Part of my Baking Basics series: Learn about the different types of wheat and gluten-free flours, what a flour's protein content means, and what kind of recipes you can make with each.
What are the differences between flours?
When it comes to flours, it's the protein content that really differentiates one from another. Flours made from high-protein wheat (10-14% protein content) are “hard wheat”, and flours made from low-protein wheat (5-10% protein content) are “soft wheat”.
Think of it this way: The higher the protein content, the more gluten it has. And the more gluten it has, the more strength it has!
So if you're looking to make an elastic dough that's going to hold it's shape, you want a high-protein, high-gluten content flour. But if you want to make a more delicate and tender baked good (like a cake or pastry), you want a lower-protein flour.
So, what are the different types of flour?
That's a great question – and it's a long answer! So let's dig in to what all the different types of flours are, and how to best use them.
We'll start with the most common wheat flour (all-purpose), and then work our way through in ascending order of protein content.
When you read a recipe that simply calls for “flour”, you can be 99.99% sure they mean all-purpose flour. And if you can only have one kind of flour at home, make it this one. It's the most versatile, and — quite frankly — usually the least expensive.
Cake flour has the lowest protein content of all the flours, which lends itself to softer and more delicate baked goods. It's very fine, and is generally put through a bleaching process that weakens the gluten proteins – this means it absorbs more liquid and sugar than all-purpose flour, which means you get a more moist cake with a higher rise.
- Fun fact: You can make your own cake flour by measuring out 1 cup all-purpose flour, removing 2 Tablespoons, then adding 2 Tablespoons of cornstarch and sifting it together twice.
- Protein content: 5-8%
- Best used for: Cakes (duh), angel food cake, sponge cake, biscuits, muffins, scones.
Pastry flour also has a fine texture, but has a higher protein content than cake flour. It's like the best of all-purpose flour and cake flour in one! It can create flaky and tender pie crusts, and deliciously tender cookies. Ohhhh and melt in your mouth bread sticks. Yum.
- Fun fact: I never actually buy pastry flour, because I make my own by combining 2 parts all-purpose flour and 1 part cake flour (i.e 2/3 cups all-purpose flour and 1/3 cup cake flour to make 1 cup pastry flour).
- Protein content: 8-9%
- Best used for: Pie crusts, cookies, bread sticks, tarts, pound cake, muffins.
Self-rising flour is essentially all-purpose flour that has baking powder and salt added to it. You don't want to swap self-rising flour for other flours in recipes because those two ingredients can throw the rest of the recipe off. It's best not to use it unless a recipe specifically calls for it. And because it contains baking powder, it will start to lose it's potency after about 6 months (which is about as long as you want to keep flour anyway).
- Fun fact: You can make your own by combining 1 cup pastry flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking power and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
- Protein content: 8-9%
- Best used for: Pancakes, scones, biscuits – things where you want a high rise.
00 flour might look like some sort of James Bond code name, but it just means doppio zero flour. It's superfine, it's Italian, and it's expensive. It does provide a different texture in the finished product than all-purpose flour (i.e.: thinner homemade pasta, which is awesome), but unless you're dead set on creating an exact replica of an Italian family recipe, it's generally fine just to use all-purpose and give your wallet some breathing room.
- Protein content: 11-12%
- Best used for: Pastas, thin pizza crusts, crackers.
Bread flour is considered the strongest of the flours, as it has the highest protein content and provides the most structural support. You can easily swap all-purpose flour for bread flour in a bread recipe and you'll end up with a more structured loaf (less of that “mushroom” effect on the top half of the loaf). You get more volume, a chewier crumb, and even a nicer browning on the crust during baking.
Whole Wheat Flour
Here's the thing about whole wheat flour: it's more absorbent than all-purpose flour, so it needs more liquid to do it's thing. It produces stickier doughs and heavier baked goods – think about a slice of whole grain wheat bread and its density compared to a piece of white bread.
Because it can be tough to work with, beginning bakers should start with substituting 25% of all-purpose flour in a recipe for whole wheat flour, and then increase that percentage as you get more comfortable. It's especially important with whole wheat flour not to overwork your dough.
Also, whole wheat flour is more perishable than all-purpose flour – so after 3 months of being stored in a cool, dark place, it's gotta go.
- Protein content: 13-14%
- Best used for: Bread loaves, muffins, pita bread.
While at a glance it might look like cornmeal, semolina flour is made from wheat and has a high protein content. It lends itself to a dense and chewy dough with a rich flavor and buttery color, making it a go-to for many in the creation of pastas.
- Protein content: 13%+
- Best used for: Pastas and hearty bread.
Ever wondered why gluten-free bread products are always smaller and thinner? They can't stand up to the same workloads as their gluten-y counterparts, because bread needs gluten to rise and have elasticity.
You may notice I don't list the protein contents on the below flours, but don't let that confuse you – they still contain protein, but in the case of non-wheat based flours, a high protein content does not equal high gluten content.
Gluten-free flour isn't necessarily the one stop shop substitute for all-purpose flour if you need to be gluten-free. Depending on the brand, it can be made of all sorts of different ingredients like rice, corn, tapioca, quinoa, and corn, and often has xanthan gum to help simulate the chewiness you get with gluten. Check the package for their recommendation of how to substitute it for all-purpose flour, or just grab Cup4Cup Gluten Free Flour, which is specifically formulated to be a 1:1 all-purpose flour substitute.
- Best used for: Most anything you'd use all-purpose flour for.
Almond flour is a dense, high-protein flour that's also low-carb – making it a popular keto option. It's made from blanched almonds, so it has a subtle nutty taste but is still mild in flavor.
Since there's no gluten present, it requires other ingredients to provide structure (like starches, nut butters and leaveners).
- Best used for: Paleo baking, cookies, cakes, brownies, breads, muffins.
Oat flour is exactly what it sounds like – oats ground into a flour. It has a subtle flavor that almost tastes slightly sweet, and it has a superfine texture.
- Fun fact: In a pinch, you can make your own by grinding old-fashioned rolled oats in a food processor for 1 minute.
- Best used for: Gluten-free cakes, combined with wheat flour in cookies and breads.
Coconut flour is high in fiber and low in calories but is a bit finicky to work with. You can't substitute it for a wheat flour, and generally speaking, you never want to substitute more than 20% of wheat flour for coconut flour in any given recipe.
It's extremely absorbent, so it soaks up a lot of moisture when it bakes – you have to add around 2 Tablespoons extra liquid for every 2 Tablespoons of coconut flour in use.
- Best used for: Cookies, muffins, brownies (but only when called for specifically).
I hope this information helps!
Do you have any questions about this topic that I didn't answer? Let me know in the comments below!