Learn the different flours, when to use them, and everything else you would want to know about baking with flour!
So growing up, we had one bag of flour in our household. It was of course commonly known as “flour”. That was it. Just flour. I am not even sure I knew there were different flours. Or that different flours should be used depending on what you wanted to bake. Of course that bag of flour was all purpose flour. But as my knowledge of baking grew, so did my knowledge of flours. If you were to sneak a peek at my pantry now, you’d find a different scene. Now you might wonder if you stepped into a grocery store when you look in my cupboard.
There are a quite a few different flours, and they are ideally used in different recipes when baking to produce different results because of their protein content. Do you need as many as I have? Ok probably not. But I do believe you should have a few on hand.
So let’s talk flour 101 today. (In other words, let’s nerd out a bit on some baking science ok?) Yes this is going to be one information jam-packed, grab some coffee and sit back for awhile, super long post. But if you love understanding the why’s and how’s of baking then you’re gonna love this post.
Let’s dig in…
Where does flour come from?
So before we talk differences, let’s talk about what all flours have in common. They are all made from wheat. Specifically, the wheatberry of the wheat plant. Wheat has 3 parts to it- the bran (outermost layer), endosperm (middle layer that is most of the bulk of the kernel), and the germ (the inner layer where a new plant sprouts, this part is rich in nutrients).
What makes one flour different than another?
So if they all come from the wheat plant, but how can they be so different and yield such different results when baking? Well that comes down to which part of the wheatberry is milled. Different types of flour have different protein contents. The higher protein flours (10-14%) are known as the “hard wheats”. The flours with lower protein contents (5-10%) are known as “soft wheat”.
So what makes the protein content different in each? Well that comes down to what parts of the wheat kernel is being used. As mentioned above wheat has 3 parts to it- the bran (outermost layer), endosperm (middle layer that is most of the bulk of the kernel), and the germ (the inner layer where a new plant sprouts, this part is rich in nutrients) . And depending on which parts are used, will determine what type of flour you have in the end.
So for example, 100% whole wheat flour uses (you guessed it) all of the grain kernel. This means you end up with a heartier flour in the end. Unlike your all purpose flour, which uses the endosperm only results in a softer textured flour. In fact, unless it says whole wheat, all flours are considered white flours and is milled from the starchy endosperm middle.
What Is Gluten?
I feel like gluten has become a very popular topic lately don’t you? For good and bad reasons. But when it comes to baking, understanding gluten and how it’s formed is one step in the right direction of having success in the kitchen.
So let’s break down what it is and what it’s role is in baking…
Gluten is actually formed between two proteins, gliadin and glutenin and when liquid is added combine to form gluten…. And the more gluten that is formed, the more structure your baked good will have. Great for bread. Bad for cakes.
Think of gluten as a slinky. This protein, like a slinky can stretch and expand which means it can provide lots of structure and shape (aka rolling it into thin sheets of puffy pastry), can trap gasses (aka carbon dioxide when baking bread), and provide that chewiness we love (think breads, and al dente pastas).
More protein = more gluten. More gluten = more chew.
*the one exception being whole wheat flour (explained further in the post)
What are the different kinds of flour?
All Purpose Flour– The “workhorse” of flours. If a recipe calls for “flour” it is to be assumed that you use all purpose. If you are going to stock one flour in your pantry make it this one. All purpose flour comes from the endosperm (that starchy middle) and is stripped of it’s bran and germ layers. This means your AP flour will be quite shelf stable compared to other flours, but lack nutrients (not that I’m worrying about that when I’m whipping up a batch of brownies but I thought I’d include that in case you are)
The difference between bleached and unbleached all purpose flour…
However, all-purpose flour can be further divided into bleached and unbleached flour. Again, they can be pretty much used interchangeably but there are noticeable differences. Bleached flour has been treated with chemicals (benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas) to speed up the aging process which results in a whiter finer grained flour. This bleaching process softens the texture which in turn softens the texture of your baked goods. Some also use bromate to improve rise and elasticity too. I personally don’t like using bleached flour because of the use of chemicals and stick to using unbleached flour. Bleached flour will have a lower protein content than unbleached flour due to the bleaching process so will result in a more tender baked good.
Unbleached flour has been aged naturally (although some brands may still use some chemicals to treat the flour, so it’s best to check your labels!). Unbleached flour will cost a few more pennies though because it takes a longer time to produce. Because of the lack of bleaching, it has a denser texture. And the color at first will be slightly less white than your bleached flour (although it will whiten naturally over time). This means your baked goods will have more structure to them. I personally stick to using unbleached flour because I don’t like the thought of those chemicals going in my baked goods, and I find not that noticeable of a difference to convince me to use bleached flour.
Protein Content: Usually around 10-12%. It has the most middle of ranges of proteins for all the flours. This is why it most commonly used in baking. Different brands of all purpose flour can have slight differences in protein content. So if you find a brand you like. Stick with it. For example, King Arthur’s Unbleached Flour has a protein content of 11.7% but Pillsbury flour has a protein content of 10.5%.
Best Used For: This is the staple flour you should have on hand. It can be used for pretty much any baking recipe- from chewy chocolate chip cookies to creating a flaky pie crust. Bleached all purpose flour is best used for: cookies, muffins, quick breads, and pie crusts. Unbleached flour is best used for: yeast breads, cream puffs, eclairs, and pastries. You can usually use either for a recipe interchangeably with slight differences, so use what you prefer or have on hand. Like I said, I always use unbleached flour for any recipe calling for all purpose flour.
How To Store It: I prefer to store mine in an airtight OXO container like this one. This way I can quick fluff up the flour before using it and measure my flour correctly using the scoop and sweep method. Then be sure to store this in a cool, dry place (aka my cupboard is where you will find mine.) I prefer not to store mine simply in the bag, because I find measuring directly from the bag awkward and messy (but maybe you are neater than I am as a baker. (this is how I store all my flours, except my whole wheat and nut flours which I place in the freezer so as not to go rancid).
Bread Flour: Bread flour is my go to flour if I am making breads, pizza doughs, or any recipe where I want more gluten production. The higher protein content creates more gluten. More gluten formation means more carbon dioxide will be trapped between the strands of gluten which will help to make that bread or pizza dough rise.
Protein Content: Bread flour has the highest protein content, usually around 12-14%. This the Hercules of the flours, and provides your baked goods with the most support. Using a bread flour means your baked goods will have more chewiness, increased browning, and more volume.
Best Used For: As the name suggests, this is the flour best used for making yeasted breads.and pastry doughs like puff pastry. But this flour can also be used to give more structure to your chocolate chip cookies (one of my favorite ways to use bread flour actually).
Cake Flour: This is your go to flour for (wait for it) cakes and other baked goods where tenderness is favorable. Cake flour has the lowest protein content of all the flours, resulting in the lowest gluten formation. Again ideal for things like cakes and cupcakes. And cake flour is usually bleached, which also lowers the protein content by weakening those gluten proteins. This bleaching process also helps to increase the ability to absorb moisture (that’s fancy talk for you get a moist cake in the end!)
Now if you don’t want to keep another flour on hand, you can try making your cake flour with all purpose flour and cornstarch. And if you’re curious as to how DIY cake flour compares when you use it in a recipe, you can check out this post.
Protein Content: Cake flour has the lowest protein content of all the flours. Usually ranging from 5-8%. Again different brands can have different protein contents and can vary if it’s bleached or unbleached.
Best Used For: Cakes of course. Duh, right? Especially for certain types of cakes like angel food, genoise or sponge cakes. And with that being said, I like using cake flour in my cupcakes too. But you can also try using cake flour in your muffins, scones, even your cookies for a tender baked good in the end.
Pastry Flour: Pastry flour might be one that you are not as familiar with as the last three flours. This unbleached flour made from soft wheat could be called the happy medium between can’t decide if you should use all purpose or cake flour. Pastry flour falls in between cake flour and AP flour for it’s protein content, which means it can strike that perfect balance of structure and tenderness. With lower protein, you get lower gluten development which is ideal for baked goods that benefit from that extra tenderness. You can even try making your own pastry flour if you don’t want to keep another flour on hand by combining 1 1/3 cups AP flour with 2/3 cups cake flour.
Protein Content: This flour has a protein content of about 8-9 percent (unless it’s a whole wheat pastry flour), falling somewhere between cake flour and AP flour. Pastry flour can be found unbleached refined pastry flour with a slightly higher protein content (around 9%), or as a whole wheat pastry flour (anywhere from 8-11% depending on brand). If you want to use a healthy 100% whole wheat flour, but still have tenderness and flakiness, then a whole wheat pastry flour might be your ideal flour to use.
Best Used For: Because of the lower protein content, using pastry flour in your baked goods will bring flakiness and tenderness to the party. Making this flour ideal for pie crusts, tarts, muffins, pancakes, quick breads and cakes.
Whole Wheat Flour- This flour uses 100% of the wheat kernel, which means when you use this flour your baked goods will come out heavier and denser than if you were to use a white flour. You will also notice a difference in color with this flour and that is again due to the fact that all 3 parts of the kernel are used. Of course, with this flour you will have a denser baked good but with all those nutrients packed in.
When I use whole wheat flour I do not recommend substituting 1:1 for AP flour. I like to replace half of the flour called for in a recipe, with whole wheat flour. This way I still get some of the nutrients, but also some of the tenderness that the AP flour provides. If you are new to whole wheat baking, try replacing 1/4 cup at first.
Protein Content: This flour has a high protein content around 13.5%. This one flour has the exception of the rule of “higher protein = higher gluten development”. Because of the presence of the germ and bran, it actually hinders the gluten development, which explains why a whole wheat bread will be less airy and more dense than bread made with either AP or bread flour.
How To Store It: This flour can benefit from being stored in your freezer (or fridge). It does not have as long as a shelf life as the whiter flours do.
White Whole Wheat Flour- So if you want to bake with whole wheat flour, but don’t like the texture in the end result, then white whole wheat flour might be the answer for you. Unlike whole wheat flour which is milled from a hard red winter wheat white whole wheat flour is milled from a hard white winter wheat. Which means like whole wheat flour, it uses all of the wheat berry. Which means, the flour is lighter in color and flavor than a whole wheat flour but still retains all of the nutrients.
When using this white whole wheat flour, it’s suggested to replace up to a third of the AP flour in the recipe for the white whole wheat flour. Another great tip: allow your baked goods to rest overnight before cutting into them to allow the bran to soften.
Protein Content: This flour has a 13% protein content
Best Used For: You can try substituting some or all of the AP flour called for in a recipe and a 1:1 for whole wheat flour in your everyday baking. For cakes, try substituting about 50%. In breads you might notice a lighter flavor or texture if originally using whole wheat.
How To Store It: This flour, like your whole wheat flour, is best stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
Self-Rising Flour – This is the flour that is the staple in Southern baking. During the milling process, baking powder and salt are added. It’s generally made from a lower protein flour to help create a tender baked good. Self-rising flour is simply 3 ingredients in one- AP flour, baking powder and salt!
You can make your own self-rising flour by combining:
- 1 cup (7 oz, 196 grams) AP flour
- 1 1/2(o.3 ounces, 7.5 grams) teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon (0.05 oz., 1 gram) salt
* Be sure to whisk this before use and store in an airtight container. Will keep for 6 months.
Protein Content: 8.5% – Has a lower protein content than your regular AP flour, which is why Southerners swear by using self-rising flour for their biscuits so they come out light and fluffy.
Best Used For: If a recipe calls for self-rising flour then it’s best to follow the recipe (or make a batch your own and measure from the DIY version). Biscuits, muffins, pancakes, waffles, and quick breads all benefit from self-rising flour.
How To Substitute: If a recipe calls for AP flour and all you have is self-rising flour then try this: for every cup of AP flour used, substitute with the self-rising flour but reduce the baking powder by 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. If the recipe calls for baking soda, reduce the baking soda by 1/2 teaspoon per cup of self-rising flour.
If a recipe calls for self-rising flour, but all you have if all purpose flour then whip up a batch of the DIY version listed below and make a 1:1 substitution.
How To Store It: Because of the baking powder, it’s best to make sure this flour is well covered and wrapped up when not in use. You would want to use this flour within 6 months. Any later than that, and the baking powder will lose it’s “oomph”.
Gluten Free Flour– Now I don’t feel I would have done my duty if I didn’t at least mention gluten free flours. Now gluten free flours or obviously free of gluten, which means they are made from something other than wheat. For awhile, I dabbled in gluten free baking so I’ve tried my fair share of gluten free flours. And let me tell you they are not created equally! Different brands can have a different combination of ingredients. My favorite is Cup 4 Cup. It is a bit more expensive, but produces the best quality baked goods. You can’t even tell it’s gluten free, so to me that’s worth a few extra bucks. My grocery store does stock Cup 4 Cup, look for it in your gluten free aisle. But I find that you can save a few $ if you buy it on Amazon!
Almond Flour– So almond flour (and any other nut flour) doesn’t come from the wheat kernel at all. It is made simply from grinding up the nut.
Best Used For: Almond flour is used specifically in macarons.
How To Store: Almond flour can go rancid, so it’s best to store this in your freezer.
Happy baking (with flour!)
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