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I was looking through my Julia Child cookbook and noticed she said that the French use low protein flour for their plain French bread with a value of about eight percent. That is the value of protein in pastry flour but the only pastry I could find was Arrowhead Mills brand. On a whim, I thought I would whip up a loaf to see what would happen, though her recipe calls for all-purpose flour.

I found the dough to be very wet and a light brown color. I added some flour so it would be more manageable. There are three rising times including the final one. The first two bubbled up well, three times the initial size, but the last really didn't happen and I wound up with a flat loaf.

My question, then, is what happened? Does pastry flour require less water due to the lower protein? I used a quick rise yeast, too, but didn't decrease the amount. Did the yeast eat up all the protein and ran out by the final rise?

I also question whether I might have the wrong kind of pastry flour. The bag says "whole wheat pastry flour" but I read elsewhere that someone used "white pastry flour". I haven't found a difference yet.

My goal, as I said, was to make a loaf with eight percent protein flour.

EDIT: Looking around, I found what I suspected. Pastry flour absorbs less water, almost 50% less, than all-purpose. So reducing the amount of water might fix the problem. I intend to make another batch using all purpose and another with less water and pastry flour to see what happens.

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    While you probably can make bread with 8% flour, European flour tends to be in the 9-10% range, so comparable to AP flour in the USA. Also, the raw amount of protein is not the only thing which influences gluten strength, so you might have to experiment and change brands if one of them doesn't work. Or add wheat starch to AP flour. – rumtscho Jan 9 '17 at 11:51
  • @rumtscho As I said, Julia Child states that the French use 8% flour in their French bread. – Rob Jan 9 '17 at 13:15
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    I live in Europe and have shopped in French supermarkets every now and then. The difference between the American (and UK) bread tradition and the European one is that in North America, there is so-called "hard wheat" which is made into bread flour, while Europe does not use it (there is durum, but it is not the same thing). The European flour is made from soft wheat like the one Americans use for AP flour. The flour is not classified by the bread-AP-pastry-cake system, but by a wholeness-based system. I have never seen 8% flour in any European country, although it might (cont.) – rumtscho Jan 9 '17 at 13:25
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    (cont.) exist - but at least in the countries I have shopped groceries in, it is not present in a standard supermarket. I have most frequently seen 9 to 10% flour (although I have not systematically written the numbers down for France specifically), but see fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farine_de_bl%C3%A9 - it claims that T55 (the most widespread flour type in France) has 10 to 12%. If anything is seen as more "bread" flour than the others, these are the higher types, which have more protein, not less. So either there was a major shift in agriculture since JC wrote, or she was misinformed. – rumtscho Jan 9 '17 at 13:29
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As rumstcho said in comments, European flours operate on a completely different system than the American "protein = gluten = strength of flour" system. Not to go too far into this, but American flours vary a lot depending on type of wheat. "Harder" wheats produce higher gluten/protein flours. If you buy American "pastry/cake" vs. "all-purpose" vs. "bread flour" vs. "high-gluten", a lot of the difference will often be due to the precise type of wheat used. In some cases (especially all-purpose), the flour can actually be a blend of multiple wheat types.

But dough strength is not only impacted by total protein content or type of wheat. European flours often vary significantly in "extraction" rate, which is how much of the bran and germ are removed from the pure white starch. This also happens in American flours, particularly for cake and pastry flours where pure starch is more desirable. This also changes the "ash content" of the flour, which is basically correlated to extraction and more-or-less denotes the amount of stuff leftover after the pure starch is burned away (which consists of various minerals, etc.). Differences in milling procedure and size of milling particles can also significantly affect the way flour behaves by damaging the protein/gluten or by leaving larger particles of bran that can interfere with gluten networks (as in whole grain breads).

My point is that it's perfectly possible to have a "10% protein flour" that behaves close to a pastry flour or an all-purpose flour or even a bread flour in terms of various characteristics (gluten network formation and durability, elasticity, hydration tolerance, etc.). For some applications, some European bakers will still use relatively low-protein flour by American standards for various types of breads, but because of differences noted above, sufficient rise is still possible. But other characteristics may change (for example, a more tender crumb with different elasticity).

A final note is that stronger flours have become more common both in the U.S. and in Europe over the past century or two. If you go back to the 1700s or 1800s, historical evidence suggests bread was often baked with much "weaker" flours in terms of gluten content than today. Even a few decades ago in the U.S., "bread flour" was often a specialty item and "high-gluten" flour was unheard of for the average consumer. My grandmother and mother baked bread for many decades ONLY ever using what would today be considered a somewhat "soft" all-purpose flour. European standards have also changed significantly over the past century, so it's difficult to know exactly what Julia Child's flour was like beyond just the protein number.

And unless you have a close match to that original flour not only in protein content but the other characteristics I mentioned, you may have difficulty producing the original bread. If you want to see some other folks struggling to replicate Julia's bread using modern French flours (which are probably still not a match to Julia's original flour), I'd suggest a look at this thread.

Regardless, if you want to make bread recipes work with lower protein flours than they're expecting, do be prepared to decrease hydration significantly, and perhaps increase interventions during fermentation to maximize gluten strength (e.g., stretch-and-folds, using a pre-shaping and bench rest, good shaping technique in general). My guess is that may the reason behind the "three rises" in the recipe you mention; if you're seeing failures, I'd recommend decreasing total fermentation time before bake and instead increase frequency of interventions to strengthen gluten.

  • I tried the recipe again yesterday using AP flour. While it performed better, the flavor wasn't as good as the recipe I use from Hamelman. At a glance it looked almost the same as Child's. I had mentioned the hydration problem in my question. With AP flour it was still too wet so I added more flour which may account for the taste difference. So I have some pastry flour left and I'm going to try again but with much less water. I'm curious to see what happens but your comment about the variations among flours is something I hadn't thought of. (I had read the link some time in the past, too.) – Rob Jan 13 '17 at 21:54
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If a recipe, especially an occidental one from the 20th century, just specifies flour, always assume white flour - wholegrain was probably considered hippie food back then, and would certainly have been explicitly mentioned.

White vs wholemeal types are not the same in aspects like hydration behaviour.

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