Are You Baking With the Right Flour?

Flour-it's the key baking ingredient used to hold our cookies, cakes, and muffins together and provide them with a nice and chewy texture. But, use the wrong kind of flour, and you can ruin your dessert in a matter of seconds.

From all-purpose flour to bread flour to cake flour, there's multiple types of flours that you need to be aware of in order for your desserts, breads, and other dishes to always come out right and delicious. Keep reading to discover the right kind of flour needed for every baking recipe.

Flour Blend
Flour Blend | Photo by Buckwheat Queen.

All-Purpose Flour

All-purpose flour includes a happy balance of hard and soft flours. And as the name suggests, it is a type of flour that lets you make a wide variety of baked goods without having to stock up on multiple types of flour.

What to Make With All-purpose Flour: Cookies, cakes, muffins, quick breads, biscuits, and pie crusts.

All Purpose Flour
Photo by Meredith.

Use All-purpose Flour in These Recipes:

Bread Flour

Bread benefits from a high-protein flour (about 13 percent, compared to about 11 percent for all-purpose flour). When combined with water and developed by mixing and kneading, the gluten becomes elastic and stretches around gas bubbles produced by the yeast. When gas bubbles expand in the oven, the gluten goes along for the ride. The result is a nice fat loaf of bread.

Interestingly, of all the grains, wheat is the only one that packs gluten-producing proteins. To rise properly, breads made with other grains (like rye, corn, or oats) must be fortified with wheat flour or gluten.

As a home baker, you can ignore language on bread flour labels saying "first clear flour," "patent flour," and "high gluten flour." You'll be fine with the blend of bread flour found in any national brand.

Can you substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour? Yes, you can. Bread flour gives you that chewy, elastic crumb that's often desirable in bread, but you can substitute AP flour and still get a beautiful loaf of bread.

What to make with bread flour: Breads, rolls, and recipes that need a chewy, elastic crumb.

Amish White Bread
Amish White Bread | Photo by Daniel Martinec.

Use Bread Flour in These Recipes:

Cake Flour

Cake flour is a lower-protein flour (about 8 percent protein) that's also bleached with chlorine, which alters the structure of the starches and fats and makes the flour slightly acidic. Always sift cake flour before using it in a recipe.

In a pinch, you can substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour -- with some tweaking, that is. A straight substitution of all-purpose flour in recipes specifically formulated for cake flour would not produce happy results. However, you can approximate cake flour by reducing the protein level of your all-purpose flour -- do this by adding cornstarch to the flour:

How to Make Quasi Cake Flour: For every cup of all-purpose flour, remove 2 tablespoons of the flour, and replace it with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour well before using in recipes.

What to Make With Cake Flour: Cakes and other recipes that call for it.

Make Your Own Cake Flour
Make Your Own Cake Flour | Photo by Meredith.

Use cake flour in these recipes:

Pastry Flour

Pastry flour is a medium-protein flour (about 9 percent protein) that produces tender pie crusts. If you use a flour with too much protein, your pastry can become tough; too little, and the pastry can be brittle and hard to work with. Medium is just right.

In a pinch, you can make your own version of pastry flour by combining one part cornstarch to two parts all-purpose flour.

What to Make With Pastry Flour: Pie crust, pastries, breadings for battered and fried foods.

Whole Wheat Flour and Whole Wheat Pastry Flour
Whole Wheat Flour and Whole Wheat Pastry Flour | Photo by Meredith.

Use pastry flour in these recipes:

Self-rising Flour

Self-rising flour already contains baking powder, so you don't need to add any leavening agents.

You can make your own self-rising flour: Just add 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of salt per cup of flour (or by weight: 5-7 g of baking powder and .5 g of salt per 100 g of flour).

What to Make With Self-rising Flour: Quick breads, biscuits, muffins, and pancakes.

Self-Rising Flour
Self-Rising Flour | Photo by Meredith.

Use Self-rising Flour in These Recipes:

Bread Machine Flour

Special bread machine flours are generally just high-protein flours, although some brands might contain dough conditioners like malted barley flour (diastatic malt powder), ascorbic acid, or lecithin.

Whole Wheat Flour

Whole wheat flour contains all of the nutrients found in the wheat kernel and results in dense, hearty baked goods. If 100% whole wheat bread tastes a little bit too healthy for you, try a ratio of half whole wheat, half bread flour.

You might need to adjust your liquids to hydrate the flour fully (use more water if you're adding whole wheat flour to a recipe, less if you're substituting bread flour for whole wheat).

Note: The natural oils in flours, especially whole grain flours, can spoil and turn rancid. Flour of all types should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer if you bake infrequently. It should smell and taste "wheaty," not musty or stale.

The Two Types of Wheat

There are two types of wheat: hard and soft. The key difference between them is protein content. Hard wheat is higher in protein than soft wheat -- and it is the protein that contains the gluten that allows breads and other baked goods to rise.

Where wheat is grown can determine protein content: Northwestern U.S. and western Canada produce hard wheat that's very high in protein, while the southern U.S. states grow a softer wheat with less protein.

Whole Grain Banana Muffins
Whole Grain Banana Muffins | Photo by CCLoves2Bake.

Use Whole-wheat Flour in These Recipes:

More About Wheat

The wheat berry is made up of bran, germ, and endosperm.

Parts of a Wheat Berry

The bran is the hard outer shell that covers the wheat berry. An excellent source of fiber, the bran also contains most of the minerals. Because the bran has sharp edges, which interfere with gluten development, it is removed during milling -- and then often added back in later.

The germ is the part of the grain that would become the plant. Wheat germ is very high in protein and B vitamins. It is removed in the milling process because of its high fat content that causes the flour to become rancid more quickly. And, due to this, wheat germ should be stored in the refrigerator.

The endosperm is the food that the seed would consume on its way to becoming a plant. The flour that we use for baking, unless it is whole wheat, has had the germ and the bran removed. The remaining endosperm is composed mostly of starch and protein.

Wheat Berries
Wheat berries | Photo by Meredith.

Freshly ground wheat might smell great, but it doesn't make an optimum loaf: as flour ages, it creates stronger gluten, resulting in a more elastic dough and a lighter loaf. Aging also changes the color of flour from pale yellow to white. Millers have sped up this aging process with chlorine and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) , which also helps the flour look whiter.

Protein Contents of Wheat Flours

U.S. and Canada

  • All-purpose flour (nationwide) 11-12%
  • All-purpose flour (Southern U.S.) 7.5-9.5%
  • Bread flour 12-13%
  • Whole wheat flour 11-15%
  • Pastry flour 8-9%
  • Cake flour 7-8%
  • Vital wheat gluten 70-85%

European Flours

  • Italian soft wheat, Type 0 or 00 11-12%
  • French Type 55 (blend of hard and soft wheat) 9-10%
  • English plain flour 7-10%

About Vital Wheat Gluten

If you don't have the storage space or don't bake often enough to buy several different types of flour, you can buy a small bag of gluten flour. By adding about a tablespoon of gluten for every cup of flour in your recipe, you can make your all-purpose flour have the protein level and strength of bread flour. But, be sure to follow package instructions. While it is expensive, a little goes a long way. Gluten is available at health food stores and some supermarkets; brands to look for are Bob's Red Mill, Arrowhead Mills, and Hodgson Mill.

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