To the amateur baker setting out on their first recipes, different types of flour can seem impossible to figure out. If all-purpose is fit for all-purpose, then why do wholewheat, self-raising, cake flour, and bread flour all exist? Is there a benefit to picking a specialized flour, and what are the differences between baking flours?
Fear not, as this guide will explain all the basics of flour for baking. We’ll start by explaining the very basics of flour, before moving to the different types, and why each one is useful. Soon you will know all the basics of flour, and will be ready to tackle your own recipes, without the flour confusion!
What is Flour?
Most baking flour is made from wheat berries, which grow on a wheat plant. However, it can also be made from any finely ground grain.
A wheat berry is split into 3 parts. The exterior protective shell is called the bran and is filled with fiber, minerals and B vitamins. The endosperm provides the energy for the seed and is primarily made of carbohydrates with some protein. The germ is a collection of phytochemicals, vitamin K, minerals and B vitamins to help nourish the seed as it develops.
Whole wheat flours use the full berry, whereas white flour consists of only the endosperm.
Why is the Protein Content of Flour Important?
When we discuss different types of baking flour, what we are really discussing is how protein-rich the flour is.
Hard wheat has a high protein content, whilst soft wheat has a low protein content. Cake and pastry recipes that require light batters typically use more soft wheat, whilst bread recipes tend to use flours that contain more hard wheat. In short, the more protein, the more robust the dough.
This is due to the effect protein has on the chemical reactions that happen as we create baked goods. When we knead dough, we are transforming the proteins in the flour into gluten. The gluten strands form a strong mesh that traps the carbon dioxide from the yeast, helping the dough to rise and providing a sturdy structure.
The mill of the grain will also have an effect on your final bakes, with finer flours more suited to light products. A coarser mill on the other hand will provide more texture.
This may seem like a lot of information, but the science isn’t really important, it’s the delicious results of your baking efforts that matter! So below, we have summarised the major types of baking flour, their protein content and the impact using this flour in recipes will have.
All-purpose flour is appropriately named. Whether you’re baking carrot cakes or pancakes, this baking flour is very versatile and can be used in most recipes.
The protein content is middling, with an average all-purpose flour being around 10-11% protein. Whilst this flour is a dependable substitute, it’s not always the best choice for each recipe. For perfect bakes, it may be beneficial to choose a flour that is more tailored to each recipe.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour typically has around 14% protein, and is similar to all-purpose flour, with one main difference.
Whole wheat flour uses the entire wheat berry. The bran and germ are left in the flour, meaning that whole wheat flour contains more fiber and nutrients than all-purpose flour.
Some studies have even suggested that eating whole wheat products can protect against obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
Using wholewheat flour in the place of all-purpose will produce a product that is a darker shade of brown than if you used white flour. The product will have a slightly nutty taste and a denser texture, as whole wheat flour has a stronger flavor than white flour. It will work best in heartier recipes, such as carrot cake, whole wheat bread, or gingerbread.
It is important too to note that a 100% whole wheat flour product will most likely be disappointing. Using 25-50% will usually provide a better result.
Self-raising flour can be bought, or made at home. It is a blend of all-purpose flour, a leavening agent (baking powder, baking soda or a mix of both), and some salt. This also means that self-raising flour has a shorter shelf-life, as the baking powder will lose its effectiveness over time. Recipes that use self-raising flour will therefore usually require less salt and baking powder.
This type of baking flour was often produced in the Southern states of the US, so you will find self-raising flour in many southern recipes, such as biscuits. This type of dough is also commonly used in cupcakes, biscuits, and spongecakes.
Bread flour has a very different makeup to cake flour!
This heavy-duty flour is packed with protein and gluten, it creates a heavy, chewy dough that needs time to rise. The high protein content (12-14%) means a strong gluten network is formed within your dough; this network will trap carbon dioxide. You can substitute all-purpose flour into bread recipes, however, they will not rise as successfully.
In short, using bread flour as baking flour creates chewy yet airy bread that is packed full of flavor!
After all that talk about protein and gluten, we feel it is important to have a section dedicated to our gluten-free bakers. There are several options for people following a gluten-free diet, from flours made from alternative grains to specialized 1-to-1 baking flours, such as Bob’s Red Mill’s variety. This can be directly substituted in recipes for muffins, brownies, or cakes.
Tiger-nut flour is a great swap for typical wheat flour, as it can be substituted for all-purpose flour in quick bread, muffin, or cake recipes. Tiger nut flour is a baking flour that is suitable for those with nut allergies, as it is actually not made from a nut at all!
Tiger nuts are a small tuber that grows underground, and when ground into flour they have a slightly nutty aroma.
A very small change in protein can have a really large effect on the outcome of your baking efforts, so selecting the right flour is really important. Tailoring your baking flour for baking to what you want to produce will help ensure you achieve the perfect taste and consistency.
However, if you were to invest in just one type of flour, a middling protein all-purpose baking flour will work in a pinch for most of your recipes. It’s a baker’s cheat flour!