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Is Italian Flour Essential for Making Pizza? Everything You Need to Know about Italian Flour

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Italian flours have a unique reputation for being ideal for making pizza dough and other baked goods. But what makes them so special, and are they truly essential for pizza-making (or any other baking)? This article aims to clarify these questions and offer a different perspective on Italian flour

First of all, before we dive into the topic of Italian flour, take a deep breath. What you’re about to read might challenge some commonly held beliefs and dogmas surrounding Italian flours, and it might initially seem controversial – and that’s perfectly fine. PizzaBlab aims to present information in an unfiltered, accessible manner, and this article is no exception. Feel free to interpret and utilize the information as you see fit, but it is something that I believe every pizza lover and baker (and not just them) should be aware of 🙂

To fully understand the information in this article, I recommend reading the following articles:

The Characteristics of Italian Wheat and the Composition of Italian Flour

Italian Wheat

Let’s start with the basics – the Italian wheat.

The bread wheat grown in Italy (not to be confused with durum wheat), is predominantly low in protein. Consequently, flour made exclusively from Italian wheat produces a weak dough that is unsuitable for making baked goods that require a strong gluten network, such as pizza and large-volume bread; On the other hand, Italian wheat, with its low protein content and weak gluten, is perfect for making pastries that require a soft texture, such as cakes, cookies, and danishes.

To put it simply – the local Italian (bread) wheat is far from ideal for most baking applications.

In the past (and still today), Italians have used various methods and techniques to bake bread using their locally grown weak wheat (and they had no other option, as it was the only type of wheat accessible to them before imports became feasible), adjusting their work processes to match the qualities of their wheat and flour. Some of the techniques they used include:

  • Creating baked goods and breads that can be made using their local wheat, such as focaccias, ciabattas, and other flatbreads.
  • Incorporating high-protein durum flour into their baked goods, like Sicilian bread and other durum-based breads.
  • Utilizing sourdough or a biga preferment to acidify the dough. This process strengthens the gluten and results in a stronger dough (acidity strengthens gluten bonds).

The above techniques have proven to be effective (and still are), but they are now less relevant to the majority of home bakers, both in Italy and abroad. Nowadays, what most home bakers want is a high-quality product (flour) that can fulfill its intended purpose, whether it be for baking pizza or different types of bread.
So, how can this be achieved?

The solution is quite simple – Italy imports wheat with a high(er) protein content from various parts of the world, such as North America, Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and other European countries. This imported wheat is then mixed with local Italian wheat, resulting in flour with a sufficient protein content that is suitable for a wider range of baking applications; And this is exaclty what the Italians have been doing for over a century, even before 1920.

It is worth noting that Italy consistently ranks among the top ten largest wheat importers globally, and as of the latest report in 2022, it holds the seventh position. Italy primarily imports wheat from Canada, France, the US, Hungary, and Greece.

Surprisingly, Italy does not even make it into the top 20 wheat exporters (currently ranking 25th in 2022). Its main wheat exports are primarily to Tunisia and Algeria, accounting for almost 90% of Italy’s wheat exports. Notably, the majority of this exported wheat is durum wheat, which is preferred for making couscous (Tunisia and Algeria are major consumers of couscous).

While the figures above do not provide a complete picture (a significant portion of Italy’s wheat imports consists of durum wheat, which is used for pasta production), and obtaining specific data is impossible (such as the breakdown between bread and durum wheat imports or the protein content of imported bread wheat), two things are evident:

  1. Italy heavily depends on wheat imports because its domestic production of bread wheat or durum wheat is insufficient to meet its needs. Furthermore, the bread wheat they cultivate has low protein content and is unsuitable for many modern baking applications.
  2. Italy’s wheat exports are relatively small and consist almost entirely of durum wheat. This signifies that there is no demand for Italian bread wheat, and understandably so – it is not suitable for many baking applications.

Based on this information, one can conclude that Italian bread wheat is not in high demand, to say the least; But what does this mean in the context of Italian FLOUR?

Italian Flour

Most of us have used Italian flour in some form or another and have likely achieved good results. But how does this align with the information presented in the previous section about the properties of Italian wheat?

The answer is simple: The Italian flours used for making bread and pizza, particularly those that are exported outside of Italy (like Caputo, which is perhaps the most well-known Italian flour worldwide), follow the same process described in the previous section. These flours are a blend of Italian and imported wheat, resulting in flour with the right amount of protein for baking pizzas and bread. Without this practice, Italians would have little to offer in terms of white flour – literally.

In other words, when we purchase Italian flour, we are actually getting flour that contains a varying amount (though usually not insignificant) of non-Italian wheat. To put it simply, the wheat is imported to Italy, milled there, and then exported to the rest of the world as flour.

It is important to note that European flours, including Italian flours, are not required to list dough conditioners/improvers on the package or in the technical data of the flour, such as ascorbic acid, E920, and more. This means that unlike flours in other parts of the world, including the US, which must disclose all ingredients on the packaging – Italian flours may contain various dough conditioners, including vital wheat gluten (to “artificially” strengthen the flour), but we as bakers have no way of knowing the exact composition of Italian flours.

..So now, Italian white flour doesn’t seem as special anymore, does it? 😉

You may be thinking to yourself, “What is this nonsense? I have been using Italian flours for years and they are excellent”.
Yes, it is true that there are many Italian flours that have a high quality and quantity of protein (mainly sourced from foreign wheat). These flours work well for certain applications, such as making Neapolitan pizza. However, they may not work as well for other applications, like making New York style pizza.

When it comes to Italian flour, it is important to understand that there is a significant marketing aspect promoted by Italians themselves. Just because a flour is labeled as “Italian” does not automatically mean that it is superior or suitable for a specific baked good. The level of “suitability” depends on the particular application and desired results, just like any other type of flour. If you are interested in learning more about selecting the ideal pizza flour for your needs, you can read about it in the following article: The Ultimate Guide to Pizza Flour – How to Choose the Ideal Flour for Pizza.

Italian Flour and the W Index

For detailed information about the W index and its relevance to choosing pizza flour, please refer to the article linked above.

Here are some key points to understand about the W index in the context of Italian flours:

  • When it comes to flours milled from Italian wheat (with low protein content), there is no direct correlation between the protein content of the flour and its “strength”. Two Italian flours can have the same protein content but behave very differently in terms of strength.
  • This is different for flours milled from stronger wheat (such as American wheat), where there is an almost direct correlation between protein content and flour strength.
  • Since the strength of Italian flours cannot be accurately determined based on protein content alone, the Alveograph test was developed to provide a general indication of their strength, using the W index.
  • On the other hand, for flours milled from stronger wheat, their strength can usually be directly determined by protein content, so the W index is not necessary or relevant for these flours.
  • The W index is a technical measure designed to evaluate the strength of wheat flours that are relatively weak, mainly used in Italy and France.
  • Since the Alveograph test was originally developed to determine the strength of flours milled from weaker wheat varieties, it gives unreliable results for flours milled from stronger wheat varieties.
  • That is why the W index can be found on any Italian/French flour, but almost never on non-Italian/French flours (and if it is published for non-Italian/French flours, it’s probably for pizza flours, due to marketing reasons).

Characteristics of Italian Flours

So what ARE the unique characteristics of Italian flours? It can’t all just be marketing, right?!

Enzymatic Activity

Italian flours, especially those used for making pizza, are known for their low enzymatic activity, which is an important characteristic to consider. Unlike some exceptions, like Caputo Nuvola, Italian flours generally do not contain added amylase, resulting in naturally low enzymatic activity.

For more information on how enzymatic activity in flour affects dough and baking, please refer to the section ‘Enzymatic activity in flour and adjustment to baking temperature’ in the article The Ultimate Guide to Pizza Flour – How to Choose the Ideal Flour for Pizza.

In summary, flours with low enzymatic activity tend to slow down browning during baking, making them ideal for high-temperature baking (350C/660F and above), but less suitable for baking in a conventional home oven at lower temperatures; Therefore, Italian flours are particularly well-suited for baking at very high temperatures (for example, for making Neapolitan pizza in a wood-fired oven), but are not ideal for use in a typical home oven.

Dough Behaviour (Extensible Dough)

Beyond the high quality of gluten found in Italian pizza flours, one of the distinctive characteristics of Italian flours is the behavior of the dough they produce. Due to the use of weak Italian wheat as a base, Italian flours produce highly extensible and stretchable dough. This is highly desirable in pizza dough and is something that mills outside of Italy find challenging to naturally ‘replicate’.

The extensibility of dough made from Italian flour also affects the fermentation process. Italian flour has a greater tendency to flatten during fermentation, whereas dough made from stronger flour will be able to retain its shape better during fermentation due to being more elastic (and generally stronger).

Gluten Characteristics and Crust Texture Produced From Italian Flour

The unique characteristics of Italian flours, specifically their distinctive gluten properties, are responsible for the distinct open structure and large ‘air bubbles’ in doughs made from these flours. This is because of the characteristics of the Italian wheat, which produces delicate and extensible gluten.

In the picture below, you can see three dry gluten balls that have been baked in the oven. These gluten balls were obtained from a test called the gluten washing test, which is explained in more detail in the article linked above.

The two upper gluten balls are made from local flours, with the right one made from regular all-purpose flour, while the left one is made from bread flour. The bottom gluten ball is made from Caputo Chef flour. What is seen in the picture is the pure form of gluten, without any water or starch from the flour – this is exactly how the gluten appears inside the baked product.

A comparison of dry gluten balls made from Italian and non-Italian flour
The upper gluten balls = local flours
The bottom gluten ball = Caputo Chef

As you can see, there is a significant difference in the gluten structure of the three gluten balls, especially between the gluten from the local flours and the gluten from Caputo Chef’s flour. The gluten from the local flours appears ‘rougher’ and denser in comparison, while the gluten from Caputo Chef’s flour is much more delicate with a more open structure.

It is important to note that the gluten structure and resulting texture obtained from each flour is not necessarily superior or inferior – it depends on the specific application. Certain types of pizzas, such as Neapolitan or al taglio, benefit from the structure and texture provided by Italian flours; On the other hand, this texture may be less desirable for New York style pizza or various cracker style pizzas.

The Granule Size of the Flour

Due to the softer kernel of Italian wheat, Italian flours are typically ground to a finer granule size, which allows them to absorb water faster compared to other flours (smaller granule size = faster water absorption). However, this is undesirable if you plan to use Italian flours as bench flour, as fast water absorption is the opposite of what we want from a bench flour.

You may have even noticed this yourself: when making dough with Italian flour, the water is absorbed relatively quickly compared to other flours (which can also create the false impression that Italian flour can absorb more water).

The granule size does not have any other significant impacts on the dough’s behavior, except during the kneading stage and the speed of water absorption. Nevertheless, it is still worth knowing.

Dough Digestibility

There is a widely held belief that Italian flours are easier to digest, mainly due to their lower gluten content. A lengthy and detailed article will be published in the future to address this topic further; However, for now, it is important to clarify that this is merely a myth, and there is nothing particularly exceptional about Italian flours when it comes to digestion. This claim is simply a marketing tactic employed by Italians to promote their products and food culture.

How the Protein Content of Italian Flour Is Calculated (And Why It Actually Has a Lower Protein Content Than You Think)

The Two Methods of Determining Protein Content

Okay, this matter is extremely important and requires concentration.

There are two methods for determining the protein content in flour (and other foods) worldwide:

  1. Calculation based on dry matter (0% moisture content)
  2. Calculation based on 14% moisture content (for flour, 14% moisture content is a standard that is determined by the typical moisture content at the end of the milling process, which is usually 14%).

In Europe, the calculation method used is based on dry matter (0% moisture content).

In other parts of the world, including the US, the calculation method used is based on 14% moisture content.

But why does it even matter?

Simply put, this means that when calculating the protein content of a flour sample based on dry matter, we assume a completely dry sample with no moisture (0% moisture). On the other hand, when calculating the protein content based on 14% moisture content, we assume the sample contains 14% moisture (water).

As a result, these two calculation methods will always yield different results for the protein content. Specifically, the calculation based on dry matter (0% moisture) will always produce a higher result compared to the calculation based on 14% moisture.

The reason for this is simple: When calculating the protein content based on dry matter, it is assumed that the result constitutes 100% of the sample’s weight, with no moisture present. On the other hand, when calculating the protein content based on 14% moisture, it is assumed that the result includes 14% moisture, which is “subtracted” from the sample, and consequently – the final protein content will inevitably be lower.

Let’s do a short example:

We have a flour sample that we initially calculated to have a protein content of 10% based on dry matter (0% moisture). Now, we want to recalculate the protein content of the same sample, but this time based on a moisture content of 14%.

Assuming that the flour now contains 14% moisture, our goal is to determine how much of the 10% protein is actually due to moisture. To do this, we divide the protein content based on dry matter by 0.86 (the dry matter minus 14% moisture). This calculation will give us the protein content, considering the 14% moisture:

10% / 0.86 = 11.63%

Meaning, the same flour sample contains:

  • 10% protein based on dry matter
  • 11.63% protein based on 14% moisture content

If, on the other hand, we want to convert from a 14% moisture basis to a dry matter basis, we can simply multiply the protein content by 0.86:

11.63% * 0.86 = 10%

Now that we have a clear understanding of the technical aspects involved in calculating protein content (hopefully), let’s explore how it relates to our subject.

Correct Comparison of Protein Content Between Italian/European Flours and Other Flours

As we have just seen, different calculation methods yield different protein content. It is important to note that in practice, the flour actually contains the same amount of protein – the difference lies in the calculation method, which either takes into account the presence of moisture in the flour or does not.

Let’s take American flour as an example.

Since Italy and the US employ different calculation methods, it is not possible to directly compare the protein content of Italian and American flours as stated on their packaging. To make a real and accurate “apples to apples” comparison, it is necessary to convert the protein content of one flour using the calculation method of the other (either from American to Italian or from Italian to American).

So, how do we do this in practice? As we have just seen, it’s actually very simple:

  • To convert from Italian flour to American flour: multiply the protein content of the Italian flour by 0.86.
  • To convert from American flour to Italian flour: divide the protein content of the American flour by 0.86.

Let’s use Italian flour with a protein content of 13.5% as an example and convert it to the American calculation method:

13.5 * 0.86 = 11.6%

Now, let’s consider an American flour with a protein content of 11.6%, which we want to convert to the European calculation method:

11.6 / 0.86 = 13.5%

In other words, in terms of protein CONTENT, European/Italian flour with 13.5% protein is equivalent to American flour with 11.6% protein.

It is important to note that the protein content listed on the packaging of imported flour is based on the European calculation of 0% moisture. This applies even if the flour is sold locally and the packaging has been translated into your local language. This rule applies not only to imported flour, but also to flour that were milled abroad and branded under a local brand. As long as the flour is imported (from Europe), the protein content listed on the package is based on 0% moisture content.

..Take a moment to process this information, as it completely changes the way we understand the protein content of Italian flour 🙂

The Protein Content of Caputo Flours

Caputo employs a slightly different method to calculate the protein content of their flour, which artificially “boosts” the protein content.

In short, the conventional method for calculating protein content in flour involves multiplying the nitrogen content in the flour sample by a factor of 5.7. This factor is widely accepted and used by most flour mills worldwide to determine protein content in flour.

Caputo, on the other hand, uses a nitrogen factor of 6.25 instead of the standard 5.7, which is an unusual practice not commonly followed by other flour mills, even within Italy. Consequently, the “official” protein content of Caputo flour is approximately 9% higher (5.7/6.25) than what would be obtained using the standard calculation method with a nitrogen factor of 5.7.

Caputo flour technical data sheet
The technical data sheet of one of Caputo’s flours – note the indication of the calculation basis for protein content (N x 6.25)

Let’s take two examples of Italian flours and compare them using the two different calculation methods (a factor of 5.7 and 6.25):

Using the “standard” calculation method (a factor of 5.7), let’s assume the protein content of the flour is 10%.

Now, if we calculate the protein content of the same flour using a factor of 6.25 (as Caputo does), we would get a protein content of 10.96% (10/0.192). This means that by using a factor of 6.25 instead of 5.7, the same flour would yield a higher protein content (in this case, higher by a whole percentage point).

But why does Caputo do this and use a factor of 6.25 instead of 5.7?

…Well, why not?

The use of a nitrogen factor of 6.25 is not “forbidden”, and in the past, it was the standard – a standard that arose from the assumption that various grains contained 16% nitrogen, which translates to a factor of 6.25 (100/16). Today, the consensus is that the specific nitrogen content of wheat is 17.5% and not 16%, which translates to a nitrogen factor of 5.7 (100/17.5).

While most flour mills in the world moved to using the “up-to-date” factor of 5.7, Caputo stayed with the “traditional” factor of 6.25. Why? it can be said that it is for reasons of tradition, but I think the answer is quite clear to any reasonable person:

Using the “old” factor of 6.25 gives a higher protein content on paper. In the super-competitive market of pizza flour, where consumers often evaluate the “quality” of the flour based on its protein content – it is clear why a higher protein content is desirable. Caputo understands this very well, and also uses it very effectively for marketing purposes.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

  • To compare the protein content of Caputo flours with other Italian flours, we need to multiply their protein content by 0.912. For example, if Caputo flour has a protein content of 12.5% (based on a nitrogen factor of 6.25), it will have a protein content of 11.4% (based on a nitrogen factor of 5.7).
  • To compare Caputo’s protein content with non-European flours, we need to multiply the protein content by 0.86 (as is done in a “normal” conversion between European and non-European flours), and then multiply the resulting protein content again by 0.912 (or alternatively, multiply the initial protein content by 0.78 [0.912*0.86]). For example, if Caputo flour has a protein content of 12.5% (based on a nitrogen factor of 6.25 and a moisture content of 0%), it will have a protein content of 9.75% (based on a nitrogen factor of 5.7 and a moisture content of 14%).

Notice the significant (!) difference in protein content. As you will see in the next section, this not only exists on paper, but is also evident in the dough’s actual behavior.

Italian Flour vs American Flour – An Illustration

If you still find the above hard to believe (I can’t blame you), take a look at the following experiment, which beautifully demonstrates the actual difference in protein content between American and Italian flour.

The experiment shows three poolish preferments prepared in the same manner and fermented for 12 hours. Each second in the video represents one hour in real-time. Credit for this experiment goes to PelletPizzaJoe, a member of pizzamaking.com.

  • In the left jar – Caputo Pizzeria with a protein content of 12.5% (based on dry matter), or 9.8% protein (based on 14% moisture content).
  • In the middle jar – King Arthur bread flour with a protein content of 12.7% (based on 14% moisture content).
  • In the right jar – Member’s Mark bread/pizza flour with a protein content of 13.7% (based on 14% moisture content).

As you can see, the poolish in the left jar (made from Caputo Pizzeria) collapsed much earlier (and more aggressively) than the poolishes made from American flours, suggesting that this flour is significantly weaker.

Why did this happen, especially considering that it has roughly the same protein content as King Arthur’s bread flour? The answer is that when you convert Caputo’s pizzeria flour’s protein content to a 14% moisture base (and using a 5.7 nitrogen factor), it contains “only” 9.8% protein compared to the other two flours. This difference in protein content is the reason behind this apparent result.

It is important to note that the above test is not a scientific experiment with definitive results, and it is also crucial to remember that the quality of the protein also has an equally significant, if not greater, impact on the flour’s quality. However, this experiment effectively illustrates all the points made in this section.

00 Flour

You can find detailed information about 00 flour in its entry in the Encyclopizza, so I won’t elaborate on it here again.

In short, a flour labeled as ’00’ does not provide any useful information about its properties, except for the fact that its ash content does not exceed 0.55% (which is irrelevant for us as bakers). Apart from the ash content, 00 flours can have a wide range of properties, ranging from very strong to very weak, with different gluten properties, etc. Therefore, there is no connection between the actual properties of a flour and its classification as “00”.

In conclusion, it is both possible and recommended to disregard the classification of flour as ’00’, whether for pizza or any other baking purposes. The Italians have successfully promoted ’00 flour’ as a product with special qualities, despite lacking any factual basis; And indeed, it is evident that outside of Italy, the classification of flour as “00” is purely driven by marketing reasons.

Italian Flour – Concluding Remarks

Advantages and Disadvantages of Italian Flour

Advantages of using Italian pizza flours:

  • High-Temperature Baking: Ideal for baking at high temperatures.
  • Extensible Dough: Produces a more stretchy and manageable dough.
  • Quality Gluten: Contains high-quality gluten that is specifically suitable for making pizza.
  • Delicate Crumb Structure: Results in an open, airy, and delicate crumb structure.

Disadvantages of using Italian pizza flours:

  • Low-Temperature Baking: Less suitable for baking at lower temperatures, such as in a home oven.
  • Pizza Variety: Less suitable for non-Italian pizza styles.
  • Weaker Flour: Generally weaker compared to other flours.

Obviously, each flour (Italian or non-Italian) should be evaluated individually; The above list is a generalization, but it is applicable in most cases.

Using Italian Flour for Making Pizza: Yay or Nay?

After reading this article, you should now have enough knowledge to decide whether or not to use Italian flour. It’s important to note that the local flours available to you may also be excellent for making pizza, and ultimately – the key to a good pizza lies in using the correct techniques and dough management process, regardless of whether the flour is Italian or not.

The best suggestion in this context is to disregard any marketing hype and try experimenting with different types of flour – you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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