The Most Versatile Ingredient in Italy
This week we are talking about probably the most versatile ingredient in Italy, as well as the world. Used to make appetizers, desserts, and absolutely everything else in between, Italian cuisine would not exist without it. See if you can guess what it is…
Flour! That’s right, plain old white, soft-wheat flour. It is the basis for innumerable dishes all over the world but particularly Italy, the land of carbohydrates, where it is truly indispensable. So in this week’s video, we took a good look at what it is, where it comes from, and what it’s used for.
What Is Flour Used For?
In Italy, soft-wheat flour is used for a huge number of recipes, both sweet and savory. Think pasta, pizza, gnocchi, bread, cookies, cakes, and pastry; they all require flour as the main ingredient. However, it also crops up unexpectedly in sauces such as bechamel and custard, as well as being used to make batter to coat and fry vegetables.
Soft-wheat flour grows in humid climates so is predominantly found in the north of Italy where it is combined with egg to make fresh pasta dough (think ravioli, tortellini and lasagne). This explains why egg pasta is traditional in the northern regions of Italy while the south has historically relied more on dried pasta made with hard-wheat, semolina flour which grows in hotter, drier, conditions. Bread and gnocchi made from soft flour also come from the northern areas and, in fact, gnocchi made from just flour and water, called acqua e farina are one of the earliest, ancient forms of pasta.
What Is Soft-Wheat Flour?
The neutral flavor, fine texture, and versatile behavior of soft-wheat flour mean that it combines well and adapts to other ingredients. For example, when you knead an egg with flour to make pasta it creates an elastic dough that can easily be rolled and formed into your desired shape. When making pastry, flour combines with fat and sugar in different ways depending on the amounts used, giving you varying results, from crunchy to soft. To make bread you can mix in different amounts of water which will react with yeast to alter the amount and size of air bubbles in the dough.
There is a huge range of types of soft-wheat flour found all over the globe, and each country has its own classification system and blends flours in different ways, which can be confusing. In Italy flour is classified according to the amount of bran it contains. Bran is the hard exterior layer of the grain. We have five categories which are 00, 0, 1, 2, and wholewheat flour. 00, or ‘doppio zero’ flour is the finest and contains the least bran. We generally find 0-type flour to make pasta and pizza dough.
Recipes and Our Online Cooking School
Our favorite way to use flour is to make fresh egg pasta. Simply combine 100g of 0-type or all-purpose flour with one egg for each person you are preparing for. Add a pinch of salt and knead together well until you have a smooth dough. Leave to rest for 30 minutes then roll it out with a pasta machine and cut into ravioli, tagliatelle, or pappardelle.
Alternatively, why not try your hand at making flour and water gnocchetti, a super quick, super simple and super tasty dish. Use 100g of 0-type flour and mix well with 50ml of water until it forms a dough. Roll into lengths and cut into small pieces. Then use a gnocchi board to roll them into small gnocchi shapes with ridges for your sauce to cling to.
For even more fabulous pasta and gnocchi recipes sign up for our online cooking school Italian Home Cooking (made simple!) which will bring the secrets of an Italian kitchen directly into your own home. With in-depth guides to both pasta and gnocchi, it is a treasure trove of tips, recipes, techniques, and inspiration!