I actually had never wondered why flour comes last when making a batter. Tell you the truth, I think most people don’t know why, even the professionals. I know, because I asked. It’s so you won’t build up too much gluten. Let me tell you a story.
I was still an apprentice when this happened but, at 27 years of age, feisty and unwilling to act like a sheepish teenager among my superiors, I had some trouble dealing with my closest direct superior. My direct superior was a nasty old lady who was a pasty-cook once-upon-a-time and worked with us twice a week to pimp up her retirement pay. She was, in other words, a very unprofessional pro who was always doing stuff houswife-style. It was very upsetting for me because I knew she was doing something wrong, but as an apprentice, I couldn’t quite explain exactly WHAT she was doing or saying wrong (that all finally came later on).
One day, she had to make a Baumkuchen as was usual and was using our recipe – it is very similar to a poundcake and it is done like a poundcake: beat the butter with some sugar (or when I do it, the butter alone), add the yolk, add the whipped egg-whites, add the sieved flour. But it was winter and the butter was hard from the cold storage room and this silly granny forgot about that so she tried to soften the butter by cutting big chunks of it and placing it on the stove. She then proceeded with doing other stuff and forgot about the butter.
So the butter pretty much melted almost all the way. But veteran pro that this lady considered herself, she didn’t let this trouble her. She put the butter in the big pan in the machine and added the sugar and proceeded to beat it. Well, she tried to. It was a nice sugary butter-soup that wouldn’t fluff up for obvious reasons. She continued by adding the yolks, it would stiffen up eventually, or so she thought.
It didn’t, of course, and because she didn’t want to put her beaten egg-whites into something liquid, she did the only thing she could think of to thicken the brew: she poured half of the flour in this brew and started whisking the flour in. Then she added the beaten egg-whites in and then the rest of the flour. The batter looked kinda gross and the only think making it less noticeable is that Baumkuchen is baked in layers. Because the layers are so thin and tend to dry out in the oven more than bake (and because we cut it in chunks and dunked it in pineapple juice for other purposes), it’s not noticeable right away. I was still appalled.
A week later, at school, I asked one of my teachers why does flour always come last, and explained to her what happened. She frowned in mild disgust and told me “So you can prevent the buildup of gluten.”.
Here’s the thing: you make some bread, you want gluten, all you can get. And for that, you knead your flour with the water. You knead, knead and knead, the glutenin and gliadin bonding with the water and slipping into one another will build the gluten. The gluten is this amazing 3D-net that gives (most) Breads their structure.
But it is not something you want in a sponge-cake or a poundcake. You want it to crumble in your mouth as if each single crumb was held together only by thin air – not by gluten. You see, kneading is the way to go when helping the build of gluten, but just the slightest motion will help it form. So when you’re mixing your batter with a spatula and start folding the flour, you’ll be making some gluten along in the process. You can’t avoid this but you don’t want too much of it. So it’s only logical to first mix everything together that can’t possibly form gluten (eggs, butter, sugar) and then carefully add the flour. The more you mix, the more you kick out some of that precious air you whipped into the egg-whites, and the more gluten you will build – making the dough denser, kicking even more air out of it and making the batter doughey – which will make for a straw-like, doughey sponge-cake. Ugh…
This is why I’m the first to yell “bullshit!” when a recipe calls for alternately mixing the whites and the flour: the few bits of flour you add in-between the eggwhites are forming gluten all by themselves with every movement you make to fold in a part of the whites.
There is one big exception on batters with gluten: Muffins. We don’t do many muffins in Germany, that’s why, after my sis asked me for instructions about when to add the flour and the milk, I was quite baffled. Afer a long search, I realized that the muffins as you know it are a type of butter-spongecake with a good amount of milk in it (more free water, help!). I realized through several recipes that, due to the amazing amount of fluid and how long you have to fold flour in so it won’t clump, it’s near close to impossible to avoid the gluten formation: you either put the milk first and have the butter “clump” and then mix the flour for way too long because you’re trying to fold it into a fluid; or you mix the flour and then have to mix the milk unbelievably long so it blends in nicely. Both make for lots of gluten. But as I’ve realized, the muffins are quite doughey cakes that hold stuff like blueberries in it quite nicely. If it’s something you like to eat, it’s ok – heck, some of my favourite things to eat are derived from faulty processing of the ingredients – but if you want muffins with less gluten in it well…. either use gluten-free flour (but then they won’t taste the same, will they?) or beat the batter so long that the gluten is destroyed into tinier pieces that don’t hold up a 3D-net. You can see this by stopping the machine and holding up the whisks: if the batter drips in pieces instead of flowing in one long string onto the rest of the batter, you kicked gluten’s ass (although it’s still in there, it’s just really roughed up). The rise of the batter on the muffins is almost totally chemical – through baking powder and baking soda. It’s one of the few cakes for which I will gladly reach for the baking powder. Muffins are unique in themselves. I’ll get to a baking-powder-free recipe, but I’m not there just yet.
There is a particular german sweet called Mohrenkopf (moor’s head) that can be made in two different ways. One of them actually involves this process of breaking the gluten by whipping the yolks with water and flour for a LONG time. I will eventually discuss and present this type of sweet on my blog – it doesn’t, by the way, call for baking-powder and it’s what I’ll most likely use as a model when I start working on my muffin recipe.