A common question is which is the best flour for pasta making? or What alternative flour can be used?
In this article, I will show how the flour that you use to make your fresh homemade pasta has a large impact on the properties of the pasta in terms of texture, taste and colour. This is important since there are times when you need to change the mix a little. For example, when you want a more robust pasta for a particularly meaty dish, or perhaps you want pasta which is extra smooth and silky to accompany a delicate creamy sauce. By mixing different combinations of flours there are many possibilities. Knowing a bit more about flour will help you find the right mix.
Most fresh pasta making recipes recommend a basic wheat flour such as all-purpose-flour, strong-flour, or ‘00’ flour. What these mean I will cover later but they are quite different flours that will produce different pasta. I will also be introducing you to oter alternative flours such as Durum, Semolina, Whole Wheat, Spelt, Farro, Chestnut, Buckwheat, Rye, Chickpea (Gram), and of course Rice flour. Don’t get stuck on the same old recipes. Try something new.
Wheat flour is made from the seed or kernel of wheat. Wheat is a cereal and there are many different types of wheat used for making flour. However, the method for producing flour from all of them is similar. First, the kernel is dried. Then, it is crushed or milled between stones or steel rollers. This results in a mixture of the constituents of the wheat kernel which is husk, endosperm and germ. This is then rolled and shaken through sieves of various size to separate out the constituents.
Husk is the outer protective covering of the kernel. This is removed completely for white flour but retained in whole wheat flour. Husk is also known as Bran which is sold separately and is a great source of insoluble fibre, B vitamins and trace minerals. Bran is mostly brown in colour and you may have seen in it cereal products such as All Bran.
Germ is the sprouting part of the kernel which is tiny in proportion to the rest. It contains oils which easily go rancid and so is often removed during milling. However, whole meal, (whole grain) flour retains the germ, which is why this type of flour needs to be consumed soon after purchase before it goes off.
Endosperm is the white pulp within the kernel and makes up almost 85% by weight of the kernel. This contains protein (mainly gluten), carbohydrate, iron, B vitamins and soluble fibre. It is this endosperm which contains the white flour. Therefore, white flour is simply milled wheat with the husk and germ removed.
When buying flour for making pasta it is useful to understand what the various terms mean so that you know what you are buying and how this will affect your pasta. The following table shows this.
Strong flour can be either white or brown and is used primarily in bread and pizza dough. It has a protein (gluten) content of around 10 to 13%. This is suitable for pasta making but is hard to roll given the springy nature of the type of gluten and will need more liquid.
|Plain or All Purpose (occident)||This refers to white flour (no husk or germ) which has been milled to a fine degree and is soft in texture. It contains a moderate protein (gluten) content at around 6 to 10% which is fine for cakes and biscuits. It can also be used for pasta but will produce a delicate pasta dough which may fall apart easily due to the low level of gluten not being there to keep it together.|
|Self-Raising||Self-raising (self-rising) flour is white flour with a raising agent (Baking Powder) already added, along with some salt. This is not suitable for pasta dough making.|
|Whole Wheat /Meal /Grain||Whole Wheat, Whole Grain and Whole Meal are different names for the same flour. For example, in USA, they prefer the term Whole Grain whereas in the UK they prefer the term Whole Meal or Whole Wheat. This flour can be used for pasta but will require more liquid and will be slightly crumbly in texture.|
|’00’||’00’ is the flour of choice in Italy where this is commonly available. It is also now available in the UK supermarkets. The term ‘00’ which also known as Doppio Zero (meaning double zero) is extra refined (fine) soft white flour which has an ideal level of gluten for making pasta.|
|Unbleached||Some flour is bleached to make it white. It is recommended you avoid these flours where possible and stick to unbleached.|
You will often hear flour referred to as either soft or hard. Although an over simplification, soft flours are generally low in protein (gluten) whereas hard flours (such as Durum or Semolina) are high in protein (gluten). The amount of gluten has a large impact on the pasta dough which will be explained later.
Durum and Semolina
Durum wheat and semolina deserves a special mention when it comes to pasta making. Durum is a special type of wheat grown in Italy, USA and some other countries. It is more commonly used to make dried pasta. In fact, in Italy all dried pasta must be produced using 100% Durum wheat, salt and water. That’s it. No eggs involved at all.
The kernels of Durum wheat are particularly hard and difficult to mill. Semolina (Semi-milled in Italian) is a course flour milled form Durum wheat which is yellow in colour. Due to the high protein (gluten) of Durum wheat, it is used in combination with other flours that have a low protein content. It is also not uncommon to mix Durum flour into pasta mixes at the ratio of 10 to 25% to make the pasta more firm and workable. Restaurants and Supermarkets who make or sell fresh pasta usually add semolina flour to the mix for this reason.
The role of Gluten in pasta making
I have mentioned gluten several times now and so it is time to explain what it is and how it is relevant to making fresh pasta dough.
There are several proteins contained in wheat, rye, spelt and barley and other grains. The two main ones are called glutenin and gliadin. It is the latter of these two which is often associated with health issues such as gluten intolerance and celiac. Celiac affects between 0.7 to 1% of the population and these people are unable to tolerate gliadin in their diets. Fortunately, alternatives are available for those affected who still prefer to eat bread and pasta. For more information on gluten free pasta please see the relevant section on this site.
Once four is mixed with water its structure changes. When the gluten is activated it becomes sticky and glue-like. It is a bit like bubble gum and it is this property that bakers love. The air generated by yeast action gets trapped and allows bubbles to form and expand causing dough to rise. Overall, the dough becomes more elastic and chewy. Gluten free recipes do not have this ability and so an alternative is often added in the form of xanthan gum. This comes as a powder but once in contact with water forms a gum like substance which goes some way towards mimicking gluten.
For bread making, it can be difficult to get a satisfactory result without gluten. However, in pasta making, we are less concerned with the dough’s ability to rise. Therefore, gluten free recipes are generally very successful and there are many of them.
Spelt is and ancient species and is grown in southern Germany where it is known as Dinkel. It has a very hard husk which is removed before milling. It contains gluten which is quite fragile and leads to crumby pasta dough. However, it is still worth using for pasta dough due to its pleasant sweet taste.
Farro is another ancient species and although high in protein is relatively low in gluten. Consequently, the pasta dough is quite crumbly in texture.
Chestnuts have a sweet flavour and this makes a nice addition to the pasta mix. Chestnut flour has no gluten and so results in a crumbly texture. This is why it is often mixed with white flour. Chestnut flour is best stored in the fridge or even freezer. Bring back to room temperature before using.
Buckwheat is not related to wheat at all and is part of the Rhubarb and Sorel family. It contains no gluten but can be used as part of the pasta dough mix. Whilst buckwheat does not contain gluten, some people are allergic to buckwheat.
Rye is famous for all sorts of uses including baking and brewing. The specific carbohydrates found in Rye soak up large amounts of water. Whereas whet four will soak up to twice its weight in liquid, wye soaks up to 8 times its own weight. Like some other flours e.g. chestnut, rye must be stored in the freezer to prevent oxidisation, which makes the flour rancid. Then, is must be brought to room temperatures before use.
Chickpea flour is also known as Gram or Besan flour and is used in Indian cooking. It contains no gluten and so is usually mixed one to three parts wheat flour.
Rice flour is made either from whole grain or white rice and is often used in gluten free recipes along with Tapioca and Chickpea flour.