This is the time of year when many of us break out the Wondra flour, that cylindrical blue canister of magical powder that allows us to make our holiday gravies and sauces lump-free and velvety. The can says instant flour but as anyone who has ever had a powerful late-night brownie craving and an empty all-purpose flour canister can attest—unlike cake flour or pastry flour or bread flour, Wondra is not interchangeable with other flours, and your brownies will likely be less than dreamy.
So exactly what is instant flour and why does that not mean instantly make me delicious brownies?
Wondra flour was developed by Gold Medal Flour in the early 1960s, back when gravy was practically a beverage in many households, and Mom was judged on how many lumps were floating in hers. This flour was essentially a combination of wheat flour and malted barley flour, treated to make it smooth flowing and uniform so that it would instantly and effortlessly melt into sauces and gravies. This was achieved through a process called pregelatinization, essentially treating it with steam and heat and then drying it out, pre-activating some of the low-protein flour’s basic properties and then milling it extra-fine to give it a powdery quality and super uniform consistency. Since the flour has essentially already been "cooked," it dissolves in liquids more easily. Think about pre-toasting bread for stuffing or bread pudding to make it soak up broth or custard.
Because of this treatment, Wondra can be a really good ingredient in a lot of baked goods. In pie crusts, it can bring extra flakiness to the party. In crepe batter it can reduce the resting time, since it will absorb liquid faster, a favorite trick of Julia Child’s. In Allison Robicelli’s magical angel food cake it replaces the usual small amount of regular flour with truly staggeringly awesome results. And if you want extra-crispy well-browned skin on your chicken or fish, do as some of the top chefs like Eric Ripert and David Bouley do, and give a little shake from the blue can for a pre-frying dredge.
But you don’t want to just swap it out willy-nilly. Since it is low-protein, its structure is a bit different than regular all-purpose. So while there are plenty of baking recipes available online that use Wondra, those recipes have been designed specifically for its special properties and the pregelatinization would wreak havoc on gluten formation in your breads. But it is worth experimenting with, and I always keep a canister in the freezer.
Besides, no one wants lumps in their gravy.