In Defense of First Clear

FirstclearSide by side: Unbleached first clear (left) and unbleached high-gluten.

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.


9 Comments

  • David Snyder

    January 30, 2016

    Nice defense, Stan! I’m confident First Clear will be acquitted. 😉

    I made a high-hydration miche with 100% first clear flour a few time, several years ago. First Clear has a distinctive flavor. I like it, but I’m not crazy about it. However, after making Jewish Sour Ryes with patent flours rather than First Clear several times, I believe they just don’t taste right. Not bad, but something is missing.

    Now, I haven’t done a blind tasting. Have you? Maybe the difference is in my imagination.

    Best wishes,
    David

    Reply
  • Karin Anderson

    January 31, 2016

    I knew it was similar to Typ 1050, but I never found any good explanation, what first clear really was. Thanks for the enlightenment, Stanley.
    And, of course, we rye bakers wouldn’t look down our noses on first clear or 1050!

    Reply
  • Ian Sandman

    January 31, 2016

    I agree 100% Stan. I notice a definitive difference in rye breads when using First Clear and I’ve used First Clear in many of my own recipes for rolls as well. I find using a small % in some of my roll formulas gives them a distinctive chew I can’t get with any other flour.

    Regards,
    Ian

    Reply
  • Kevin McAdam

    February 17, 2016

    I’m a Rye Baker living in Stevens Point, WI. I’ve been trying to locate First Clear near me at affordable price. I found a Bakery Supply Coop in Appleton ($.94 lb.) but they won’t add me as a customer even if I buy a 50 lb bag since I’m an amateur artisan baker. Does anyone have a source of supply in the Midwest?

    Regards,

    Kevin

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      February 17, 2016

      Hi Kevin, Don’t know of any offhand. Best I can suggest is online. My business, nybakers.com, sells 5# bags of unbleached first clear; King Arthur sells bleached in 3# bags.

      Reply
  • gary turner

    February 19, 2016

    Thanks, Stan,

    There’s a lot of “I did not know that” stuff in the article; especially regarding the gluten. As for taste, I love it and would make more bread with 100% first clear except that one reason for baking is to avoid paying upscale prices for decent bread. 🙁

    Reply
    • Zack

      November 21, 2017

      Totally

      Reply
  • John Jacobson

    March 4, 2016

    Great entry and great blog. I’m really looking forward to following the blog as I build my rye knowledge and rye bread technique. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    Reply
  • Alana Meiners

    January 1, 2017

    Thanks, Stan. Having just backed my second attempt at your deli rye from your book, I can compare (although probably not very scientific). My first time I used the First Clear (from King Arthur), and was not totally satisfied. It didn’t have the rise I wanted nor did it have quite the texture I was looking for. (My sister argued, saying it was great). My second batch used hi-gluten (also from King ARthur), and I was much happier all around. Better rise, better texture, and taste. Still experimenting and learning, but really appreciate all your knowledge!

    Reply

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