explain the difference...

My guess is that it may be safer to warm the flour than the water, which risks killing the yeast. Safer doesn't mean faster or cheaper. Bakers, more conscious of the cost, heat the water.

In general, the optimal value for the dough is about 75F, some books give you different values for different breads. There are some formulas to know how hot or cold should be the water. Basically, you want to average the temperature of the flour, room and water to be 75F (yes, there is less water than flour, but kneading will give you some heat).

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I have never warmed the flour for baking solely to warm the flour, but I have toasted the flower to a light gold in the oven before using. (I let it cool down somewhat to avoid yeast genocide). The flavour difference was lovely; the bread ended up with a deeper, nuttier tone. The texture, however, seemed to be slightly affected; a bit dry.

The only thing I can think of w/r/t warming the flour is that warm starches gelate better than cold. Certainly none of the bakers I have worked with (including one whose obsession with croissants went as far as changing baking times by thirty seconds and oven moisture adjusted by single percentage points) have warmed their flour before baking with it. McGee also seems to be silent on the subject.

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wow, three answerers now who've never heard of the practice. maybe i need to rephrase the question, since my assumption is disproved. –  Tea Drinker Oct 22 '10 at 10:36
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bear in mind that any professional baking I've done, flour has been kept in the kitchen. They tend to be on the warm side. –  daniel Oct 22 '10 at 10:57
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I beleive this to have some historical base (no citation just me) as historically, storage of flour in underheated homes was in cooler areas, or in a dark/cool place such as a cellar (in quantity) and adding enough heat (via water source) is insufficient to obtain a nice even yeast growth from a starter (also cool).

I say this as my great grandmother used to move her flour and she said this gave a more even texture (less holes) while having fluffy bread as it was stored in an unheated room - which also helped protect it from insects during long storage terms - this was a LONG time ago when I was a kid so I don't remember the exact way she said it.

EDIT: Just a thought: I wonder if kneeding on a warmed surface such as a granite block would do the same thing? Now I have a reason to install high-end counter tops? :)

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I agree that it probably has to do with making it "room temperature" (well, temperature in the room where the stove was located in those times) before using flour stored in a cellar or other cold storage. –  JanC Oct 23 '10 at 3:09
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Here's some more info about Julio's answer.

Ideal dough temperature is 75F, and kneading can add 10-30 degrees depending on a lot of different factors. The way to keep your dough the right temp is to adjust the water temp. The formula to figure out how hot your water should be for a sourdough according to King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking:

Water Temperature = (4x Desired Dough Temp.) - (Flour Temp. + Room Temp. + Starter Temp. + Friction)

I'm not 100% sure how to tell exactly how hot friction is, but in their examples In summer using a mixer friction is 26F and in winter using your hands is 12F.

Their example math is:

Summer

(4x75)-(80+85+75+26)

300 - 266

Water Temp = 34F

Winter

(4x75)-(65+65+68+12)

300-210

Water Temp = 90F

I think you can use this for regular doughs by changing it to

(3 x desired dough temp) - (Flour Temp. + Room Temp + Friction)

but I'm no math whiz, and I honestly don't worry too much about exact temperatures

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To bring some physics theory to the table: temp rise from kneading will depend on how vigorously you knead (or mix) and for how long, but all the time while you're kneading the dough will be tending towards room temperature (or slightly below, unless humidity is very high, thanks to evaporation of the moisture in the dough) at a rate proportional to the difference between room temp and the dough temp. In a cold dry room, the dough will lose heat the fastest. If you have cold flour, adding warmer water should make up for it, as long as you don't kill the yeast (stay well under 50C/122F) –  Highly Irregular May 10 '12 at 9:36
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A recipe for Whole wheat bread from Lehman's in Kidron, Ohio (a store that sells a lot to the Amish and does things in an old-fashioned way) calls for warming the flour...but doesn't say how, exactly, to do that.

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No, you shouldn't warm it, it is counterproductive.

Current research shows that, the colder your dough, the better your gluten formation. I even once tried making bread with slush instead of water - together with a few other tricks (vitamin C, sufficient kneading in the pull-stretch method) I was able to make bread with 80% hydration from AP flour, without it forming a wet flop.

I don't know how the practice started, maybe out of the fact that the warmer the dough, the quicker the rising times, and many home bakers appreciate speedy rising. But cold kneading (and subsequent retarding in a cold environment, if possible) yields better quality bread. So, if your flour is cold, I suggest that you work with it as it is. If you want quick rising at the expense of taste and texture, a combination of room temperature flour and 35 Celsius warm water work well and is easier to achieve.

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