Flour Power: A Guide to Different Baking Flours
PROTEIN AND GLUTEN
Although there are so many types of baking flours out there, the main differentiator is protein. The more protein a baking flour contains, the more gluten it has, which translates into how strong or weak a flour type is. If a flour has a high protein content, it will have a chewier texture that is elastic and holds its shape (like pizza dough). The less protein a flour has, the weaker it’ll be, which is what you want when baking a tender and flaky pastry or cake. Usually, high-protein varieties are about 10-14% protein while low-protein flours are usually around the 5-10% range. Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the main types of flours and what they’re best used for in the kitchen.
TYPES OF FLOUR
1. ALL PURPOSE FLOUR
Also known as AP flour, this kind can be used for nearly any baked good including cookies, bread, waffles, pancakes, biscuits and pizza dough. With its versatility, it should be a staple in every kitchen because it plays well with others. It has a moderate protein content of 10-13%, which means it can be used for pizza dough but also flaky pie crust. It’s made from a mixture of soft and hard wheat and sold bleached or unbleached.
2. CAKE FLOUR
With a name that speaks for itself, cake flour is best for, of course, cakes! Chiffon, angel food, layer and sheet cake all work best with cake flour, but it can also be used for muffins and biscuits. With the lowest protein content of all the flours at 6-8%, the less gluten leads to a softer baked good. Cake flour is finely milled and chlorinated, a bleaching process that further weakens the gluten proteins and changes the starch level so it can absorb more liquid, making it easy to achieve a super airy cake.
3. PASTRY FLOUR
Best used for tarts, cookies and pie crust, pastry flour is kind of the middle child between all-purpose flour and cake flour. The unbleached flour is made from soft wheat with a low protein content of 8-9%, making goods flaky and tender. But bakers beware, it’s not ideal to use when baking bread simply because the end result will not be that chewy, elastic slice of bread we all love given the low protein content. Can’t find pastry flour? It’s pretty easy to make at home by mixing 1 ⅓ cups of all-purpose flour with ⅔ cups cake flour.
4. BREAD FLOUR
Now here’s the flour that’s great for the artisan bread, yeast bread, and bagels. Milled completely from hard wheat, it’s the strongest of all the flours with a high protein content of 12-15% (strong gluten), ideal for a good rise when baking, as well as forming that delicious brown crust. Bread flour can be found in white or whole wheat, bleached or unbleached varieties. Sometimes all-purpose flour can be substituted for bread flour.
5. SELF-RISING FLOUR
Now here’s a flour type that has been formulated to take out some of the work that goes into baking. Self-rising flour is basically all-purpose flour with baking soda and salt mixed in during the milling process, allowing bread to rise without the need for yeast. It is usually made from soft wheat and has a protein content of 8-9%, perfect for tender biscuits, muffins and pancakes. Since it does have some added ingredients, it’s best stored tightly wrapped in the original box and used within 6 months- any longer and the baking powder will start to lose its power. You can also make your own by mixing 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder and ¼ salt.
6. WHOLE-WHEAT FLOUR
Not only does it add more nutrition, whole-wheat flour gives baked goods a nutty and tasty flavor in cookies, breads, scones and pizza. It is a bit more complicated in its milling process, with different amounts of wheat germ and bran added back into the flour and a protein content of 13-14%. While the high protein usually means a chewy texture, the wheat germ and bran affects its gluten-forming ability, making the dough super sticky and resulting in denser baked goods. Whole-wheat flour is also more perishable than white flour, lasting only about 3 months before needing to be transferred to the freezer to keep fresh.
7. WHITE WHOLE-WHEAT FLOUR
Not to be confused with whole-wheat flour or bleached white flour, white whole-wheat flour is made from hard white wheat and packed with fiber, proteins, vitamins and minerals. It has the same protein content as whole-wheat flour at 13-14% and has a very similar nutritional value. It’s a great choice if you want the taste of white flour but the nutrition of whole-wheat flour because of its milder flavor and pale texture. This is a great baking flour for bread, muffins and cookies.
8. GLUTEN-FREE FLOUR
Gluten-free flour has come a long way and can be delicious in many baked goods with the versatility of all-purpose flour. It can be made from a variety of ingredients and blends including rice, corn, potato, tapioca, quinoa, or nuts, with xanthan gum sometimes being added to help with the chewiness factor that can only be given with the addition of gluten. It can’t always be substituted 1:1 for white flour, so it’s important to check the recipe if thinking of swapping to gluten-free flour. It’s best used in cakes, cookies, pancakes, waffles, bread and muffins. The protein content also varies by brand and blend.
9. ALMOND FLOUR
Almond flour is a dense flour high in protein at 21% and gives baked goods a great nutty flavor in cakes and cookies. It’s made by blanching almonds in boiling water to remove the skins and then grinding and sifting them into a fine flour. It’s a favorite among gluten-free fans because it’s low in carbs and high in healthy fats and fiber. However, since it doesn’t have gluten, almond flour needs other ingredients like starches, bananas or peanut butter to give it some structure, otherwise it’ll be very flat and dense.
10. 00 FLOUR
The gold standard for pizza and pasta, this Italian-style flour (also known as semolina flour) is super easy to roll out to extreme thinness without breaking. The “00” refers to the super-fine texture of the flour made from the hardest type of wheat, durum. With a protein content of 11-13%, it is super elastic, has a great chew and has a good structure. If looking for thin crust pizza or pasta, this is the flour to use. It is not recommended for baking bread, as it won’t keep its structure as well as bread flour or all-purpose flour.
With so many different types of baking flour, the options are endless when deciding what to bake. With just a few of these tips and maybe a handy baking book, a scone, muffin or delicious sourdough bread is just a few ingredients away. Happy baking!