Wheat flour is the backbone of the baked goods we love. But with flour, one size doesn't always fit all. One type of flour is best for baking bread, another type for pastries. Read on to discover the right flour for every baking need.
The Two Types of Wheat
There are two types of wheat: hard and soft. The key difference between them is protein content. Hard wheat is higher in protein than soft wheat -- and it is the protein that contains the gluten that allows breads and other baked goods to rise.
Where wheat is grown can determine protein content: Northwestern U.S. and western Canada produce hard wheat that's very high in protein, while the southern U.S. states grow a softer wheat with less protein.
All-purpose flour includes a happy balance of hard and soft flours. And as the name suggests, it is a type of flour that lets you make a wide variety of baked goods without having to stock up on multiple types of flour.
What to Make with All-Purpose Flour: Cookies, cakes, muffins, quick breads, biscuits, and pie crusts.
Use all-purpose flour in these recipes:
Bread benefits from a high-protein flour (about 13 percent, compared to about 11 percent for all-purpose flour). When combined with water and developed by mixing and kneading, the gluten becomes elastic and stretches around gas bubbles produced by the yeast. When gas bubbles expand in the oven, the gluten goes along for the ride. The result is a nice fat loaf of bread.
Interestingly, of all the grains, wheat is the only one that packs gluten-producing proteins. To rise properly, breads made with other grains (like rye, corn, or oats) must be fortified with wheat flour or gluten.
As a home baker, you can ignore language on bread flour labels saying "first clear flour," "patent flour," and "high gluten flour." You'll be fine with the blend of bread flour found in any national brand.
Can you substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour? Yes, you can. Bread flour gives you that chewy, elastic crumb that's often desirable in bread, but you can substitute AP flour and still get a beautiful loaf of bread.
What to make with bread flour: Breads, rolls, and recipes that want a chewy, elastic crumb.
Use bread flour in these recipes:
Cake flour is a lower-protein flour (about 8 percent protein) that's also bleached with chlorine, which alters the structure of the starches and fats and makes the flour slightly acidic. Always sift cake flour before using it in a recipe.
In a pinch, you can substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour -- with some tweaking, that is. A straight substitution of all-purpose flour in recipes specifically formulated for cake flour would not produce happy results. However, you can approximate cake flour by reducing the protein level of your all-purpose flour -- do this by adding cornstarch to the flour:
How to make quasi cake flour: For every cup of all-purpose flour, remove 2 tablespoons of the flour, and replace it with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour well before using in recipes.
What to make with cake flour: Cakes and other recipes that call for it.
Use cake flour in these recipes:
- Aunt Johnnie's Pound Cake
- Heavenly White Cake
- Raspberry Walnut Torte
- Strawberry Cake from Scratch
- David's Yellow Cake
Pastry flour is a medium-protein flour (about 9 percent protein) that produces tender pie crusts. If you use a flour with too much protein, your pastry can become tough; too little, and the pastry can be brittle and hard to work with. Medium is just right.
In a pinch, you can make your own version of pastry flour by combining one part cornstarch to two parts all-purpose flour.
What to make with pastry flour: Pie crust, pastries, breadings for battered and fried foods.
Use pastry flour in these recipes:
Self-rising flour already contains baking powder, so you don't need to add any leavening agents.
You can make your own self-rising flour: Just add 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of salt per cup of flour (or by weight: 5-7 g of baking powder and .5 g of salt per 100 g of flour).
What to make with self-rising flour: Quick breads, biscuits, muffins, and pancakes.
Use self-rising flour in these recipes:
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour contains all of the nutrients found in the wheat kernel and results in dense, hearty baked goods. If 100% whole wheat bread tastes a little bit too healthy for you, try a ratio of half whole wheat, half bread flour.
You might need to adjust your liquids to hydrate the flour fully (use more water if you're adding whole wheat flour to a recipe, less if you're substituting bread flour for whole wheat).
Note: The natural oils in flours, especially whole grain flours, can spoil and turn rancid. Flour of all types should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer if you bake infrequently. It should smell and taste "wheaty," not musty or stale.
Use whole-wheat flour in these recipes:
- Whole Grain Banana Muffins
- Henry and Maudie's Oatmeal Cookies
- Simple Whole Wheat Bread
- Honey Wheat Sandwich Rolls
- Pizza Dough II
More about Wheat
The wheat berry is made up of bran, germ, and endosperm:
The bran is the hard outer shell that covers the wheat berry. An excellent source of fiber, the bran also contains most of the minerals. Because the bran has sharp edges, which interfere with gluten development, it is removed during milling -- and then often added back in later.
The germ is the part of the grain that would become the plant. Wheat germ is very high in protein and B vitamins. It is removed in the milling process because its high fat content causes the flour to become rancid more quickly. Wheat germ should be stored in the refrigerator.
The endosperm is the food that the seed would consume on its way to becoming a plant. The flour that we use for baking, unless it is whole wheat, has had the germ and the bran removed. The remaining endosperm is composed mostly of starch and protein.
Freshly ground wheat might smell great, but it doesn't make an optimum loaf: as flour ages, it creates stronger gluten, resulting in a more elastic dough and a lighter loaf. Aging also changes the color of flour from pale yellow to white. Millers have sped up this aging process with chlorine and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) , which also helps the flour look whiter.
Bread Machine Flour
Special bread machine flours are generally just high-protein flours, although some brands might contain dough conditioners like malted barley flour (diastatic malt powder), ascorbic acid, or lecithin.
How to Make Bread Machine Pizza Dough
Get the recipe for Bread Machine Pizza Dough.
Cup-to-Gram Conversions for Types of Flour
- One cup of all-purpose flour = 4.5 oz (128 g)
- One cup of bread flour = 4.8 oz (136 g)
- One cup of pastry flour = 4.25 oz (120 g)
- One cup of cake flour = 3.9 oz (111 g)
- One cup of whole wheat flour = 4.25 oz (120 g)
Protein Contents of Wheat Flours
U.S. and Canada
- All-purpose flour (nationwide) 11-12%
- All-purpose flour (Southern U.S.) 7.5-9.5%
- Bread flour 12-13%
- Whole wheat flour 11-15%
- Pastry flour 8-9%
- Cake flour 7-8%
- Vital wheat gluten 70-85%
- Italian soft wheat, Type 0 or 00 11-12%
- French Type 55 (blend of hard and soft wheat) 9-10%
- English plain flour 7-10%
About Vital Wheat Gluten
If you don't have the storage space or don't bake often enough to buy several different types of flour, you can buy a small bag of gluten flour. By adding about a tablespoon of gluten for every cup of flour in your recipe, you can make your all-purpose flour have the protein level and strength of bread flour (follow package instructions). It's expensive, but a little goes a long way. Gluten is available at health food stores and some supermarkets; brands to look for are Bob's Red Mill, Arrowhead Mills, and Hodgson Mill.