Despite millennia of research, flour still holds secrets

A grain is one of nature’s miracles and its design is so complex and smart that we are only beginning to understand its workings.

Anatomy of a grain (photo credit: LES SAIDEL)
Anatomy of a grain
(photo credit: LES SAIDEL)
Flour is so common and ubiquitous that we pay little attention to it. We use it to make bread, cakes, cookies, pastries and pasta as a matter of course, without pausing to contemplate what hidden magic lies within. Bakers and scientists have been probing flour’s secrets for millennia, but even using the most modern technology we have not yet been able to fully fathom all the hidden wonders of this remarkable substance.
That flour is somewhat magical is not surprising; it comes from a grain, a seed, one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena. You may chemically break a grain down into its various components, but no scientist can explain why when you take a grain, plant it in the ground, water it and give it warmth, it sprouts and grows into a plant. They will tell you that this is programmed into its DNA and the seed is just following its program, but no one can tell you why. It is the mystery of life itself.
The structure and different parts of a grain, like any seed, are designed with one purpose in mind: to protect the seed’s integrity until it sprouts and to nourish it as it grows. Let’s look at the parts of a grain.
Covering the grain is a multi-layered, leathery skin that protects the inside of the grain. Grains may be stored for years in silos and still remain viable as seeds and food, due to this protective layer. When the outer skin is ground as part of the flour grinding process, it becomes bran that is rich in fiber, minerals and protein.
At the base of the grain is the germ, the nerve center of the grain. When planted in the ground and watered, it is from this point the grain sprouts and grows into a plant. When a grain is dormant, the germ contains a fixed amount of minerals, vitamins, proteins and natural oils. When it sprouts, this nutrient content is somehow multiplied, up to a factor of five! How this happens is not entirely clear, but its purpose is to feed and nourish the embryo as it grows.
The middle, largest portion of the grain, the endosperm, contains primarily starch, but also special types of storage proteins called glutenin and gliadin, which are used to feed the growing seedling.
A grain is one of nature’s miracles and its design is so complex and smart that we are only beginning to understand its workings.
We use dormant (and sometimes sprouted) grains to create flour by grinding them up. Not surprisingly, when all parts of the miraculous grain are included in the flour, the flour is incredibly nutritious and healthy. It is almost the perfectly balanced food, containing every major food group, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, natural oils and protein. (The protein in grains is deficient in two essential amino acids, lysine and isoleucine, perhaps because nature intended us to eat bread together with other protein-rich foods. You may, however, supplement these missing amino acids by adding other grains, such as quinoa, to the bread, which makes it a whole protein – a good tip for vegetarians and vegans.)
If the parts of the grain are magical when it grows, they are equally magical when we use them to make bread. The grain’s sprouting magic begins when it is watered and provided with warmth. Incredibly, this is the same environment required for bread’s magic – mixing water with the flour and providing warmth.
Proteins play a vital role when the bread is still dough. The storage proteins in the endosperm, glutenin and gliadin form a complex protein called gluten when we knead the dough. The gluten gives the dough structure and allows it to trap air bubbles from the yeast fermentation. The yeast feeds on simple sugars in the flour which are made accessible because of enzymes (proteins) in the endosperm that break down starch into simple sugars like glucose.
The starch granules in the flour take center stage when the bread is baked. They swell and explode (like popcorn) and gelatinize to form the rubbery crumb structure of the bread.
As the dough is mixed, left to rise and baked, there are myriad chemical reactions going on simultaneously, the complexity and multiple interactions of which make scientific examination difficult, if not almost impossible. Bread, like the grains they are made from, is really magical and an extension of nature’s miracle in the service of man.
We lead busy, stress-filled lives and things like flour and bread are simply taken for granted without much thought given to the wonders and magic that lie within – profound, magical wonders that touch the very essence of life itself.

WHOLE WHEAT QUINOA BREAD
2 ⅔ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup water
2 tsp. salt
1½ tsp. instant dry yeast
½ cup cooked quinoa (cooled)
Rinse the dry quinoa seeds (¼ cup) under the tap in a strainer. Add 2 cups of water and boil in a pan/pot until quinoa is soft and water has evaporated. Leave to cool. Mix all ingredients in a bowl and knead for 10 minutes. Leave to rise for 30 minutes. Punch down and shape into an oval loaf and insert into a rectangular bread pan. Leave to rise for 60 minutes. Bake at 220°C for 25-30 minutes until crust is golden brown.

The writer is a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, who lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (saidels.com) – which specializes in training and educating in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking – and is the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.