It’s as simple as this: before you decorate, a cake’s got to be baked. And to bake a cake that will make the perfect canvas for cake decorating, you’ll need to know the different types of flours that will help create a delicate, fine-crumbed cake.
Photo via Craftsy instructor Beth Somers
Flour is one of the many subjects covered in Craftsy course The Wilton Method®: Baking Basics. In the course, pastry chef Beth Somers demystifies bakeware, pan preparation and measuring techniques. You’ll learn the proper way to combine your ingredients and avoid over-mixing, so you always end up with a tender cake. But it doesn’t stop there: you’ll also learn how to “prime” your cake canvas by leveling the cakes, applying a crumb coat to make icing or applying fondant easier, and overall readying your cake to be beautifully decorated.
Of course, learning the skills aren’t the full story: an artist needs to have the right materials, too.
So in order to create that perfect cake, here’s an introduction to the different types of flour to use for baking perfect decorating cakes: all-purpose, pastry and cake flour.
Illustration via CakeSpy
It’s called “all-purpose” for a reason. This is a blend of hard and soft wheat, which may be sold “bleached” or “unbleached” (more information on that below). All purpose flour is sometimes called “plain flour,” too. It will range between 9-12% protein, which makes it a versatile flour for all types of uses.
This is the most commonly used and readily available flour in most grocery stores. While it can be and frequently is used in cakes, it will yield a finished product with a coarser crumb. In general, pastry professionals often choose to reserve all-purpose flour for sturdier baked goods or denser, loaf-type cakes, and will more frequently use cake flour for delicate cakes, like the 8+ layer Smith Island cake.
With its fine texture, this flour is well suited to baking delicate cakes. It is a soft wheat flour with lower protein content (about 7-9%) and higher starch content than all-purpose flour. Often, cake flour is bleached through a chlorination process, resulting in a slightly acidic quality. This can help the flour react with the other ingredients faster, resulting in a more dramatic rise and fine, delicate texture.
Although a bit harder to find, unbleached cake flour is available. This flour would be ill-suited to making loaves of bread or coarser-textured carbohydrates, but is fantastic for creating a decorating cake. It’s safe to say that most wedding cakes will be made with cake flour.
Call it the “middle ground” flour. It’s finer than all-purpose flour, but not quite as fine as cake flour. Like cake flour, it’s made with soft wheat, but it has a higher protein content (between 9 and 10%). If you’re looking for a tender but slightly sturdier texture, use pastry flour. It’s a good choice for cookies, or a homemade pie crust and quick breads, and can be nice in a denser cake, such as the base of a crumb cake, or a pound cake.
Pastry flour, which is also sometimes called “cookie flour,” is less readily available in stores than all-purpose or cake flour, but can be found in regular and whole wheat varieties in specialty markets and online.
Note: If you want to try to mimic the effect of pastry flour, mix together 2 parts all-purpose flour and 1 part cake flour.
Illustration via CakeSpy
Within these types of flour, you may see some variations. Here are some common ones you’ll see:
Bleached vs. unbleached flour:
In the grocery store, you may see separate sacks of flour labeled “bleached” and “unbleached.” Unbleached flour has lightened in color naturally as it ages; flour that has been chemically treated to lighten the color is labeled “bleached.” Typically, bleached flour has less protein than unbleached, which will yield baked goods with a more delicate texture.
Also known as “phosphated flour,” this is a low protein flour that already has the salt and leavening (baking powder) mixed in. So where recipes often call for you to sift dry ingredients together toward the beginning of the baking process, if you use self-rising flour, this is not necessary.
Since the amount of leavening may vary by manufacturer, self-rising flour is not always reliable in cake baking. It’s more frequently favored for quick breads, pancakes and biscuits, which tend to be a little more forgiving with the leavening variance.
Photo via Craftsy
Can I substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour?
Using cake flour, when it’s called for, is always the best way to go, but if you’re in a pinch, you can substitute all-purpose flour. However, it’s not a straight swap. There are two suggestions for substitution:
- The first substitution is to substitute 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for each cup of cake flour.
- The second substitution is the same (1 cup minus 2 tablespoons), but also calls for 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. The starch softens the flour, mellowing out the gluten content, allowing for a slightly more delicate end result.
Still, as noted from the get-go, the best bet is to use cake flour when it’s called for in a recipe.
Can I substitute cake flour for all-purpose flour?
It’s a less common occurrence, as all-purpose flour is more likely to be in your pantry, but it can be done. Use 1 cup of cake flour plus 1 tablespoon per cup of all-purpose flour called for in the recipe.
What about gluten-free flours?
There’s no way to beat around the bush: using gluten-free flours for cake baking is decidedly more complex than all-purpose vs. cake flour. Many seasoned gluten-free bakers will devise custom flour mixes for the project at hand (a gluten-free flour mix that’s used for cookies may be different than the one used for cakes).
If you are a beginner, there are gluten-free cake flour mixes on the market, and some Web sites offer tutorials on how to make your own. Gluten-free flours include teff, rice, tapioca, coconut, almond and many others.
Come back to the Craftsy blog on Tuesday to learn how to veganize baking recipes.