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Milling the Perfect Flour

February 17, 2016

Milling the Perfect Flour

More Than Just a Kernel

Go ahead -- enjoy that croissant. Maybe you would like a nice hard roll for lunch or a basket of just-baked bread with dinner.  The point is we all love our baked goods, from breads to cookies to cake, but we rarely give much thought to their major ingredient: flour. 

Take it from a multibillion-dollar-industry and one of the oldest endeavors in human history.  There is a lot more to flour than meets the eye. Because the powdery substance created from pulverized dry grain can be impacted by climate, moisture, gluten, enzyme activity, and protein content, its quality and performance are largely dictated by flour’s end use. These traits are so important that flour mills go to great lengths to measure them to make certain the flour they sell meets all of their customer’s expectations.

Flour’s Key Components

While any grain can be milled into flour, wheat is the most common. Wheat comes in many varieties – each with differing characteristics. Climate conditions can significantly alter wheat’s characteristics from one year to another. That is why millers often contract with farmers and large elevator operators to deliver wheat with specific properties. While receiving “off-spec” wheat does not necessarily lead to milling issues, not knowing about it up front can lead to poor performing flour and lost profits.

What are the most important specifications for good wheat? Protein certainly ranks high on the list and so does moisture content. Taken together, their measurement is critical to milling companies wanting to know if they are getting what they pay for in protein content and product weight, since mills buy wheat in bulk. Even small inaccuracies in moisture and protein content can cost them dearly.

To ensure that  protein and moisture are measured accurately, mills typically rely on  near-infrared instruments (NIR), at wheat receival such as the state-of-the-art Inframatic 9500 NIR Grain Analyzer or the Inframatic 8800 NIR Portable Grain Analyzer from Perten Instruments (a PerkinElmer company) for field testing use. The DA 7250 at-line and lab NIR is used to measure flour characteristics such as moisture, protein, and ash and provides indications of water absorption and other functional parameters, Perten’s DA 7300 in-line NIR is installed directly into the milling process and provides continuous real-time monitoring, allowing millers to readily blend flour streams to meet specifications on the fly, saving time and money.

Equally important to millers is monitoring for the presence of an enzyme called alpha-amylase.  Alpha-amylase is formed when wheat begins to sprout (hence the term sprout damage) which can be triggered by pre-harvest rains. Alpha-amylase breaks starches into their component sugars when flour is mixed with water into dough. Too much enzyme can cause real issues at bakeries and other end users. Perten a pioneer in the industry, developed the Falling Number® method to detect sprout damage and measure alpha-amylase activity in wheat and flour. At flourmills, the Falling Number device is used as a screening tool to keep sprouted grain from entering the mill as well as ensure that all grain is up to specifications.

Finally, there is the issue of gluten content, something that has gained widespread recognition in recent years thanks to the global awareness of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Today, Perten’s Glutomatic System is the world standard for determining gluten quantity and quality in flour and wheat meal -- both key factors in baking breads, cookies, crackers, and pasta. 

With the help of Perten, a subsidiary of PerkinElmer, a global leader focused on improving the health and safety of people and the environment, we can all rest a little easier knowing that we really can have our cake and eat it, too.


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