Flour is the backbone of baking but with so many different types it’s hard to know what to keep around and what type to use where.
Flour is essentially a fine powder that is made by grinding grains or certain types of seeds or even roots. For the purpose of this post I’m going to stick with flours made from ground wheat: both hard and soft. These two types refer to the protein content in the flour with hard flour containing more protein than soft. In baking it’s important to be aware of protein content as the amount of protein will directly affect the finished texture of what you are baking.
Types of Wheat Flour
As the name suggests, this flour can do it all; produce tender cakes, make chewy bread, and perfect cookies. Hard and soft wheat are mixed together to create a flour that has a moderate amount of protein around 10-12%.
Often you’ll find two types of all-purpose flour: bleached or unbleached. Freshly milled flour has a slight yellow color that mellows and whitens as the flour ages. Aging the flour is optimal for baking but in order to speed up the whitening often times flour will be chemically bleached. Bleached flour often contains less protein and can taste bitter and “off” to people with a sensitive palate.
Bread flour is used when you are looking for a tough texture, some chew and bite as you want in a good loaf of bread. It is made from hard wheat and contains about 12-14% protein. The amount of protein in the flour refers to the amount of gluten. In bread baking it is the forming of gluten that gives the bread some pull and chew.
Pastry flour is made from soft wheat and contains about 9-10% protein. Pastry flour is often used in cake and pie baking as it will produce a tender crumb. The low protein content in the flour means that there is little gluten which is exactly what you want when making cakes in particular. In pastry making the mixing is done with great care as to not allow much gluten to form.
Cake flour is also made from soft wheat grain. As with pastry flour, cake flour is milled very fine and contains a low protein content, around 8-10%. Cake flour is further processed through a bleaching process which slightly acidifies the flour allowing the final cake to set faster. As with bleached flour, the chemicals added to the flour can produce an “off” taste.
Typically I don’t have cake flour around and am one of those who can taste the added chemicals so instead of cake flour I’ll simply use all-purpose and replace 2 tablespoons from every cup of flour used with cornstarch. So I’ll measure a cup of flour, remove two tablespoons then in its place add in 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. The cornstarch contains no gluten bringing down the percentage of protein in all-purpose flour to nearly the same percentage as cake or pastry flour.
Whole wheat flour is made from the whole kernel of wheat, whereas white flour is only made from the endosperm of the grain. Whole wheat flour is high in fiber and contains far more nutrients than white flour. Whole wheat pastry flour is the same as whole wheat flour except that it is milled finer.
How to Store
All flours should be stored well-sealed in a cool, dark spot. White flours will keep for six months or up to a year frozen. Whole wheat flour stales quicker as there is fat present in the wheat germ that remains in the flour. Store well-sealed in a cool, dark spot for three months or in the freezer for six months. Always taste the flour before using.
To keep flour from insects invading put a bay leaf in the container as they are natural repellents.
How to Measure
All flours weigh differently so it is always best to use a scale when working with flour. If you don’t have a scale the scoop and sweep method of measuring should be used. If the flour hasn’t been used recently simply break it up with a fork. Fill your measuring cup with flour then use the back side of a knife to even out the top.