Sourdough is taking the UK by storm in recent years. You only have to look in the supermarket or a book shop to see all the flour, equipment and books which are on sale. To help out the fellow British baker, I’ve put together a list of the best flours in the UK for making sourdough.
Firstly, what is the best flour for sourdough?
The best flour for making sourdough is a high-quality organic strong white bread flour. This gives the best strength and flavour and is full of microbes for fermentation. You can then experiment by adding wholegrain flour such as wholewheat and rye.
Some of the best artisan UK flours for sourdough are:
- Shipton Mill’s Organic No. 4
- Doves Farm Organic White Bread Flour
- Marriage’s Organic White Bread Flour
I’ve included a detailed list of artisan and supermarket flours below and where to buy them.
Supermarket and mass-produced white bread flour will still work just fine. But avoid using plain flour or any other flour that is weak and not designed for baking bread.
About Protein And Gluten
Aim for flour with 12% protein or higher (12g of protein per 100g) for good gluten development.
When the flour meets water, proteins in the flour start to create gluten. This is the stretchy strands that you will notice in a sourdough starter, and also the dough after it has been left alone for a while. You can feel the strands add elasticity and strength to the dough. It’s what holds it together and allows it to rise by expanding with the gas made in fermentation.
The protein content in the flour will dictate how much gluten is made, and how strong the dough is. Often you will see bread flour be labelled ‘strong bread flour’ because it differs from weaker types of flour like cake flour. So the first thing we aim for is flour that has enough protein and strength.
The gluten forms and builds in the first few hours of mixing. The kneading or folding of the dough stretches, aligns and tightens the gluten network. But over time, this network degrades and becomes weaker and more extensible. So this is something to keep in mind – you need a flour that will hold up for the amount of time you are fermenting it.
How To Find The Protein Content In Flour
The protein content is specified as a percentage of the entire flour. You can see how much protein a certain bag of flour has by looking at the label’s nutritional values. If you cast your eye to the ‘Nutritional values per 100g’ then the protein value shown is the percentage for that bag. It’s a legal requirement to express nutritional values per 100g in the UK so you will find this on every product.
Using The Right Flour For Sourdough
Don’t use plain flour
Plain flour is made with ‘soft wheat’ and doesn’t have the protein and gluten content to become stretchy enough for sourdough. It is meant for cakes and biscuits and so you will never get the nice open crumb structure that we aim for in good bread. Typically contains 9% protein.
Plain flour can make simple loaves, with a tight crumb of small bubbles. But for long fermented sourdoughs, it definitely isn’t the one to use!
Use strong bread flour
Flour labelled as ‘bread flour’ or ‘strong flour’ is the next step up from plain flour. It comes from ‘hard wheat’ and has more protein and which is better suited for making bread. This is the basis for bread making, and if you pick up a bag of this, you can make any basic sourdough. Typically contains 12-15% protein.
This article has recommendations of the best organic, independently milled flours and where to get them. Also keep in mind wholegrain flours and including those to make a proper artisan country loaf.
Should You Use Organic Flour For Sourdough?
Using organic flour has more microbes for better fermentation and is better for your health and environment over the long term. It generally makes better bread, directly or indirectly, because organic producers are focusing on better quality flour.
A definition of organic flour from miller Doves Farm – ‘flour milled from organic grain has been produced with higher levels of environmental and animal welfare, lower levels of pesticides and no genetically modified ingredients (GM) or artificial fertilisers.’
One of the key things with organic farming is fewer chemicals. In non-organic farming, there are 320 pesticides used compared to only 15 natural ones used in organic farming. Source.
An example is glyphosate – a weed killer that is used in non-organic bread farming in the UK – do you feel comfortable putting that in your body week after week?
Less chemical intervention means more microbes in the flour. This is much better for making a sourdough culture where the microbes are the key for fermentation. That’s why organic flour is even more important in sourdough and studies back this up. Artisan bakers strive for the best ingredients to make the best sourdough.
Organic flour can cost slightly more than non-organic. But the suppliers that I’ve listed below sell the flour in big bags which work out cheaper than supermarket brands when bought in bulk. You end up needing a lot of flour for sourdough in feedings so it’s worth it.
Stoneground flour is the traditional way to grind wheat by using stones and it’s then sieved to remove the larger parts of bran. It makes bread with more wholegrain flavours, more nutrition, but less rise. It’s less common and more expensive.
Stoneground flour might be seen as the ultimate artisan flour as it goes back to early roots. Some bakers will swear by it.
It produces a bread that has more malty flavour than white flour as it’s less refined, but the downside is less rise and more dense bread. This is due to the process of creating a flour with larger, more coarse particles. This also means it is more nutritious and more lively in sourdough cultures.
Most flour is roller-milled which creates a fine flour. The larger parts of the wheat are split up and then recombined to make white or wholegrain flour. It generally makes a more consistent and easier flour to work with, which is why most people use regular roller-milled flour.
Bleaching flour is not legal in the UK since following EU regulations in the 90s.
You might have seen recipes online calling for ‘unbleached flour’. This is from the US where flour can be bleached with chlorine or peroxide to whiten it and soften it. When flour is freshly milled, it is a more yellowy colour and takes time to naturally whiten.
There are reports it can lead to serious health concerns over the long term such as cancer and diabetes in rats. Thankfully in the UK and EU, we don’t have to worry about this, and hopefully, the UK will continue to keep food standards aligned now we are outside the EU.
Best Flour For Feeding Sourdough Starter
It’s best to use a mixture of wholegrain and white wheat flour for feeding sourdough starter as wholegrain contains more microbes.
As you may know, the starter is a living culture of bacteria and wild yeast. The yeast is found in the air but concentrated on carbohydrate-rich places such as fruit skins and grains. That’s why it’s good to add wholegrain flour or chopped up grapes when starting a sourdough starter.
Using this addition of some wholegrain is better for yeast growth and activity than straight white flour. But 100% wholewheat flour can be too heavy in the starter when mixing up the final dough.
A blend of white and wholegrain is best. Anything from 50/50 to 1 part wholegrain and 5 parts white – it’s up to you. I just use 50/50 to keep things simple, and I like the slight flavour addition wholewheat brings.
You can use wholewheat, wholegrain rye – whatever suits you. I keep the wholewheat in the starter and add rye to the dough if I want some rye flavour in the bread.
Once we’ve got our starter sorted, the next decision is the flour in the dough we are making.
Best Flour In The Final Dough
It’s best to use high-quality organic white bread flour in the sourdough final dough. You can experiment by adding different wholegrain flour blends such as 10-30% wholewheat and/or rye with the white flour.
It’s usual to use the same flours in the dough as in the starter – a nice lively organic white flour to create a light, airy texture and some wholegrains to add depth of flavour.
When we talk about wholegrain flours, we mean flour that hasn’t been refined and stripped of the outer layers of the grain. This can be wholewheat flour – the wholegrain version of standard white bread flour, or flour like whole grain rye.
We can make sourdough with just white flour, but many opt for making a blend with some wholegrain. This boosts the depth of flavour and makes what bakers might call a ‘country’ loaf. Or maybe pain de Campagne if you are in France.
- A typical mix would be 90% white flour and 10% wholewheat.
- Another favourite is 10% wholewheat and 5% whole rye.
Here is a recipe from Tartine, which uses 10% wholewheat.
You can play with the flour blends to suit your taste. It’s worth noting that the more rye added, the denser the bread becomes. This is because rye has less gluten and so less elasticity in the dough.
Best Artisan Flour Brands
There are many artisan flour producers – here are a few of my favourites. You can buy all of these online so they are very easy to get hold of.
Shipton Mill – Organic White No. 4
This is one of the best flour producers in the UK. I see their bags in good artisan bakeries and pizzerias all the time. And rightly so, the flour simply looks and feels amazing. The website has a huge variety of flours and ships directly from their mill with a number of bag sizes available.
When asking Shipton Mill for their best flour for sourdough, they say – ‘The Organic white No4s would be the best flour to use as it is a good all-rounder. It will give you a good combination of both tolerance and flavour.’
I use the ‘Organic White Number 4’ and really like it. I use it for sourdough, straight white loaves, and thin-crust pizzas. Their large bags, including shipping, work out a similar price pound for pound with Allinson’s small bags you can buy from the supermarket.
Protein content: 12%
Doves Farm – Organic Strong White Bread
Doves Farm has a smaller range of white flours, which I like as sometimes the choice is overwhelming. Their organic white is their flagship which is ‘ideal for break making, rolls, and sourdough’. They have plenty of wholegrains and other specialist flours. I really like their flours and I see this brand in many good organic shops and sometimes in large supermarkets too.
Protein content: 13%
Marriages – Organic Strong White Bread
A popular independent brand which is readily available online. Marriage’s do a ‘Strong White Bread’ at 13.4% and then a ‘Very Strong White Bread’ at 14.9% which are both great. Marriages website says – ‘We carefully select organic wheats renowned for their bread making qualities to create this strong white flour’.
Protein Content: 13.4%
Find A Local Flour Mill
Finding a flour mill that is in your area is a wholesome experience and great to support a local business. You can also get the best tasting flour without the transportation miles. Lots of mills do tours or you can buy directly from their websites.
For a list of artisan mills found in different parts of the UK then see this fantastic list on sourdough.co.uk – British artisan flour mills.
Best Supermarket Brands
This is one of the main brands you will see in supermarkets across the UK. Some purists won’t use this for sourdough, but my opinion? This stuff works just fine if it’s all you have. I’ve used it for lots of bread and pizza, and while it might not make the best sourdough, it certainly won’t make bad bread.
I found this post where someone did a side-by-side experiment with 3 other brands. While the dough was a bit harder to work with, it still came out 2nd best when baked.
You can find Allinson’s strong bread flour which has protein content 13% or very strong bread flour with protein content of 14%. The extra protein makes more gluten strength, but I find the 13% works just fine and is more available.
Marks & Spencer Strong Bread Flour
I am a big fan of Marks And Spencer produce and have used their white bread flour with good results in the past. Supermarket own brands do tend to lower their protein content in their bread flours, so you might find your dough becomes weak if you are fermenting for a long time.
Protein Content: 12.1%
Using lower quality own-brand supermarket flour has its risks as it’s mass-produced. This means the quality could vary as so much flour has to be produced to stock shelves across the country, and so the source can’t be kept small batch. You’ve also got storage and other logistics – that flour might have been sitting in a warehouse for months.
Overall, non-brand flour might be fine to use, but I think it’s best to try and source some better quality flours for making sourdough. As you are taking all that time and effort, you might as well put the best ingredients in.
Buying Flour Cost Effectively
Let’s face it, sourdough needs a lot of flour for the maintenance and the amount of bread you will end up eating.
It’s good to buy big bags of 16kg or 25kg which will ensure you have flour on hand. Flour is best used fresh, so if you won’t use it all in 6 months then buy a smaller bag.
I did some research on the cost differences of picking up a 1.5kg bag of Allinson’s from the supermarket versus buying a large sack of organic flour from Shipton Mill or Doves Farm’s own websites. As you can see, it’s actually cheaper to buy quality flour in bulk, even with the shipping cost.
Price of flour comparison:
|Flour||Price||Shipping||Total Price Per KG|
|Allinson’s 1.5kg bag||£2||–||£1.33|
|Shipton Mill 25kg bag||£22.50||£6||£1.14|
|Doves Farm 25kg bag||£24||£4.95||£1.16|
I hope I answered all your questions on the best flour for sourdough in the UK. If you are looking to make bread a few times a week then my advice would be to buy a 16kg or 25kg sack from an artisan mill like Shipton Mill or Doves Farm. It saves you from running out and is of superior quality.
If you’d rather get from the supermarket then I recommend standard bags of Allinson flour which are my go-to when I am out of specialist flour.