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.
For the uninitiated, 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 could be for you to figure out which type is best for baking or cooking.
The selection process comes down to what is being made, if you’re looking for an added nutritional benefit, 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 some of the most commonly used types of flour and tips based on my experience.
The Role of Gluten in Baking and Cooking
First things first, let’s quickly chat about the importance of gluten. 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 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, but want a higher in protein bread flour to make a loaf of rustic bread. Often times its trial and error when creating new recipes.
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.
Difference Between White and 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, so 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. 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.
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 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
All-purpose: Contains 10 to 13% protein. What you’ll find in most kitchens and on all store shelves. Best for general baked goods, cookie, bread, waffles, pancakes, biscuits, pizza dough, and pasta. 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.
Whole Wheat Flour: Contains 13 to 14% protein. Made from the endosperm, germ, and fiber-rich bran. The germ makes products more dense with less rise. Suitable for bread, quick breads, cookies, waffles, pancakes, pizza dough, and pasta. You can substitute whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour, but you should use ¾ of a cup for every 1 cup of white/all-purpose. Whole wheat flour is denser.
White Whole Wheat: Contains 13 to 14% protein. 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. Good for breads, quick breads, muffins, and cookies, not as suitable for lighter cakes. A general rule of thumb is it can replace whole wheat flour by 100%, all-purpose flour by 50% of the recipe, and light colored cakes and cookies 25% (Reference: King Arthur’s Flour).
Pastry Flour: Contains 7.5 to 9.5% protein. 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. This flour is ideal for pound cakes, scones, muffins, waffles, cookies, biscuits and especially pie crusts. It shouldn’t be used for bread because if its lower gluten profile.
Cake Flour: Contains 6 to 8% 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. Good for chiffon, pound cake, angel food cake or layer cakes.
Bread Flour: Contains 12 to 15% protein. This high protein flour is perfect for developing a strong gluten network when you’re creating chewy texture products, like artisan breads, yeast breads, some cookies, and bagels.
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. Very popular in southern cuisine like biscuits. 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).
Vital Wheat Gluten Flour: Contains 40 to 85% protein. 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 can be used as a booster for low-protein flours, like rye, whole wheat or sprouted flours. It also helps when there are many other ingredients, like fruits, nuts, and seeds, that can weigh a dough down.
Gluten-Free Flour: It has grown in popularity in options of gluten-free flour alternatives 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, possibly as a blend. They also contain a stabilizing ingredient like starches or gums. Each commercial formula differs by brand, giving a different texture and flavor, each showing advantages or disadvantage based on the type of recipe. If you’re looking for a 100% all-purpose flour replacement, I like Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 Baking Flour as I’ve found the taste and overall quality of the baked good the most similar.
Sprouted Flour: Protein levels vary with the type of flour. This is made from sprouted grains, which includes a lot more than just white or red wheat. On the list is 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. These are good choices for anyone seeking to increase taste and nutrition, though they may require more skill to work with.
Does Protein Content Vary By Brand?
Perhaps! The easiest way to check is to take a peek at the nutritional label. Use this simple calculation: % Protein= grams protein ÷ grams serving size x 100
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)
Tasty Flour-based Recipes to Try
Are you ready to start experimenting with different types of flours? Here are a few of my favorite recipes to get you started. Let me know what you make or questions you have in the comments section below!