When were insects eliminated from flour?
February 5, 2009 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Hi all, I am doing some writing on the history of baking, and I was wondering when flour became pure. We take for granted the fact that flour in our grocery stores is free from insect larvae, twigs, and other contaminants. I have heard that the purpose of sifting flour was once to get this stuff out. Now we sift for nostalgia's sake or possibly to make flour fluffy. I want to say that flour became pure with the advent of large flour millers in the 19th century like Wasburn-Crosby and Pillsbury (both now are part of General Mills). But that is just a guess. When did things really get cleaned up? Do any of you foodies and bakers know? Thanks!
posted by tnygard to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Flour is not pure even now. The FDA has guidelines on how much insect and rodent "filth" it can contain (scroll down to the very bottom for wheat flour).
posted by magicbus at 1:01 PM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I imagine these folks would be a good resource for you.
posted by awesomiste at 1:03 PM on February 5, 2009

not answering your question, but just wanted to add that we still sift flour today because sifted flour is better able to incorporate liquid ingredients - far from nostalgica's sake
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 1:05 PM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure about insects, but throughout the industrial revolution, other stuff was intentionally put in.
posted by [ixia] at 1:08 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: If you think that flour is "pure" now, then you've never talked to someone who was a baker on a Navy ship. The pastry chef at one of my hotel jobs was a 20 year Navy vet, and he had some stories to tell about finding all kinds of crawlies in the flour after they had been out to sea for a few months.

Buy a bag of flour and let it sit on the shelf for a couple of months. Chances are good that you'll find some wigglers once you open it.

Also, you sift flour so it has a uniform measurement - since it settles and compacts in the flour bin, the scoop you take right after you dump in the flour can have a different weight than the scoop you take a week or so later after the flour has settled. That can have a huge impact when you're making 500 loaves of bread or doing any commercial baking. There is no nostalgia to it at all.
posted by ralan at 1:12 PM on February 5, 2009

Yeah, I've always understood sifting to be to make the measurement more consistent. I assume going by weight would be even better (more common in Europe than the US).
posted by hattifattener at 1:16 PM on February 5, 2009

Ellen Swallow had a lot to do with getting food standards in place; she was active around the turn of the last century. (She did a lot of cool things and is undeservedly forgotten.)
posted by dogrose at 1:17 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How about The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
posted by 517 at 1:21 PM on February 5, 2009

We go through flour very, very slowly in my house (not big bread eaters) and it's common for flour to go 9-18 months before the bag is used up. We've also gone through some turnover of the flour during moves, allowing new bags to sit on the shelf. I think only once have we had a problem with infestation. This is probably in part due to us ziplocing the bags once we store them so meal moths, etc, don't take residence in our cabinets. So IMHO I think there is indeed some process in place at a lot of mills that controls insect larvae.
posted by crapmatic at 1:24 PM on February 5, 2009

For many recipes, I don't sift flour. But I had a lengthy battle with tiny flour beetles, and it made perfect sens to me that sifting is a great way to remove wildlife from flour.
posted by theora55 at 1:25 PM on February 5, 2009

Better link to what I was talking about.
posted by 517 at 1:34 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: Professional bakers sift both to incorporate liquid ingredients more readily (as mentioned above) AND to combine ingredients thoroughly (though that's been questioned; I believe Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote her thesis on that question). They don't sift for purposes of measurement, because professionals weigh flour. And yes, flour is still far from "pure." I have seen things that would make your skin crawl.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:46 PM on February 5, 2009

Check out Food in History -- a fascinating read that contains some info about the development of baking over thousands of years, including the rise of modern milling and baking.
posted by scody at 2:03 PM on February 5, 2009

I was told that you should always put flour in the freezer for at least 24 hours before use so that you would kill off any eggs, etc. This information was just given to me a few years ago, though I don't remember who told me/ where I read it.
posted by shesbookish at 2:06 PM on February 5, 2009

I keep my flour in the freezer because it lasts longer there.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:09 PM on February 5, 2009

If you get your flour from a bin - you greatly increase your chance of infestation. I'm guessing it's more the packaging than any inherent improvement in milling.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:12 PM on February 5, 2009

I was brought up to sift flour as a way to add air to the mixed product. Before food mixers, or when mixing by hand (e.g. crumbles), it is difficult to get a light result from compacted flour. And yes, we measure by weight not volume in Europe. I've always thought that measuring by volume is very inaccurate, as it depends so much on the type of flour used ...
To respond to the "pureness" issue, I have kept flour for months in the UK and never had any problems, but in the US even a few weeks spawns creepy crawlies. I don't know if the UK milling hygiene standards are stricter, or if this is just a climate thing. We take food inspection very seriously -- but also we don't have the variety and frequency of bugs in the UK. It is too cold and damp for many of them ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 2:31 PM on February 5, 2009

If you're looking for something citable, you might check English Bread and Yeast Cookery. I don't have a copy here to refer to, but I recall that there was information about the history of milling/flour technology. Plus, it's a fascinating, fascinating book!
posted by pullayup at 2:33 PM on February 5, 2009

If you go back far enough you probably had less stuff living in your flour because you were likely to be milling it yourself, and might very well be doing that as you needed it.

It probably wasn't until later when where were lots of hands in the process and less accountability that you started seeing some of the deliberate adultration you are describing.

Now how much dust from the mill stone you got in a slice of bread, who knows.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:42 PM on February 5, 2009

Now how much dust from the mill stone you got in a slice of bread, who knows.

Pretty much all commercially available flour has been milled on a rolling mill for at least the last 100 years. Stones are high maintenance compared to tool steel.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:59 PM on February 5, 2009

...Wasburn-Crosby and Pillsbury (both now are part of General Mills).

Actually General Mills was forced to sell-off that part of Pillsbury due to antitrust regulations -- between the Pillsbury baking mixes and Betty Crocker, they had something like 80% of the retail baking market. J.M. Smucker owns the Pillsbury baking mixes and flour.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:08 PM on February 5, 2009

If you go back far enough you probably had less stuff living in your flour because you were likely to be milling it yourself, and might very well be doing that as you needed it.

More accurately, a miller would be milling it for you and taking his cut as payment.
posted by electroboy at 6:31 AM on February 6, 2009

You also sift flour because small droplets of sweat and spit can get into your flour, which will then clump and harden around the moisture. You don't really want that in your food.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:32 PM on February 7, 2009

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