Flour 101

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When I decided to write this post a few weeks ago, I knew there would be a lot of information out there. There is seemingly an infinite number of different flours, I swear. Once I really started to dig in and do some research, I was floored by how much there was to know!

One neat thing I learned was that King Arthur Flour has a hotline. That’s right, a baker’s hotline. You can call the number and ask them any baking/flour related questions, and the very nice people on the other end will tell you anything you need to know.

There’s a lot to say about all the different flour in the world, so I tried to just find the most important parts about the most common types. Let’s get into it!

All-purpose Flour

The name says it all! If you only have room for one kind of flour in your kitchen, this should be it! All-purpose flour is made by stripping the wheat grains (aka wheat berries) and leaving a starchy endosperm to mill. Doing this has a good side and a bad side. On one hand, it strips the natural oils from the germ, resulting in a longer shelf life. (Yes, flour expires!) On the other hand, this pretty much takes out any natural nutrition and flavor wheat carries. Depending on who makes it, it normally has about 10-12% protein.

Unbleached vs Bleached

Technically, all flour is bleached. But this can happen one of two ways – naturally or unnaturally.

Bleached flour is treated with chemical agents, typically benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas (among other things). This speeds up the aging process, which leaves us with a flour that’s finer, softer, and whiter. Baked goods made with bleached flour tend to be softer, more voluminous and brighter in color.

Unbleached flour is still bleached, but it happens naturally over time. It has a more off-white color compared to its counterpart, and a more dense grain. Since its aged naturally after milling, it can take longer to produce. So it’s normally the more expensive option out of the two. Also, because it’s denser, baked goods made with this flour tend to be so as well.

Bread Flour

Bread flour has a higher protein content, normally between 12-14%. That’s why this is recommended for things like yeast bread and pizza crust. The results with this flour tend to be a tighter, chewier texture. It’s made with 99.8% hard-wheat and a touch a barley malt to improve yeast activity. Sometimes Vitamin C or potassium bromate is added to up the gluten elasticity. You can substitute bread flour with all-purpose flour 1:1, it just might result in a slight difference in texture.

Cake/Pastry Flour

These are actually two different flours, but share a lot of similarities. Cake flour can absorb more liquid and sugar than all-purpose, and has a protein content at 5-8%. It’s milled very fine and soft, which makes it ideal in creating fluffy and light cakes! If you need cake flour and don’t have any on hand, there is a way to substitute! For every 1 cup of cake flour, measure 1 cup of all-purpose, remove 2 tablespoons and replace with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. If you need to sub pastry flour (and have cake flour on hand), mix 1⅓cup all-purpose with ⅔ cup cake flour.

We’re halfway there, I promise! Keep reading!

Self-Rising

Sometimes self-rising and bread flour can be confused for one another, but they are definitely different. Self-rising has baking powder and salt added during milling, so it doesn’t need to be added when putting the recipe together.

While all-purpose flour is stripped of its nutrients, self-rising flour has them added back in to enrich it. Unlike bread flour, the protein level is on the lower end, normally between 8-9%. To substitute, mix 1 cup of all-purpose with 1½ teaspoon baking powder and ¼ teaspoon salt.

Whole Wheat Flour

Whole wheat flour is made by milling the whole wheat berry – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Traditionally, red wheat berries are used, but it is also made using white wheat berries. Wondering what the difference is? White berries deliver a sweeter and milder flavor in baked goods. Whole wheat flour is higher in protein – around 14% – so it can’t be used in place of all-purpose 1:1. If you want to incorporate whole wheat into a recipe that calls for all-purpose, start by substituting only 25% of your all purpose for whole wheat flour, and work your way up to about 50% if you like.

all-purpose flour
All-purpose flour

Gluten Free Flours

There are a TON of different gluten-free flours out there. There are several bases these flours are made from – rice, corn, potato, tapioca, buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum and nuts. Since no gluten is being produced for structure and chewiness, xanthum gum is often added to stimulate these textures. Keep in mind that gluten free flours can’t always be substituted 1:1 for other flours. There are way too many for me to go into specifics on, but since almond flour is one of the more commonly used variations, let’s do a quick dive.

Xanthum Gum is a plant-based food additive. It’s commonly added to foods as a thickener and/or stabilizer.

Almond Flour

To make almond flour, the nuts are blanched in boiling water to remove the skins, then they are ground and sifted into a fine flour. It’s low in carbs and high in healthy fats and fiber, which makes this a great option even if you’re not gluten sensitive!

Don’t mistake this for almond meal, though! Almond meal is made by grinding almonds with the skins on, which makes it different than flour. If almond meal is used instead of flour, it will result in a completely different texture and flavor.

Phew, we’re done! If you’re still here with me, I commend you. I know that was a lot, so save this post if you ever need a quick check different flours. Have more questions? Leave them in a comment and I’ll answer the best I can!

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