Let's just say you were unable to resist the temptation of the bulk bin aisle, and you've arrived home with a half-dozen baggies filled with everything from quinoa flour to einkorn. These things happen, but not to worry, because you have plans — big plans! — for baking all sorts of wondrous things in the coming weeks.
Okay, you eager-beaver baker, you — do you know where you should be storing all your lovely bags of whole-grain flour until your schedule clears? Do you know why?
What Makes Whole-Grain Flours Different
A grain of wheat is made up of the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. During the refining process for our typical all-purpose white flour, the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the protein-rich endosperm. By contrast, whole-wheat and other whole-grain flours usually leave some or all of bran and germ in the final flour — they use (wait for it) the whole grain.
Now, the bran and the germ are high in nutrients and oils, which means they're more prone to spoiling and can go rancid pretty quickly. They are also tastier snacks for many common pantry pests. Whole-grain flours have a relatively short shelf life of just a few months, unlike all-purpose and other refined flours, which will keep for up to two years.
Why Whole-Grain Flours Should Go in the Freezer
Freezing your whole grain flours greatly slows down how quickly these flours spoil, and protects them from pest infestation. You are effectively hitting the pause button on your flour. You can also store your flours in the fridge if you don't have room in your freezer — that's more like hitting the slo-mo button. In either case, store the flour in an airtight container, like a Mason jar or a big zip-top freezer bag.
Even if you cycle through your flour stash pretty quickly, I still think it's a good habit to store whole-grain flours in the freezer. You don't know how long those flours have been sitting in their bins at the store. Plus if you're anything like me, your baking plans tend to be a little ... capricious. Better to have the flour stashed in the freezer if I get distracted with another project than have it go rancid or get infested with bugs on the shelf.
By the way, you'll know if your flour has gone rancid — meaning the oils in the flour have gone bad — if the flour starts to smell off, like old cooking oil. Using this flour in your cooking isn't "bad" per se (eating small doses of rancid food doesn't generally make you sick), but your baked goods certainly won't taste very good.
Baking with Freezer Flour
Cold flour doesn't change the flour itself, but it can affect your recipe. Bread doughs made with cold flour can take longer to rise, for instance. Flour warms pretty quickly, though — just measure out your flour first and let it warm on the counter while you gather your other ingredients. If it's still a little cool, warm the water or other liquid in your recipe just a touch to help equilibrate the temperature once mixed.
This post was requested by Jimmy Bailey for Reader Request Week 2015.
This post has been updated — first published October 2008.
(Image credits: Christine Gallary)