Wheat flour is the backbone of baking, but with so many different types on the market, it’s hard to know what to stock in your pantry and what type to use when. Whether you’re a cake maker, bread baker or prefer cookies and pies, the type of flour you use will greatly influence the success of your baking endeavor.
Before we get started, there are a few terms you need to know:
Hard vs. soft wheat
Varieties of wheat that are either higher in protein (hard) or lower (soft).
It’s what gives baked goods their bite. The more protein, the stronger the gluten bonds. Crusty breads with a lot of chew and structure typically use a high-protein flour (12 to 14 percent). Light and delicate cakes with a tender crumb are often made from cake flour, which is very low in protein (7 to 9 percent) and forms weaker gluten bonds.
Bleached vs. unbleached flour
In the grocery store, you may see separate sacks of flour labeled “bleached” and “unbleached.”
Freshly milled, unbleached flour has a slight yellow color that mellows and whitens as the flour ages. Aging the flour is optimal for baking.
To speed up the whitening, flour is often chemically bleached. Bleached flour often contains less protein and can taste bitter and “off” to people with a sensitive palate.
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour is made by milling all three parts of the wheat grain: the bran (the outer layers full of fiber), the germ (the innermost part full of protein, fat and vitamins) and the endosperm (the white protein/starchy middle layers). White flour is made from only the endosperm part.
Whole wheat flour is higher in fiber and contains more nutrients than white flour and will make your baked goods heavier and denser. Whole wheat flour becomes stale more quickly, as there is fat present in the wheat germ.
For baking, there are four main types of wheat flour you’ll come across:
1. All-purpose flour
10 to 12 percent
Coarser crumb; it’s a mix of soft and hard wheat.
Best uses for all-purpose flour
As the name suggests, this flour can do it all and is sometimes called “plain flour.” This is the most commonly used and readily available flour. It comes in bleached and unbleached varieties at most grocery stores.
While it can be and frequently is used in cakes, it will give you a coarser crumb. In general, pastry pros reserve all-purpose flour for sturdier baked goods or denser, loaf-type cakes, and will more frequently use cake flour for delicate cakes.
Because this is the most common flour, chances are you won’t need to make a substitution. But if you do, use cake flour and add an extra tablespoon for every cup measured for delicate baking, or use 1:1 substitution of bread flour for heartier baked goods.
2. Cake flourFrom The BEST Birthday Cake Recipe
7 to 9 percent
Finely milled, very delicate crumb, soft wheat
Best uses for cake flour
With its fine texture, this flour is well suited to baking delicate cakes that have a light and airy structure. It’s a soft wheat flour with a lower protein content 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.
Substitution for cake flour
If you don’t have cake flour, you can use all-purpose flour. For every 1 cup of flour, replace 2 tablespoons of flour with cornstarch and sift several times to combine. The starch softens the flour, mellowing out the gluten content and lowering the protein level, allowing for a slightly more delicate end result.
3. Pastry flour
9 to 10 percent
In between cake and all-purpose flour, it offers a bit more structure than cake flour and a is softer than all-purpose.
Best uses for pastry 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. If you’re looking for a tender but slightly sturdier texture, use pastry flour, aka “cookie 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. It can be a bit harder to find, but usually available at specialty markets and online.
Substitution for pastry flour
If you want to try to mimic the effect of pastry flour, mix together 2 parts all-purpose flour and 1 part cake flour.
4. Bread flour
12 to 14 percent
Hard wheat that allows for strong gluten bonds and lots of structure.
Best uses for bread flour
Use bread flour when you want a tough texture, the chew, and bite of a good loaf of bread. It’s made from hard high-protein wheat that will form a lot of gluten. In bread baking, it’s the forming of gluten that gives the bread some pull and chewiness.
Substitution for bread flour
If you don’t have bread flour, use all-purpose flour, adding 1 teaspoon of vital wheat gluten per cup needed. Sift several times to combine.
Less common wheat flours
If you’ve taken a run down the flour aisle at your local grocery store, you’ve likely noticed numerous other options of flour available, each with more specific uses. Some of the most common:
Also known as “phosphated flour,” this is a low-protein flour that already has the salt and leavening (baking powder) mixed in. So when recipes 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 more forgiving with the leavening variance.
You can make your own self-rising flour by adding 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt per cup of all-purpose flour.
This super-fine flour is a favorite among pizza and pasta makers for its ability to be rolled or stretched very thin.
Some of these flour mixes offer 1:1 substitutions in recipes that call for traditional all-purpose flour. These are great options for bakers looking to make their favorite treats gluten-free, but you may need to experiment to find the perfect mix/ratios for your own recipes.