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Wondra instant flour is a shortcut to better gravy, pie crusts and more

Wondra instant flour can be used to make pie crusts, gravy and so much more.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
Wondra instant flour can be used to make pie crusts, gravy and so much more. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Aaron Hutcherson Washington Post

I remember a cobalt blue canister of Wondra flour sitting in the pantry of my youth. The packaging, which doesn’t seem to have changed much since (if at all), markets it as a lifesaver for the gravy-challenged. It’s the key to making lump-free sauces, but it can also do so much more.

Introduced in the early 1960s, Wondra is the brand name for a type of instant flour that has been steamed and dried – a process called pregelatinization – before being packaged and sold. The process essentially precooks it and results in a super-fine powder that easily dissolves in liquids.

“I love it,” chef and cookbook author Adrienne Cheatham said when talking about making gravy for smothered chicken. “For singer-ing the pan (the French term for sprinkling the pan with flour when building a sauce), I use Wondra every time because you never have to worry about lumps.”

What sets instant flour apart from all-purpose is that it disperses easily and can be sprinkled in as-is to a liquid to help thicken it without needing to make a roux, beurre manie or slurry. A canister of Wondra in your pantry will be a godsend the next time you find yourself with a watery gravy that needs be salvaged at the last minute.

Beyond sauces, Wondra is great for coating baking pans for easy release. Its fine texture makes it easy to evenly distribute across a pan’s surface in a thin layer, meaning that less flour is added to a recipe, thereby not impacting the outcome.

Another result of the pregelatinization process is that the flour’s ability to form gluten is diminished, making it behave similar to low-protein flours such as cake or pastry flour. This means Wondra can be used to make tender, flaky pie crusts, and it results in crepe batter that doesn’t need to rest, as suggested by Julia Child in her seventh cookbook, “The Way to Cook.”

Food writer Allison Robicelli uses it in her angel food cake recipe “that’s ethereally fluffy, no folding or futzing required,” she wrote. However, it’s important to note that it is more expensive than other flours – Wondra is about double the price of cake flour and five times as much as all-purpose – so I wouldn’t recommend it for recipes that require flour in large amounts.

Instant flour is also great when cooking animal protein. “Chefs love to use Wondra flour for dusting fish and meat,” food writer David Hagedorn wrote in a recipe for veal piccata. “It aids in even browning and prevents items from sticking during sauteing, but it doesn’t impart the pastiness that regular all-purpose flour can.”

Jacques Pépin calls for Wondra in his recipe for garlic chicken breasts. And the folks behind “Modernist Cuisine” use it in conjunction with potato starch in their recipe for Korean-style chicken wings for a long-lasting crisp. They also recommend it as a thickener for creamed spinach.

Chef Eric Rivera loves using it to coat “lean and thin fish like petrale sole, or thin-sliced fish like a ling cod or halibut,” he said. Since these items cook so quickly, “about 30 to 60 seconds on each side,” the fact that the flour is essentially precooked means there’s no worry about raw flour, even with the short cook time.

“It’s great for creating a light, crisp crust on proteins because it binds the surface liquids really well with an even coating that you can’t achieve by using raw flour,” Cheatham told BuzzFeed. “The crust is so light that it seems like there’s nothing on the protein at all. You just end up with a beautiful sear!”

And when it comes to getting a beautiful sear, Wondra is the secret to great scallops. As former Washington Post deputy food editor Bonnie S. Benwick wrote in 2016: “We’ve been taught never to expose a sea scallop in the skillet to very high heat, lest its tender meat turn rubbery, and dry-looking cracks creep up from the bottom edges.

“The new ‘Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner’ (Ten Speed Press, September 2016) has forced me to reconsider that position because of the way chef Ashley Christensen puts a dark sear on them. One side only is coated with Wondra flour, which promotes a brown crust.”

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