Which Flour Should I Use to Bake Holiday Treats?
The holidays always inspire me to bust out my favorite cooking apps on my iPad and rediscover my inner Betty Crocker. There is simply nothing more relaxing on a chilly winter day than putting on a cheesy Hallmark movie and whipping up a couple dozen cookies and other sweet treats to match the festive ambiance December brings. Before you start baking your favorite holiday treats, you might want to give more consideration to the type of flour you use, as the type of flour you choose can affect the final treat you serve to friends and family.
As I was making my list of sweet treats to bake for the holidays, I started double-checking my guest list, which includes several guests who are gluten-free. I started to worry I’d have trouble offering any gluten-free desserts for them, until I did some digging. I realized I could easily adapt a few of my favorite recipes to accommodate my gluten-free friends by simply changing the flour I used in my baking – and checking that all the remaining ingredients are gluten-free as well, of course.
What Is the Biggest Difference in Types of Flour Available?
Most flours are made from finely milled wheat or other grains (and some flours available today are made from other ingredients, such as nuts, seeds, grasses, and even beans). All wheat flour, generally is white flour, unless it’s labeled otherwise. This means that it’s milled from the starchy, innermost part of the wheat kernel (leaving out the tougher outer layer). White flour is often bleached to create a brighter whiteness. The biggest difference between most any wheat flours available at a grocery store is usually the protein content. The more protein a flour has, the more gluten there will be in the flour. And the more gluten that’s in the flour, the more “strength” or texture the flour can lend to the baked goods you’re creating. So, more protein means more gluten and more gluten yields a hardier end result.
What Kind of Flour Should You Use for Your Baked Goods This Holiday?
The type of flour you should select depends on what you’re making. This is where the gluten content in your flour comes into play. Do you want a softer result (think tender cake or fluffy biscuits) or a sturdy result (think crunchy gingerbread cookies or biscotti)?
If a recipe simply calls for “all-purpose” flour, just use the standard flour available at the store (like the same generic store-brand stuff I’ve bought for years!) All-purpose flour is incredibly versatile because of its average protein content, which is typically between 10 and 12 percent. That means this flour can produce both substantial pie crusts as well as soft, chewy cookies. But if you want to achieve a very specific consistency and texture with your cookies or cakes, it may be time to switch up what’s in your baking cabinet.
Five Types of Flour to Add to Pantry for Your Baked Goods
- Cake Flour has a very low protein level (between five and eight percent) and is milled from soft winter wheat; this product should be used if you want to create a soft, crumbly baked good, such as a sponge cake, a muffin or a biscuit.
- Pastry Flour has a bit more protein on the “flour rung”, with a total content between eight or nine percent. It can be used for pie crusts, cookies and muffins. You can actually mix up your own pastry flour at home by simply using a blend of cake flour and all-purpose flour.
- Bread Flour is the sturdiest of the white flours because its protein content is between 12 and 14 percent. This makes it the perfect candidate for producing baked goods that need some structure to them. Give these pretzels that call for bread flour a try.
- Whole Wheat Flour also tends to have a higher protein content, usually between 13 to 14 percent, which means it yields denser baked goods. The wheat germ is included in whole wheat flour, which has volatile oils that can become rancid over time, shortening its lifespan. While all-purpose flour can be stored for up to eight months in an air-tight container, whole wheat flour should only be stored for up to three months. Use this flour to make heartier cookies, breads and pancakes.
- White Whole Wheat Flour is not the same as unbleached flour, even if I did mistakenly think that before doing my own research! Made with hard white spring wheat or winter wheat, it too, has a higher protein content of 13 to 14 percent – yet has a sweeter taste than regular whole wheat flour, thanks to a lower tannin count. This flour is best used for breads, muffins and cookies.
In most recipes, you can replace all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. You can reduce the amount of flour required by approximately half, since whole wheat flour is denser and more absorbent. You may want to check specific recipes first and measure dry goods for baking by volume.
Specialty Flours Available in the Baking Aisle
While all the flours above can be used somewhat interchangeably while baking, depending on the outcome you desire, there are several more specialty flours that can be found in the baking aisle you can use to produce delectable delights, as well.
Gluten-free flour is available today in several varieties, including those made from nuts, grains and starches. They can often be substituted for whole-wheat flours in recipes for those with a gluten intolerance. Consult each specific recipe to make the appropriate substitution. These chocolate cookies are gluten-free and perfect for your holiday sweets table!
Self-rising flour has baking powder and salt added during the milling process. It is generally made from low-protein wheat. Use it to make these yummy cinnamon rolls! This flour can also be replicated at home by combining: 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt for every cup of flour.
Almond Flour is a current favorite among health-conscious consumers because it’s low-carb but high in fiber, making it a great choice for those on restricted diets like keto. Be sure you’re not using almond meal (which is not fine enough to be used as a flour) and test your recipes. I recently used this flour in an ill-fated attempt at delicate French macarons. Because almond flour has a heavier, nuttier taste than its traditional cousins, it is best used for cookies, muffins and breads.
No matter what type of treats you plan to whip up this holiday season, be sure you actively check that you’re using the right flour to get the job done right. Nobody wants rock-hard cookies or a flat cake this time of year (or any time of year)!
The Cookies My Household Can’t Do Without This Time of Year
Chocolate-mint cookies are always a must-have at my house around the holidays. There is simply something about the chocolate and mint combination that feels so festive (which probably explains why my go-to Starbucks order in December is a Peppermint Mocha!)
Chocolate Mint Cookies with Andes Mints (adapted from my Grandma Ruth’s recipe card)
- ¾ cup butter
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar
- 2 Tablespoons water
- 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
- 2 eggs
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- One package of Andes Mints, unwrapped, broken in half, or Andes Baking Chips (about one cup)
- In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, add the sugar, butter and water and simmer, stirring until melted.
- Remove from heat, stir in the chocolate chips until melted and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
- Pour the cooled (but not cold) chocolate mixture into a large bowl, and beat in the eggs, one at a time.
- Combine the flour, baking soda and salt, and then stir into the chocolate mixture.
- Cover the bowl with wet paper towel and refrigerate the dough for at least one hour.
- Preheat oven to 350. Grease cookie sheets.
- Roll cookie dough into small balls and place 2 inches apart on cookie sheets. Press gently on the top of each cookie to give it a slightly flat top.
- Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven.
- When you’ve taken the cookies out of the oven, press half of an Andes mint (or several chips) onto the top of each cookie and wait 15-30 seconds. When the Andes candy bits are softened, swirl them with the back of a fork to make a pattern with the green filling of the mint.
And if chocolate isn’t your thing, try a cinnamon-sugar Snickerdoodle. If you’re craving something unique to serve with your coffee, I highly recommend whipping up some White Chocolate Cranberry Bread because cranberry is such a sweet wintry treat.
Happy baking and Happy Holidays!