When I first started baking with rye, the breads I made – mainly the Jewish deli ryes and pumpernickels of my youth – called for first clear flour. And back in those early days, I had no idea what clear flour was, other than a very high-protein, high-fiber kind of wheat flour that had the “strength” to support up to 40% white rye flour and 30% medium rye – in other words, that the rye was an addition to what basically was a wheat bread that still depended on gluten to give it structure.
How little I knew!!!
I thought that because the old-school Jewish bakers used it to give their breads structure, it had to be good stuff – a real gluten powerhouse. With all that protein, I thought, I could even take my bagels (built on high-gluten All Trumps flour) to the next level if I used first clear instead. And when I told Norm Berg, my friend, mentor and co-author of Inside the Jewish Bakery what I’d done, his response was “Why’d you do that? It’s weaker than All Trumps.”
It was at that point I realized that I had some research to do – most fundamentally, on what first clear flour is and why it figured so prominently in the rye breads of my youth.
In a word, first clear flour is leftovers: it’s the darker, stronger-tasting remains of a hard wheat kernel after the bran has been stripped away and the bulk of the starchy white endosperm has been extracted and turned into the familiar AP, bread and high-gluten flours, aka patent flours. Structurally, it consists of the kernel’s outermost layers, which are where most of the fat, fiber and protein reside; hence, its high ash and protein content. Except that the proteins don’t include (as one would mistakenly assume) monster doses of the gluten-forming proteins gliadin and glutenin. Sure, there’s some, but not as much as premium high-gluten 14% protein flours like Bay State Milling’s Bouncer, General Mills All Trump and King Arthur Sir Lancelot — or even a strong bread flour in the 13% protein range.
Although I’d never consider making a bread exclusively out of first clear, I can think of two good reasons to keep it in my flour pantry:
• First, authenticity. Those old-school Jewish bakers, for whatever their reasons were – and I suspect they were largely economic – chose to use first clear in their rye breads and not patent flour. So whatever its virtues and/or faults, first clear was one of the key ingredients that gave those ryes of my childhood their unique character. Do they have big pores, enormous oven spring and the chewy crumb one would expect from a high-gluten patent flour? No. But what they do have is the density, strong flavor and low tendency toward staling that, to me, characterize a good Jewish deli rye.
• Second, first clear is an almost perfect match for German Type 1050 flour, which shows up in a fair number of medium- and high-percentage ryes – that is, breads containing 50-90% rye. In those instances, the first clear is less a structural and more of a flavor component, moderating the pronounced spiciness of the rye with sweet wheat accents. Structurally, it’s the rye that supports those breads, so the issue of gluten formation doesn’t even enter into the equation.
Some baking authorities – indeed, well-known and well-respected ones – reject the use of first clear flour under any circumstances. I, on the other hand, don’t take that rigid a view: To me, first clear is as much a part of the baking traditions I adhere to as the rye and patent flours I use every day. To reject first clear because it’s leftovers is, to me, as short-sighted as tossing those two or three slices that invariably remain on pizza night or the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey. I may not have an appetite for them all the time, but when I do, it’s nice to have them around.