Name That Flour! Flour Types And How To Use Them
As if baking itself wasn't already complicated enough, those who wish to attempt it must figure out what kind of flour to work with.
What's the difference, and does it matter which one you use in each recipe? Good questions! Any baker can tell you that choosing the wrong type of flour virtually guarantees an inferior result. Protein content is the secret, and the biggest differentiator in flours. As a quick reference:
Hard wheat--Think of this as "bread flour". These are high-protein varieties (10 to 14 percent). High protein equals more gluten equals greater strength in the recipe. This equates to higher volume and a chewier texture. Doughs made from high-protein flours are both more elastic and sturdier. Suitable for most cookies and breads.
Soft wheat--Think of this as "pastry flour". These are low-protein wheats (5 to 10 percent). Lower amounts of protein make these flours suitable for recipes that call for tender and/or flaky texture, such as pastries and cakes.
While there are many more types available now, here are the most common types of flour that bakers will encounter on their culinary journeys:
All-Purpose: This is a combination of soft and hard wheat, with a protein content of about 10 to 12 percent. It's a versatile flour that works in most recipes, unless a different type is called for. If you're making pie crusts, biscuits or bread, all-purpose should work just fine.
Cake Flour: A soft flour with the lowest protein content (5 to 8 percent). This makes cake flour ideal for tender baked goods, such as cakes, but it can also be used (alone or in combination with all-purpose) to make biscuits, muffins and scones. The fact that it is usually bleached means that the gluten proteins are very weak. This increases its capacity to absorb more liquid and sugar, resulting in a moister product.
Pastry Flour: An unbleached flour made from soft wheat, this flour has protein levels somewhere between cake flour and all-purpose flour (8 to 9 percent), and infact can be created by combining AP and cake flours. Pies, tarts and some cookies turn out beautifully using pastry flour.
Bread Flour: With a protein content of 12 to 14 percent, bread flour is the strongest of all flours, providing the most structural support. This is especially important in yeasted breads, where a strong gluten network is required to contain the CO2 gases produced during fermentation. The extra protein doesn't just make for better volume and a chewier crumb; it also results in more browning in the crust. Bread flour can be found in white or whole wheat, bleached or unbleached. Unbleached all-purpose flour can generally be substituted for bread flour with good results.
Self-Rising Flour: A low-protein flour to which baking powder and salt have been added. It's best for tender biscuits, muffins, pancakes and some cakes. Many recipes calling for it will specify that baking powder and salt be omitted (unless you want your cupcakes to overflow their cups!). To make your own self-rising flour, combine 1 cup pastry flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Whole-Wheat Flour: Unlike "white flour", whole wheat flour contains the germ and bran components typically removed during the milling process. Whole-wheat flour is high in protein, which makes it sturdy and therefore ideal for breads and cookies. However, its germ and bran content inhibit its ability to create volume, thus creating a product that is denser and heavier than white flour.
Gluten-Free Flours: The newest addition to the flour lineup, gluten-free flours come in many varieties. They are made from all sorts of grains, nuts and starches, but the most common are combinations of rice flour blended with tapioca and potato starch. Since they have no gluten in them, these blends often contain xanthan gum, a thickener that helps to replace the elasticity and texture of gluten.
The type of flour you use in each recipe does matter! Knowing what each type contains and how it works will help you achieve perfect results every time.