A guide for how to use the most common types of flour for baking and cooking. Learn about the role of gluten in texture development of your favorite foods. Gain helpful tips on how to select and make substitutions for recipes.
Using flour can seem like a simple task. That is until you get to the supermarket and are suddenly faced with multiple varieties of flour. A less-thorough recipe may merely ask for flour, so it can be up to you to figure out which type is best for baking or cooking.
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 ten most commonly used types of flour and tips based on my experience.
The Role of Protein in Baking and Cooking
First things first, let’s quickly chat about the importance of gluten proteins. Gluten formation is essential to the quality of the product, affecting the texture, appearance, or rise of the baked good. 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.
The type of food being made will guide you on what kind of flour to use. For instance, you would want…
- A lower amount of protein for a light chiffon cake
- A higher amount of protein for a loaf of rustic bread
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. There are ways to use other ingredients to limit the amount of gluten bonding, like mixing the flour and butter first before adding any liquids to reduce formation.
White Flour vs. Whole Wheat Flour
The seed head, which is the top of a wheat plant, is made of three different parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Here’s where it gets interesting:
White Flour has been completely stripped, leaving just the endosperm, which makes it more shelf-stable with a milder flavor and fewer nutrients, as most of the wheat’s protein and fiber are contained in the bran and the germ.
Whole Wheat Flour contains all three parts, which gives it a tan color. It can be difficult for beginning bakers, because it is much more absorbent and gummy, requiring a lot more liquid to be used. It can also be very coarse, depending on how it was ground. When baking with whole wheat flour, be sure to not over knead the dough, which can cause coarse grains to slice through the dough’s natural proteins, causing its gluten structure to break down.
Bleached vs. Unbleached
Furthermore, you’ll encounter bleached and unbleached 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 bind less tightly together, making a less sticky dough, so it’s easier to work with. This kind of flour works exceptionally well for biscuits and tender cakes.
Common Types of Flour
Not an exhaustive list, but here are ten 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 use mainly 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
- Substitute: None
2) 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 will also have to let whole wheat 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, Pancakes, Pizza dough, Pasta
- Contains 13 to 14% protein
- Substitute: All-purpose flour by 75%
3) White Whole Wheat:
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
- Whole wheat flour by 100%
- All-purpose flour by 50% in dark-colored baked goods, and bread
- All-purpose flour by 25% in light-colored cakes and cookies
4) Pastry Flour:
Comes in a regular variety, as well as a whole wheat variety. Often bleached, it utilizes softer wheat varieties, resulting in a fine 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
- Substitute: 1/2-cup all-purpose flour mixed with 1/2-cup cake flour.
5) Cake Flour:
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 cake, Angel food cake, Layer cakes
- Contains 6 to 8% protein
- Substitute: 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour mixed with 2 tablespoons cornstarch.
6) Bread Flour:
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
- Substitute: All-purpose flour by 100%
7) 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 own self-rising flour combine 1 cup of flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt (Reference: Cook’s Illustrated).
- Best used for: Biscuits
- Substitute: None
8) 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.
Think of it as a concentrated solution–using just a little dramatically improves dough’s elasticity and rise, resulting in chewy and crumby final baked goods. It also helps when there are many other ingredients, like fruits, nuts, and seeds, that can weigh a dough down.
- Best used for: As a booster for low-protein flours, like rye, whole wheat or sprouted flours
- Contains 40 to 85% protein
- Substitute: None
9) Gluten-Free Flour:
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.
Other than diet restrictions, there are gluten-free flour blends formulated specifically for baking recipes that rely heavily on gluten-development like kneaded bread and cake, and they may also contain a stabilizing ingredient like xanthan or guar gum. If these stabilizers are not in the product, start with adding 1/4 teaspoon of guar gum per 1 cup of gluten-free flour, increase as needed.
- Best used for: Gluten-free diets, Cakes, Cookies, Pancakes, Waffles, Bread, Muffins.
- % Protein varies by brand
- All-purpose flour by 100% if using Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 Baking Flour
- Other brands may need to add xantham or guar gum.
10) Sprouted Flour:
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. This results in a vast array of flavor profiles, varying gluten levels (some of which are very low or nonexistent), higher vitamin and mineral content and a lower barrier to digestion, owing to its sprouted nature.
Due to the sprouted flours different moisture absorption rates, add 1 tablespoon of water for every 1 cup of flour in recipes that use very little fat or have yeast.
- Best used for: Bread, Cakes, Cookies, Crackers
- Protein levels vary with the type of flour.
- Substitute: All-purpose flour by 100%
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 is 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)