If you’re a regular home baker, or even just a regular baked goods eater, you’ve probably heard of several different kinds of flours. Maybe you’re wondering what the difference is between all-purpose, whole wheat, bread flour, cake flour, and others? And what’s going on with gluten-free flour?

We have all the answers you’ve been searching for. This guide covers everything you need to know about the most common types of flours used in baking. With a better understanding of the different kinds of flour available, you’ll be able to make homemade pastries and breads that are that much more tender, chewy, and flavorful.

 

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What is Flour?

Whether you’re a self-proclaimed master baker or you’ve barely reached for your oven before, you probably have a bag of flour in your kitchen. It’s a pretty ubiquitous pantry staple. And for good reason: flour is a foundational ingredient for breads, pastries, cakes and biscuits made all over the world. Not to mention its many savory uses too, for thickening sauces, stabilizing soups and more.

 

ic: Wheat Germ, Bran and Endosperm

 

At its most basic, flour is a powder made from milled wheat. Specifically, flour is made from the seeds of edible wheat plants. Each seed consists of a germ, bran and an endosperm. The germ is inside the seed and contains all of the fat. That’s the part that will give way to new life.

Surrounding the germ is the endosperm, which makes up the bulk of the seed. The endosperm is where you’ll find the important proteins in the flour, namely gluten. And surrounding that is the bran, the protective outer shell, which is high in fiber.

Milling flour breaks these three seed parts apart. When you buy white all-purpose flour, you’re only purchasing pure endosperm. You’ll also see bags of wheat germ and wheat bran for sale. Together, these three products make a complete whole grain!

Common Types of Flour for Baking

Now that you understand where flour comes from and how it’s made, let’s get a little deeper into the different kinds of flour you can bake with.

All-Purpose Flour

ic: All Purpose Flour - The most Common of Flour

All-purpose, or white flour, is the most common variety for baking. It’s your basic option that's usually a safe go-to ingredient if your recipe doesn’t specify a particular type of flour. All-purpose is made of one ingredient: wheat endosperm. It’s light, fluffy and predictable. While different brands contain varying levels of protein, if you choose one brand, you can quickly get to know how it cooks.

TIP: Eating raw flour, even in eggless cookie dough, is not recommended, as flour can contain bacteria and other not-so-appetizing particles that are best avoided. However, you can make raw flour edible by heat treating it: simply microwave or toast the flour in a 350°F oven until it reaches 166°F.

In general, all-purpose flour is a fine substitute for the other kinds of flour listed here for most baking projects. But as you become a more experienced and adventurous baker, experimenting with the different flour varieties can take your baked goods to a new level.

 

Bread Flour

ic: Bread Flour

A less common flour variety, bread flour is a savoir-faire to avid bread bakers. Made by only a few companies, bread flour has a higher protein content than regular all-purpose. This means more gluten, which translates to chewier, stretchier bread with a better crumb.

ic: Crumb - The Interior of Bread

The crumb is the interior of bread. A baker may want her crumb to be bubbly, with large air pockets, as in a rustic loaf like ciabatta. Or, she may want a uniform, even crumb, as in dinner rolls. Whichever recipe they choose, bread flour gives them an advantage in the structure of their loaves.

 

Cake Flour

ic: Cake Flour - Lighter, Fluffier and Finer

Cake flour is all-purpose flour that’s been milled a step further. It’s a lighter, fluffier and finer powder that gives homemade cakes their springy and tender texture. Cake flour is also called soft flour, which refers to its lower protein content. Less gluten means that your cakes will be airier, with a tight, uniform crumb. 

Cake flour is often bleached, which makes it whiter and brighter than other varieties. Bleaching also reduces the strength of the gluten, which means that other flavors, like chocolate, vanilla, orange, or mint will stand out more in baked goods made with cake flour.

TIP: If a recipe calls for cake flour but you only have all-purpose, you can make your own by mixing 1 cup of all-purpose flour (minus 2 tablespoons) with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.

Want to frost a cake like an expert? Check out this article. 

 

Pastry Flour

ic: Pastry Flour - Cookies, Muffins, Brownies and Pound Cake

In terms of protein content, pastry flour lands somewhere in between cake flour and all-purpose. This is the ingredient to use for the flakiest biscuits and pie crusts. You can also rely on pastry flour for melt-in-your mouth cookies, muffins, brownies and pound cakes.

 

Whole Wheat Flour

ic: Whole Wheat Flour - Higher in fiber and fat than white flour

Whole wheat flour contains all three parts of the wheat seed: germ, endosperm and bran. Because it includes germ and bran, the flour is higher in fiber and fat than white flour. It’s also darker in color, with a distinctly nutty flavor and weightier quality.

The fat and fiber in wheat bran and germ are more volatile than the pure protein in wheat endosperm. For this reason, whole wheat flour has a slightly shorter shelf life than other flours. To extend your flour’s life, store whole wheat in the fridge.

TIP: If you want to make your baked goods a bit healthier, you can substitute regular flour with whole wheat. ¾ cup of whole wheat flour can replace 1 cup of white all-purpose flour in a recipe. If you do a 1 to 1 replacement, your baked goods might end up denser and heavier than you’d like.

You can also experiment by replacing half or one third of the flour in a recipe with whole wheat. Remember, it will change the flavor and texture of the finished product, so start small!

If you add whole wheat flour to a recipe, you may also want to add a bit more water or other liquid. Whole wheat doesn’t absorb liquid as readily as white flour, so whole wheat baked goods can come out drier than you’d like. To prevent this, add 2 teaspoons more liquid (water, milk and buttermilk all work) per 1 cup of whole wheat flour.

 

Gluten-Free Flour

ic: Gluten-Free Flour - Xanthan Gum is a stabilizer that gives stretch and chew to gluten-free products

Baking without gluten is another science altogether. When you can’t rely on the stretchy strands of gluten proteins to give structure, chew and uniformity to your baked goods, it’s time to turn to other ingredients. Gluten free flours include any powder that’s not made from gluten-containing wheat. For example, nut-based flours milled from almonds, coconuts or walnuts, or grain-baed flours from quinoa and rice are all gluten-free flour alternatives.

More common gluten-free flour replacements include rice flour and starches made from potatoes and tapioca. These powders resemble white all-purpose flour. And, they have binding properties similar to gluten to hold baked goods together.

Still, gluten free flour blends don’t always produce the strongest baked goods. That’s where specialty ingredients like xanthan gum come in. Xanthan is a stabilizer that gives stretch and chew to gluten-free products. It’s available at specialty stores and online.

 

Conclusion

Whether you’re baking a crusty baguette, the most tender brownie or a light and airy angel food cake, it’s important to consider your most vital baking ingredient: flour. Selecting the right protein content, color and texture can go a long way in improving the treats you bake up at home.

What types of flour do you use most often? And what would you like to try using for your next bake? You can leave a comment below! Also, do help a friend struggling with understanding the different types of flour by sharing this post :)

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