10 Types of Flour and Uses

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A guide for using 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.

Several different types of flour in individual bowls.

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 want 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 different types of flour and cooking tips based on my experience.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but here are some common household flours you can typically find at American grocery stores.

All-Purpose Flour

All-Purpose Flour

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. I mainly use Gold-Medal all-purpose baking flour In my kitchen because it’s lower in protein and gives a more tender baked good.

Whole Wheat Flour

Whole Wheat Flour

Whole wheat flour is denser. It is 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, resulting in a less coarse final product.

White Whole Wheat Flour

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-colored baked good and a slightly sweeter taste than whole wheat.

  • Best used for: Cookies, Zucchini Bread, Muffins
  • Not suitable for: Lighter cakes
  • Contains: 13 to 14% protein

Pastry Flour

Pastry Flour

It 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 of 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

Cake Flour

Cake Flour

It 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.

Bread Flour

Bread Flour

This high-protein flour is perfect for developing a strong gluten network when creating chewy texture products.

Self-Rising Flour

Self-Rising Flour

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 self-rising flour, combine 1 cup of flour with 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Vital Wheat Gluten Flour

Vital Wheat Gluten Flour

It is somewhat of a “super flour”–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 hydrated wheat flour. 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

Gluten-Free Flour

Gluten-free flour alternatives have become popular as consumers have dietary restrictions, allergies, celiac disease, or want 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, beans, quinoa, sorghum, flax meal, or ground nuts, typically as a blend.

Sprouted Flour

Sprouted Flour

This is made from sprouted grains, including much 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, and Spelt Irish Soda Bread.
  • Contains: Protein levels vary with the type of flour.

Bleached Flours

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 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 intensity and length of mixing affect the strength of gluten formation. That’s why some directions say “gently fold” or “do not overmix.” A tender muffin can become a rubbery hockey puck with the wrong technique 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

Examples:

  • 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 of cornstarch. If within the 10-11% protein range, bread recipes should have less noticeable differences. (Reference: Cook’s Illustrated)

Other Alternative Flours

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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27 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Liyakath H says

    Flours are important in baking ,an essential.. knowledge to understand better in details of culinary .

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thrid class flour is also called pastry flour. It’s a soft type made with soft white wheat and used in applications like cookies, biscuits, crackers, noodles, and lumpia wrappers. It is lower in protein content and finer in texture. Check out bob’s red mill fine pastry flour or other brands selling soft wheat flour.

  2. bill marsano says

    I see all-purpose and self-rising flour everywhere, and cake flour (which I take to be equivalent to Italian “00”) fiarly often. But I can’t recall ever seeing anything labeled ‘bread flour,’ and wonder where to look. (Ordering it shipped will entail hideous shipping costs.)
    Also, the English use something called ‘strong flour.’ Any idea what that is?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You can find bread flour at major grocery stores. King Arthur and gold medal sells bread flour. Strong flour is make from hard wheat kernels, that’s more coarse and denser than all-purpose flour.

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