A guide for how to use the most common types of flour for baking and cooking. Learn about the role of gluten in the texture development of your favorite foods. Gain helpful tips on how to select flours for recipes.
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Using flour can seem like a simple task. That is until you get to the supermarket and are suddenly faced with multiple varieties. A less-thorough recipe may merely ask for flour, so it’s up to you to figure out which type is best for your needs.
The selection process comes down to what’s being made and whether you’re looking to add nutritional benefits or have a dietary restriction. Don’t worry! I’ve done my homework and am here to help. I’ve put together some basic guidelines for the most common types of flour and cooking tips based on my experience.
Not an exhaustive list, but here some common household flours you can typically find at American grocery stores.
What you’ll find in most kitchens and on all store shelves. All-purpose flour contains the seed’s endosperm, meaning it’s more shelf-stable and will last longer than whole wheat flour. In my kitchen, I mainly use Gold-Medal all-purpose baking flour because it’s lower in protein and gives a more tender baked good.
- Best used for: Cookies, Bread, Waffles, Pancakes, Biscuits, Pizza dough, Pasta
- Contains: 10 to 13% protein
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is denser. Made from the endosperm, germ, and fiber-rich bran. The germ makes products more dense with less rise. You’ll also have to let this flour rest before baking–ten minutes should be the minimum, 20-30 is ideal. Resting allows the liquid in the batter or dough to permeate the bran and the germ, softening it before baking, which will result in a less coarse final product.
- Best used for: Cookies, Bread, Waffles, Scones, Pizza dough, Pasta
- Contains: 13 to 14% protein
White Whole Wheat Flour
This flour shouldn’t be confused with bleached flour. Instead, it’s made from a whole wheat seed head, containing bran, germ, and endosperm, only it’s made from a lighter variety of white hard winter wheat. The result is a lighter color baked good and a slightly sweeter taste compared to whole wheat.
- Best used for: Cookies, Bread, Muffins
- Not suitable for: Lighter cakes
- Contains: 13 to 14% protein
Comes in a regular variety, as well as whole wheat. Often bleached, it utilizes softer wheat varieties, resulting in a finer texture and diminished protein content. It shouldn’t be used for bread because if its lower gluten profile.
- Best used for: Cookies, Muffins, Pound Cakes, Scones, Waffles, Biscuits, Pie Crusts
- Not suitable for: Bread
- Contains: 7.5 to 9.5% protein
Is ideal for–you guessed it!–cake baking, creating a spongy, airy texture in the final product. It’s milled extremely fine, usually bleached and has a low protein content. The bleach allows the starches in the flour to absorb more fat and liquid.
- Best used for: Chiffon, Pound Cakes, Angel Food Cakes, Layer Cakes
- Contains: 6 to 8% protein
This high protein flour is perfect for developing a strong gluten network when you’re creating chewy texture products.
- Best used for: Artisan Breads, Yeast Breads, Some Cookies, Bagels
- Contains: 12 to 15% protein
When you’re looking for a shortcut, self-rising flour already has a leavening agent (baking powder) and salt built right in. The flour base is closer to a cake flour with lower protein. It cannot be substituted for other flours. To make your own self-rising flour combine 1 cup of flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
- Best used for: Biscuits
- Contains: 8 to 9% protein
Vital Wheat Gluten Flour
Is somewhat of a “superflour”–which is not a scientific term, just my way of saying that it’s a flour engineered with little starch and a lot of gluten. Technically, it isn’t flour but is made from wheat flour that has been hydrated. This combination activates the gluten, and then the flour is processed to remove everything but the gluten. After that, it’s dried and ground back into a powder.
- Best used for: As a booster for low-protein flours, like rye, whole wheat or sprouted flours
- Contains: 40 to 85% protein
Gluten-free flour alternatives have grown in popularity as consumers either have dietary restrictions, allergies, celiac disease, or are looking to reduce gluten consumption. These flours attempt to mimic the functionality and texture of wheat flour. They may contain rice, corn, potato, tapioca, arrowroot, buckwheat, amaranth, bean, quinoa, sorghum, flax meal or ground nuts, typically as a blend.
- Best used for: Gluten-free diets, Cakes, Cookies, Pancakes, Waffles, Bread, Muffins.
- Contains: % Protein varies by brand
This is made from sprouted grains, which includes a lot more than just white or red wheat. These are good choices for anyone seeking to increase taste and nutrition, though they may require more skill to work with. On the list are rye, corn, sorghum, amaranth spelt, and einkorn, to name only a few grains.
- Best used for: Bread, Cakes, Cookies, Crackers
- Contains: Protein levels vary with the type of flour.
White flour, in particular, is occasionally treated with benzoyl peroxide or chlorine to remove the yellow tinge of color from carotenoids after milling for a consistent bright white color. Bleaching changes the structure of the starches and protein, causing the starches to become more absorbent and the protein to bind less tightly together. The process makes the dough less sticky and easier to work with.
The Role of Protein in Baking and Cooking
Mixing flour and water together hydrates and activates the insoluble wheat proteins, glutenin and gliadin, creating gluten bonds that give structure and elasticity to bread, cakes, cookies, pizza dough, and pasta.
Each type of flour has different levels of wheat protein, which determines the gluten forming potential. Also, the strength of gluten formation is also affected by the intensity and length of mixing. That’s why some directions say “gently fold,” or “do not overmix.” With the wrong technique, a tender muffin can become a rubbery hockey puck due to a few extra stirs.
Does Protein Content Vary By Brand?
Yes! Check the nutritional label and use this simple calculation: grams protein ÷ grams serving size x 100 = % Protein
- Gold Medal All-Purpose Flour: 3 grams ÷ 30 grams x 100 = 10% protein
- King Arthur All-Purpose Flour: 4 grams ÷ 30 grams x 100 = 13.3% protein
As you can see, there’s a pretty big spread for these two brands. This can cause more of an impact when kneading and baking bread dough because more protein creates more gluten development, potentially creating a more rubbery texture. This is less of a concern with tender crumb products with higher sugar and fat like muffins, biscuits or cookies.
For a quick fix, replace one tablespoon of flour per cup with one tablespoon cornstarch. If within the 10-11% protein range, there should be less of a noticeable difference in bread recipes. (Reference: Cook’s Illustrated)