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The `it' factor? A finer flour

Crumbly shortbread. Rolls as soft as pillows. Fritters that melt in your mouth. Texture is transformed with such a simple change.

August 02, 2006|Betty Baboujon | Special to The Times

A slow-food friend of mine likes to drive guests crazy trying to guess just what it is -- maybe it's a dissolved sliver of Spanish anchovy to deepen that super-meaty sauce, or some microscopically minced tarragon to perfume those deviled eggs, or a little bit of freshly grated horseradish to spike the coleslaw.

But flavor isn't the only way surreptitious little additions can astonish at first bite. Think texture: a crunch bigger than expected, a crispness that lasts, a crumb more delicate than imagined -- all with the mere sprinkle of extra-fine flour.

If you don't already have some in the pantry, you should. Rice flour, potato flour and cornstarch -- perhaps most familiar as reliable thickeners for sauces and pie fillings -- can transform a batter or dough simply by standing in for some of the regular flour. They'll give things a lighter feel, a welcome idea in the hotter months.

These finely milled flours, made from such down-to-earth foods as potatoes, corn and rice, can transform a recipe. Sprinkle away and fritters turn beautifully crisp, dinner rolls go tender, shortbread melts in the mouth. They can lend a wonderful sandy texture to cookies or tart crusts, and a crisp coating for fried fish or vegetables.

Take shortbread, whose unmistakable texture comes from a 1-2-3 combination of one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. When some of that flour is replaced with rice flour or potato flour, the cookie bakes up with a delicate crumbliness.

It's for this reason that Scottish shortbread recipes often call for rice flour. However, potato flour works similarly to make the cookie more delicate. Many formulas allot just a couple of tablespoons or so per cup of regular flour. But by pushing this ratio higher, and replacing the granulated sugar with powdered sugar (which, by the way, routinely contains a little cornstarch to prevent clumping), you get shortbread that's ethereally tender yet still crumbly.

You can play with that ratio to shift the balance between these two textures, but don't get carried away. Use too much fine flour, and you'll scare the shortbread into a chalky fright. The ratio in the recipe here pushes the amount just to the edge.

Delicate crust, better batter

YOU don't need to go to the edge, though, to apply this idea to tart crusts -- not the kind you roll out, but the crumbly ones that you press into a pan much like the base of lemon bars (it's no coincidence these crusts bake into cookie-like bases.) It's what the French call a pate sablee, for the dough's sandy texture. Substitute a bit of fine flour, and the crust becomes more delicately sandy.

For a great fritter batter, an easy ratio of 1 to 1 is all you need to remember. So if you're making substitutions, just swap out half the recipe's regular flour with white rice flour. Essentially finely ground grains of rice, it gives fritters a more pronounced crispness that lasts longer than using regular flour alone. It's a nice bit of insurance that the first batch out of the pan won't go soggy by the time the last one's done. It works well in other frying batters too, making crisper coats for fish or shrimp, or vegetables such as onions and zucchini -- just as cornstarch does when used instead of flour for dredging.

With corn season in full swing, this half-and-half batter is a perfect summer surprise. A fritter recipe from Bill Granger's "bills food" envelopes fresh, sweet kernels in little pancakes spiced with coriander, cumin and fresh cilantro. The batter makes a fritter that fittingly is what you'd expect from the summer's best corn: crisp at first bite, tender within and bursting with flavor.

You can make a sweet and tangy chile sauce to play off the savory fritters. Or take a shortcut with a good bottled version of sweet Thai chile sauce (Mae Ploy brand is widely available), which you can thin with a little rice vinegar for a nice pucker.

The first time I made these fritters, I was heavy-handed in measuring the rice flour. My batter was too thick to hold all the kernels, and a few of them flew out of the hot pan like mini maize missiles. Happily, negotiating peace was easy enough -- I just added a touch more water to the remaining batter.

So as with regular flour, it's best to use a light hand in measuring a finer flour. Stir it up to aerate and break up any clumps, spoon into a measuring cup and level off. Just because they're light doesn't mean you need more. After all, the very nature of starches and flours is that they're concentrated versions of their original selves.

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