Flour is made from finely milled wheat or other grains and it is what gives structure and texture to baked goods. Different flours have varying levels of protein and fiber which will affect the final baked product therefore, it’s extremely important to choose the right flour when baking. For example, a high protein flour will yield a great chewy, elastic pizza dough but for a flaky, tender pastry a low protein flour is essential. Below are the most commonly used flours in baking.
All-Purpose Flour – Milled from a mixture of soft and hard wheat, all-purpose flour has a medium protein content of around 10-12% which is perfect for a variety of baked goods such as pie crusts, breads, and biscuits. All-purpose flour comes in bleached and unbleached varieties and while they can be used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences between the two.
Bleached flour uses chemical agents to speed up the aging process. Foods made with bleached flour will have a brighter color, softer texture and more volume. It’s perfect to use when making pie crusts, pancakes, muffins or cookies.
Unbleached flour ages naturally after being milled. It has an “off-white” color that only dulls further as it ages. Unbleached flour has a denser texture making it perfect for baked goods that need a little more structure such as yeast breads, pastries, and eclairs. Because it takes longer to produce unbleached flour, it’s generally a little more expensive than its bleached counterpart.
Self-Rising Flour – During the milling process, both baking powder and salt are added. It’s commonly used in the South and is best for tender biscuits, pancakes and muffins. To make self-rising flour at home, combine 1 cup pastry flour with 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp salt.
Whole Wheat Flour – Milled from the complete wheat kernel, both the bran and germ, this type of flour is higher in fiber and retains more nutrients than other flours. In baked goods it will impart a nuttier flavor and denser texture which is why it’s often mixed with all-purpose flour in baking. Because wheat germ is high in oils, whole wheat flour is prone to rancidity making it more perishable than other flours. Store for 3 months at a cool temperature and then transfer to the freezer.
Cake Flour – This type of flour has the lowest protein content, only 5-8%, which makes it ideal for use in delicate baked goods such as sponge cakes and other pastries. It also has a very low gluten content which gives this flour the ability to absorb more liquid and sugar ensuring moist cakes.
Pastry Flour – Made by grinding soft wheat into a fine flour, pastry flour has just a bit more protein content that cake flour, about 8-9%. It is perfect for creating light and flaky baked goods such as pies and tarts. To make pastry flour at home, combine 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour with 2/3 cup cake flour.
Bread Flour – This is the strongest of all flours with a high protein content of 12-14%. Because of the high protein content it is able to give excellent structural support in baked goods such as yeast breads and pizza dough. The extra protein also provides a chewier texture, better volume and nicer browning. Bread flour can be found in white or whole wheat varieties, both bleached or unbleached.
Gluten Free Flour – Made from a variety of nuts, grains and starches but most commonly found ones are made from rice flour blended with potato starch or tapioca.