Other than differences in the amount of processing (less gives a whole wheat or wholemeal flour, more gives a white flour), the main variable that affects cooking outcomes is the level of protein. Protein creates gluten which is necessary for making a good dough for bread, for example. Flours with more protein are better for bread, those with less are better for cakes and pastries.
Unfortunately, terminology varies in different countries and can be confusing. For example, an English cookbook will recommend a strong flour for a basic bread, so you’d expect strong flour from the U.K. to be the same as a bread flour in Canada, wouldn’t you? Wrong! The Canadian flour has a significantly higher protein content than the U.K. one.
The following flours are roughly equivalent and are interchangeable in recipes:
- Canadian all-purpose flour, British strong flour, U.S. bread flour.
- Canadian cake and pastry flour, British plain flour, U.S. cake or pastry flour.
- Canadian bread flour, British extra strong flour.
- Whole wheat, or wholemeal, flours are all pretty much the same.
- Self-raising, or self-rising, flours are also much the same.
One other difference that I’ve become aware of is the use of azodicarbonamide as an additive. It’s used as a dough conditioner and makes it lighter and softer. It’s approved for use in Canada and the U.S., but is banned by the European Union and Australia.
A 1999 report on azodicarbonamide, published by the World Health Organization, stated that “There are no adequate data available relating to carcinogenic, reproductive, or developmental effects; hence, it is not possible to evaluate the risk to human health for these end-points.” *
So it appears that the jury is out on whether it’s safe or not. My feeling is that if French and Italian breads taste the way they do without it, it’s certainly not essential. So why risk it? I don’t know about U.S. flours, but it’s not in all Canadian flours.
These don’t contain azodicarbonamide:
- Brodie Self-Raising Cake & Pastry
- Five Roses All Purpose Never Bleached
- Five Roses All Purpose White
- Monarch Cake & Pastry
- PC Organics All Purpose Unbleached
- PC Organics Whole Wheat
- Robin Hood All Purpose Unbleached
- Robin Hood All Purpose Original
- Robin Hood Best for Cake & Pastry
These do contain azodicarbonamide:
- Five Roses Whole Wheat
- Robin Hood All Purpose Whole Wheat
- Robin Hood Best for Bread – Homestyle White
- Robin Hood Best for Bread – Multigrain
- Robin Hood Best for Bread – Whole Wheat
* Azodicarbonamide. Concise International Chemical Assessment Document 16. World Health Organization, Geneva, 1999.