I absolutely adore baking, however becoming a good home baker takes many trials and lessons. Baking is definitely the most scientific form of cooking. Not enough baking powder and your cakes are flat. Too much flour and your cookies will come out rock solid. While we’re willing to put a good amount of effort into our baking trials (after all, the results are usually delicious!), when there are countless types of flours staring you down in the grocery aisle, it’s easy to get a little intimidated.
The primary difference between each type of flour is the protein content. Flour made from high-protein wheat varieties (which have 10 to 14 percent protein content) is called “hard wheat.” Flour made from low-protein wheat varieties (which have 5 to 10 percent protein content) is called “soft wheat.” More protein means more gluten, and more gluten means more strength. When it comes to baking, the amount of gluten is what determines the structure and texture of a baked good. Now that we’ve had our science lesson for the day, let’s break it down a little further into the difference between the most popular types of flour. Navigating the baking aisle just got a whole lot easier.
All - purpose Flour (Maida), also known as refined flour or simply flour, is made from wheat grains after removing the brown covering. It is then milled, refined, and bleached. All-purpose flour should be a staple in your kitchen. Milled from a mixture of soft and hard wheat varieties, it has a moderate protein content of about 10 to 12 percent. As the most versatile flour, it’s capable of creating flaky pie crusts, chewy cookies, and fluffy pancakes. If a recipe calls for “flour,” it most likely means all-purpose flour. Best Used For: Cookies, muffins, bread, pie crusts, pancakes, biscuits, pizza dough, and pasta.
When an exceptionally fine texture is required, cake flour (all soft wheat) is used. Cake flour is a finely milled, delicate flour and has the lowest protein content of all flours at 5 to 8 percent, making it the weakest flour on the shelf. Because of this, it has less gluten, which leads to softer baked goods—perfect for cakes (obviously!), muffins, cupcakes, waffles, scones, and biscuits. Cake flour also absorbs more liquid and sugar than all-purpose flour, which guarantees a super moist cake. When it comes to cakes, we want them to be light, soft, and tender, with a fine, close crumb. And that is exactly what you will get if you use cake flour! Best Used For: Sponge cakes, pound cakes, layer cakes, angel food cakes, muffins, and biscuits.
Almond flour is made by blanching almonds in boiling water to remove the skins, then grinding and sifting them into a fine flour. This gluten-free favorite is low in carbs and high in healthy fats and fiber. To replace wheat flour with almond flour, start by replacing the flours 1:1 and then add more of a rising agent (like baking powder or baking soda) to accommodate the heavier weight of the almond flour. This flour is a helpful substitute for low carb dieters and people who maintain a gluten-free diet but it is very high in fat. Best Used For: Cookies, muffins, pancakes, biscuits, and bread.
Coconut flour is a soft, naturally grain- and gluten-free flour produced from dried coconut meat. It is a natural byproduct of coconut milk production. They then dry the coconut meat at low temperature and grind it until it produces a soft, fine powder which is then suitable for baking. Rich in fiber and MCTs, it may promote stable blood sugar, good digestion, and heart health. It may also boost weight loss and fight some infections. Plus, it's delicious and versatile, making it a smart choice when choosing flour alternatives. Coconut flour is commonly used in baking, particularly paleo, grain- and gluten-free baking. Coconut flour is one of my favorite flours to bake with because a little goes a long way. It's super absorbent, so you typically don't need much when you're cooking and baking. Coconut flour adds a natural sweetness to recipes, which makes it the perfect flour for treats and baked goods! Best Used For: Cakes, cookies, bread, and muffins.
Pastry flour is a low-protein flour designed to make pastries lighter and more delicate than those made with all-purpose flour. It bakes tender pastries, chewy cookies and is an excellent solution for pie crusts. It is typically used for baking when baking powder or baking soda is the leavening agent. Pastry flour is also all soft wheat but has a slightly higher protein level - with an 8 to 9 percent protein content, pastry flour falls in between all-purpose flour and cake flour. It strikes the perfect balance between flakiness and tenderness, making it the go-to choice for pie crusts, tarts, and cookies. It is used in delicate cakes and pastries, pie crusts, cookies, and muffins. Absorbs less liquid in recipes. It is from soft red winter or soft white winter wheat for use in biscuits, pancakes, pie crust, cookies, muffins and brownies, pound, and sheet cakes. You can even make your own at home by mixing 1 1/3 cups of all-purpose flour with 2/3 cup cake flour. Best Used For: Pie crusts, cookies, muffins, cakes, pancakes, biscuits, and bread sticks.
Milled entirely from hard wheat, bread flour is the strongest of all flours with a high protein content at 12 to 14 percent. This comes in handy when baking yeasted breads because of the strong gluten content required to make the bread rise properly. Bread flour makes for a better volume and a chewier crumb with your bakes. The high protein content means that bread flour has more gluten in it, which makes the dough more elastic and lighter and results in a chewy and airy texture when baked. Best Used For: Artisan breads, yeast breads, bagels, pretzels, and pizza dough
Not to be confused with bleached flour, white whole wheat flour is made up of the same components as whole wheat flour, but from a paler variety of wheat called hard white wheat. It has the same protein content as whole wheat flour at 13 to 14 percent, but it tastes slightly sweeter because of its lower tannin content. Whole wheat flour and white whole wheat flour actually have the same health benefits, so if you prefer the taste and texture of white bread, but want the nutritional value from whole wheat, then this is the flour for you. It functions like all-purpose flour in baking but has the nutrition of whole wheat. It makes an excellent cake or cupcake. Best Used For: Bread, muffins, and cookies.
During the milling process, a kernel of wheat is separated into its three components: the endosperm, the germ, and the bran. To make white flour, just the endosperm is milled. To make whole wheat flour, varying amounts of the germ and bran are added back in to the flour. Whole wheat flour tends to have a high protein content around 13 to 14 percent, but the presence of the germ and bran affect the flour’s gluten-forming ability. Because of this, whole wheat flour usually leads to super sticky dough and denser baked goods. The presence of wheat germ also makes whole wheat flour far more perishable than white flour. While white flour can sit in your pantry in an airtight canister for up to eight months, whole wheat flour will only stay at its best for up to three months. Whole-wheat flour also has a higher oil content due to the bran and adds fiber to whatever you're baking. It's often combined with a white flour in making cakes, breads, and muffins. Best Used For: Cookies, bread, pancakes, pizza dough, and pasta.
Gluten-free flour can be made from all sorts of ingredient bases, such as rice, corn, potato, tapioca, buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum, or nuts. Xanthan gum can sometimes be added to gluten-free flour to help stimulate the chewiness associated with gluten. Gluten-free flour can’t always be substituted 1:1 for white flour, so be sure to check your specific recipe if you’re thinking about swapping the two. A variety of healthy, gluten-free alternatives to regular or wheat flour exist for people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity or those avoiding gluten for other reasons. Some gluten-free flours have more nutrients than others, making them healthier choices to include in your diet. Many gluten-free flours require recipe adjustments or combinations of different types of gluten-free flours to create a tasty end product. Be sure to evaluate your recipe. If you choose or require gluten-free flour, be sure to compare the nutrients, taste and recipe composition before making your flour choice. Best Used For: Cakes, cookies, pancakes, bread, and muffins.
The secret ingredients of self-rising flour are the baking powder and salt added during the milling process. It’s generally made from soft wheat with a protein content around 8 to 9 percent. You can make your own at home by mixing 1 cup pastry flour with 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt. Be careful not to substitute self-rising flour for other flours while baking! The added ingredients can throw off the rest of the measurements in your recipe. Self-Rising Flour is flour to which baking powder and salt have already been added. It is meant as a convenience so that you don't have to stock baking powder at home, but it does deteriorate quickly in humid conditions, and has the disadvantage that you can't use it for pastry, etc. Best Used For: Pancakes, biscuits, and scones.
A basic pantry staple, flour lasts a long time if you store it properly. You can't just stick a bag in the back of your pantry and forget about it, though; you may end up with rancid flour or worse, an infestation of bugs. While flour does like it cool and dark, it also fares best in an airtight container. For the freshest flavor, purchase flour frequently in smaller amounts. But when you do have reason to stock up, follow a few storage guidelines for the best results.
Producers remove the bran and germ from the wheat to make refined flour from the endosperm. The process results in a fine, soft texture and light or white color. Refined flours include all-purpose, white, bread, cake, and self-rising. These flours do not contain much oil, which causes flour to spoil when it oxidizes, making them more shelf-stable than whole-grain and other varieties. When you bring it home from the store, put the flour in the freezer for 48 hours to kill any weevil or insect eggs that might be lurking in the package. Then transfer the flour out of the store packaging and into a food-grade container (plastic or glass) with a tight lid. This prevents moisture from creeping in and keeps insects and other pests out. It also blocks odors and flavors from other foods or products stored nearby, which could affect the aroma or taste of the flour. Store all-purpose and other refined flours in a cool, dry place protected from sunlight. Refined flour keeps up to one year in the pantry under these ideal conditions. For longer storage, or in a warmer climate, stash the flour in the freezer, where it can last for up to two years. The cold does not noticeably affect the texture, so you can easily scoop out just the amount you need, but let the flour come to room temperature before you use it for best results, especially when baking.
Whole-grain flours contain the bran and the germ along with the endosperm, making them high in fiber and nutrition but also prone to spoiling faster because the bran and germ contain oils that ruin the flavor when they oxidize. Whole grain flours include whole wheat, oat, rice, rye, nut (such as almond flour), and seed varieties. Freeze whole-grain flour for 48 hours before you transfer it to an airtight container, same as with refined flour. Then store it in the refrigerator for up to six months or in the freezer for up to a year. The higher levels of natural oils in whole-wheat and other specialty flours causes them to go rancid quickly at room temperature.
Add a label to your plastic or glass container of flour, noting the type and the date of purchase. This allows you to track the age of your flour and start checking its freshness at the appropriate time. Follow these guidelines to determine the quality of the flour in your pantry: Refined flours such as all-purpose, pastry, and self-rising keep fresh for up to two years. Trust your sense of smell to determine if they passed their prime, spoiled flour smells sour. Nut or seed flours such as almond, flax, and hemp store better in the freezer, where they last up to a year. A burnt or bitter taste indicates spoilage. Whole-grain flours such as wheat, spelt, and barley spoil much more quickly, with a shelf-life of 3 to 6 months. Keep them in the fridge and check the expiration date before you use them. A funny smell indicates it may be time to discard them. Finally, do not combine new and old packages of flour since doing so shortens the shelf life of the new flour.
The bugs found in flour and other grains are called weevils. If you find them, chances are they came home from the store in the package of flour. Female weevils lay them inside the grain kernel, and they hatch between one and five months later. Any brownish surface on the top of the flour indicates eggs. If you're unsure, rub some of the brownish flour between your fingers; if you catch a minty odor, you have bugs. You can also tightly pack questionable flour up to the rim of a glass and make a flat surface with the help of a knife. Leave the flour exposed to sunlight for a few hours. If the tight surface appears broken, you can assume bugs were moving around. Toss the flour. Rancid smells happen because the fats in whole grain flours oxidize when exposed to air and moisture. Over time, inadequate storage ruins the freshness of your flour, affects the result when you bake, and may even make you sick. If your flour smells musty, toss it.