There probably aren’t many people who actually think about flour very often, except to notice that they’re out and they have to make a run to the store and they wanted to have this cake in the oven by 5:30 PM, darnit! But we really should, since all our fluffy, mouthwateringly delicious desserts are made with flour. Except ice cream, of course. And flourless chocolate cake. And flan. Okay, there are a lot of good flourless desserts. But still! Flour plays such a huge part in most kitchens that we are remiss in not discussing its many varieties, its pros and cons, and its ins and outs. Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of some of the basic flours you may encounter:
Bleached vs. Unbleached: Some companies bleach their flour to provide a more “aesthetically pleasing” look. They do this by using additives such as potassium bromate, benzoyl peroxide, ascorbic acid, and chlorine gas. Some of these whitening agents can weaken gluten development, which can reduce the effectiveness of the flour in some recipes. It’s usually best to use unbleached flours, as you’ll be certain of the flour’s effectiveness and lack of harmful chemicals.
Cake Flour: 7.5% – 8.0% protein
Cake flour is made from soft wheat exclusively, and is much finer than other flours. It’s great for really light desserts such as chiffon cakes and angel food cakes. The soft wheat means that it has less protein and more starch, which is what allows it to be so light and airy.
Pastry Flour: 8.5% – 9.5% protein
This flour falls in between all-purpose and cake flours on the gluten scale. It’s also made from soft wheat (the same as cake flour) but it has slightly more protein. As the name implies, it’s great for delicate pastries such as biscuits, pie crusts, cupcakes, etc. It absorbs more liquid than cake flour, but not as much as all-purpose. Supposedly, a 2:1 mixture of all-purpose flour and cake flour is a good substitute for pastry flour, but at that point it almost makes more sense just to use all-purpose.
All-Purpose Flour: 10% – 12% protein
Also known as “plain flour”. This is probably the most commonly used flour because of its versatility. It works in pretty much anything, from breads to pie crusts, without any problems. It’s made from hard and soft wheat, which is why it falls in the middle of the protein level scale, and which is what allows it to be so adaptable.
Bread Flour: 12% – 13% protein
This flour is heavier than the others, and gives a dense, chewy texture to its breads. Obviously, dense and chewy isn’t great for every recipe, but it’s exactly what you’re looking for in pizza crusts, bagels, loaf breads, brioches, and soft pretzels.
As the flour highest in protein, bread flour absorbs the most liquid of all these flours. If you’re substituting a softer flour, you may want to use slightly less liquid than the recipe calls for.
Of course, these are only the more common, wheat-based flours. There are a plethora of gluten-free flours such as almond, buckwheat, rice, cornmeal, and more. We’ll have a whole post devoted to alternative flours and how to use them as substitutes in your recipes.
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