Flour improvement past, present and future
Enzymatic activity, kneading tolerance, dough strengthening – at the beginning of the last century there was scarcely a miller who had heard of terms like this. For flour improvement only entered the long history of flour quite recently. It is just some 100 years since the advent of industrially produced flour and baking ingredients that compensate for differences in raw materials caused by harvesting conditions, help with technical aspects of the production process or enhance the overall quality of the baked goods.
With no other basic food is there such a close connection between the condition of the raw material and its processing properties as with flour. The quality of the flour depends on numerous factors such as the grain variety, harvesting conditions, soil, climate and storage. Fluctuations in the composition of the raw material become noticeable in the bakehouse, at the latest, and may have undesirable effects on preparation of the dough and baking. So the main task of flour improvement is to produce standardized flour in order to give bakers a reliable starting point for their work.
When the first commercial flour improvers came onto the market around 1920 they met with great interest at German mills and bakeries. The baking aids used in the past – boiled potatoes or molasses, for example – were gradually replaced by ingredients specially designed for use in bakery products such as malt flours, malt extracts or the first enzyme preparations derived from fungi and other micro-organisms.
The background to this development was the profound social change that took place in the course of industrialization: more and more people were finding work in the cities and were therefore cut off from the rural population’s tradition of self-sufficiency. In order to feed the growing number of people in the major conurbations, food had to be produced in much larger quantities. In the case of flour and bread that would not have been possible without the newly introduced additives, so millers and bakers rapidly made use of the benefits these offered.
One of the pioneers in the field of flour improvement was – and still is – Mühlenchemie. Established in 1923, the company has influenced the development of the milling and baking industries with innovative products ever since. Mühlenchemie was one of the first to use potassium bromate for improving wheat flours. When this substance had to be taken off the market in Germany in the mid 1950s, the company reacted immediately and developed a bromate-free alternative based on ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
Ascorbic acid is still one of the most important additives for flour improvement. It stabilizes and strengthens the gluten structure, and this in turn results in better gas retention and larger baked volume. The emulsifier lecithin, also used at an early stage, has underdone a similar development. The oily substance is used to give the crumb of the baked goods a finer structure or to prolong the shelf-life of small pastries. Malt flour is another classic flour improver: there is scarcely a baker who fails to use finely ground malt meal to ensure that his breakfast rolls brown attractively and have a crisp crust.
Over the years, enormous progress has been made in the field of enzyme systems too. Again Mühlenchemie has played a leading role with its research and development work. The amylases, hemicellulases, oxidases and proteases derived from fungal or bacterial cultures now perform such various tasks as increasing gas retention and baked volume, enhancing the browning effect or reducing dough resistance. They also serve to adjust low gluten or protein levels, compensate for damage to the harvest, correct excessively strong wheat qualities or improve doughs that are too wet or too weak. If it becomes necessary, for economic reasons, to include other cereals such as maize or tapioca in the recipe, enzymes can achieve very good results in this case too.
Another real Mühlenchemie innovation is the production of enzyme preparations for pasta and steamed doughs; these are specially designed for the Asian market.
One of the latest developments in the field of flour improvement is the production of premixes for fortifying flour with vitamins and minerals. Supplementing flour in this way is especially important for improving the nutrition of women and children in the developing and emerging countries.
But these developments have by no means reached the end of the road, for corn is still a product of nature even after nearly 100 years of experience in flour treatment. In the constant search for new, pioneering solutions Mühlenchemie carries out applications-oriented research on an extremely sophisticated level. At the company’s own Technology Centre in Ahrensburg, near Hamburg, a team of research workers and technologists has an analytical laboratory for flour and a rheological laboratory at its disposal. And in the trial bakery, tailor-made solutions for every conceivable type of flour and dough from many parts of the world are developed.
You will find an overview of Mühlenchemie’s current products and activities at www.muehlenchemie.de. The compendium Future of Flour, published by AgriMedia Verlag (ISBN 978-3-86037-309-5), is a comprehensive manual describing the present state of the art in flour improvement.