Have you ever felt a bit lost when a delicious Italian recipe calls for a ‘00’ common wheat flour? And have you ever wondered why are there different kinds of flour for different purposes?
Using a specific kind of flour or another will indeed impact the final result, of course.
The ways to classify which type of flour is more suited for which kind of preparation vary from one country to the other. We’ve prepared for you a thorough guide about how the Italian system works – so you’ll never have to wonder again what that double ‘0’ actually means…
How Many Different Kinds of Flour Are There?
First of all, let’s clarify that the word ‘flour’ per se does not necessarily indicate a fine powder derived from wheat: a lot of different cereals, legumes and seeds can be ground to produce flour, each with its own characteristics. Italian cuisine makes wide use of the following flours that are not derived from wheat – and are all naturally gluten-free:
- Chickpea flour: chickpeas are part of both the Tuscan and the Ligurian cuisine, with chickpeas flour being used mainly to cook a crunchy flatbread, usually known as ‘Farinata’. You can find here how to prepare your own Farinata – Traditional Chickpeas Flatbread from Genua
- Chestnut flour: as this flour is slightly sweeter in taste, it is often used to prepare sweets and desserts – and no additional sugar is needed! We have some tips and tricks on How to Make Your Own Chestnut Flour, which can save you some money: chestnut flour is usually quite expensive. Once you’ve ground some of your own flour, though, you can use it to prepare some lovely Chestnut Crêpes with Ricotta & Persimmon Cream or a traditional Tuscan Castagnaccio – Flat Cake with Chestnut Flour.
- Buckwheat flour: the seed of buckwheat arrived in Italy during the 16th century, and since then it’s been a staple in many cuisines of northern Italian regions such as Lombardy, Piedmont and Trentino-South Tyrol. Before the introduction of corn flour, buckwheat was often used to prepare the ‘polenta taragna’, a sort of porridge usually served with braised beef. Here’s our recipe for some Buckwheat Polenta Mini-Cakes with Champignons, and if you’re curious about more ways to use buckwheat flour have a look at our mouth-watering Buckwheat Pizzoccheri from Valtellina and scrummy Traditional Country-Style Buckwheat Focaccia.
- Corn flour: corn is not native to Europe, and was imported from Southern America once the region was colonized by the European nations. This cereal is sometimes called ‘Turkish grain’ – ‘granturco’ in Italian, but this should not trick you into believing it was imported from Turkey: ‘Turkish’ in this case only means ‘exotic’, ‘foreign’. It is somewhat ironic that the ‘foreign’ corn thrived so much as it did in northern Italy! Polenta made of corn flour became a staple preparation for families in Lombardy and Veneto – so much that the population was then sometimes at risk of developing pellagra, a dangerous disease caused by lack of vitamin B3, which is not present in untreated corn. If you follow a varied diet, however, you don’t need to worry; you can treat yourself to some Griddled Polenta Hearts, perhaps accompanied by some Ossobuco Alla Milanese – Braised Veal Shanks.
Okay, But What About Wheat Flour?
Wheat is the ingredient most commonly ground to make flour, and it is cultivated in almost all Italian regions. Depending on its gluten content, wheat is classified as ‘soft’ or ‘hard’: common wheat, which is considered ‘soft’, is cultivated mostly in Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont, which are regions in central-northern Italy. The southern regions of Apulia and Sicily are instead responsible for most of the production of ‘hard’ wheat. In Apulia, most wheat is cultivated in the huge plain called ‘Tavoliere delle Puglie’, along with tomatoes, grapes and olive trees; this plain extends for 4000 square kilometers and is the reason why Apulia has been traditionally referred to as the wheat belt of Italy.
Traditionally, after the wheat had been harvested, the Apulian farmers used to burn what was left of the plants, so that they could at once easily get rid of the waste materials and use the ashes to fertilise the ground. As wheat flour was heavily taxed, poor families were often not able to afford any; they therefore started to collect and grind what little wheat was left after the fields had been burnt. This kind of wheat, called ‘grano arso’ (burnt wheat), is said to be lower in gluten content and higher in proteins and mineral salts. Although the practice of burning the stubble is nowadays again on the rise, grano arso is now produced industrially by lightly toasting the wheat.
Different Kinds of Wheat for Different Products
But why does gluten content make a difference when wheat flour is used to make pasta or bake cakes, pastries or bread? Flour with a higher content of gluten will absorb more water, hold its shape better, and the final baked product will have a less crumbly texture – and this is the reason why ‘hard’ wheat (Durum Wheat) Grano Duro in Italian, is to be preferred when making pasta or bread.
The opposite is true for ‘soft’ wheat (Common Wheat), Grano Tenero in Italian, which will result in a crumblier, lighter and faster to rise dough. This kind of flour is better to prepare cakes and pastries.
The Classification of Common Wheat Flour in Italy
And now for the most important part of the article: which flour to buy when preparing an Italian dish? We have you covered with this practical list:
- Farina di grano tenero tipo 00 – This kind of flour is comes from grinding only the central part of the grain, which is rich in proteins and starch. This flour is typically very white and finely ground, and is sold in the UK as soft flour and in the US as pastry flour.
- Farina di grano tenero tipo 0 – Much like the previous flour, this one comes from the central part of the grain. It is classified as plain flour in the UK and as all-purpose flour in the US.
- Farina di grano tenero tipo 1 – This kind of flour and the following one are characterised by and increasing content of the external bran of the grain; the flour is therefore richer in fibers and has a darker colour. This flour is sold as strong or hard flour in the UK and as high gluten flour in the US.
- Farina di grano tenero tipo 2 – You can find this flour as very strong or hard flour in the UK and as first clear flour in the US.
- Farina integrale di grano tenero – This is the kind of common wheat flour with the highest content of fibers, coming from the external part of the bran. It is classified in the UK as wholemeal flour and in the US as white whole wheat flour.
Two last important mentions about :
- Semolina‘s flour, which is a kind of coarsely ground durum wheat flour. Durum wheat semolina flour, a flour almost exclusively used in Southern Italy. Apulia is one of the Italian regions that has made it as a staple. Durum wheat semolina flour is produced by grinding durum wheat, it has a characteristic amber yellow colour, is an excellent flour for pizza and pasta, but also for traditional desserts. In fact, durum wheat semolina flour can be used for biscuits and cakes as well. And it’s just perfect for breading. Semola integrale di grano duro‘ is simply the wholemeal version of semolina flour.
- Spelt flour: is an ancient Italian cereal and was already widely cultivated and used in Ancient Rome also to fed the troops of the Roman Empire. Dicocco Spelt – Triticum dicoccum – is the most widespread species in Italy. Grown in Umbria, Tuscany (Garfagnana area), Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio. Spelt was supplanted at the beginning of the 20th century, but today its great value has been rediscovered. The flour is made from the Triticum Spelta (large spelt), the soft wheat from the Triticum Aestivum (soft wheat) and from the Triticum durum (durum wheat). In all three of these cases it is used to produce pasta, biscuits, bread and cakes.