Do you ever find yourself getting overwhelmed by all the various flours in the baking aisle? Have you wondered why there are so many options, what their differences are, and when to use which types of flour? I’m here to break it down for you!
There are a surprising number of flours available these days. It’s hard to keep track of how many are even available at this point, and I’m constantly learning about new ones (for example, I’d never heard of mesquite flour until I shared a gingerbread pumpkin ice cream sandwich recipe from my friend Alanna’s cookbook).
While they share a common name, different types of flour can vary quite a bit in terms of their base ingredients, how those ingredients are processed, and how they’re used in baking.
Before we dive in to the different options, let take a quick look at everyone’s favorite word: gluten.
What is Gluten?
Wheat, rye, and barley contain two proteins called glutenin and glaiden. When water is combined with these proteins, they bond together and form an elastic network called gluten. The more you mix and knead dough and batter, the stronger and more elastic these strands become.
This is why some doughs are kneaded for longer than others, and why some baked goods are more chewy and firm than others. Less gluten will result in baked goods and are lighter and more tender.
The percentage of gluten in flour will vary depending on what type of flour is being used, and sometimes that amount will vary slightly between brands.
If you’d like to go deeper into the science behind gluten, check out this article from Baker Bettie.
Bleached Vs. Unbleached Flour
Bleached flour is treated with chemicals that speed up the aging process, making it softer and lighter. It helps create baked goods that are more tender, have more volume, and are a bit brighter in color.
Unbleached flour has an off-white color and is a little more dense than the bleached version. It’s allowed to age naturally, and therefore takes longer for a manufacturer to produce, making it more expensive.
Types of Flour
All-purpose flour is the most common type flour used in recipes, being useful in everything from cookies to pancakes, quick breads to pizza doughs. All-purpose flour, also referred to as white flour, is made from wheat that has had the shell of the wheat kernel removed. It typically has 10-13% gluten content.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is less processed than all-purpose flour. The flour is made with the endosperm, bran and germ of the wheat kernel still attached, making it more dense and textured, but also very nutrient rich. Whole wheat flour typically has around 14% gluten content.
It has an earthy flavor that can be wonderful in doughs. I like using a blend of whole wheat and all-purpose flour when I want to infuse the flavor of the whole wheat into dough without creating a heavy consistency.
Cake flour is also made from wheat, but it’s milled to be very fine. It’s also typically bleached. It has much less gluten (6-8%), which creates a soft, tender texture in baked goods. Of all the wheat flours available, cake flour has the least amount of gluten.
Can you guess what pastry flour is good for? Yup, pastries. While it’s a little stronger than cake flour, with 8-9% gluten, it’s not as tough as all-purpose flour. Use pastry flour in order to give your baked goods a softer texture without changing it dramatically. Waffles, tarts, cookies and muffins are all fantastic when made with pastry flour.
That being said, I don’t actually keep it around, which is why there’s no photo. If a recipe calls for pastry flour, you can make a substitute by using a ratio of 2:1 cake flour to all-purpose flour. So, if a recipe calls for 3 cups of pastry flour, use 2 cups of cake flour and 1 cup of all-purpose flour.
Bread flour is a high protein flour (12-14%) that’s often used in yeast breads. The extra protein produces more gluten, which often means a chewier bread and a better rise. Keep in mind that if a recipe calls for bread flour, you can often still substitute all-purpose flour and get perfectly fine results.
Self-rising flour already has salt and baking powder added to it. It’s often included in Southern recipes like biscuits, cornbread and cobblers. It’s also pretty simple to make from scratch, which is why I don’t keep it around (more on that below).
Rye flour is made from (you guessed it) rye. The rye grain is ground and processed to create a flour that is tangy and dark. It’s great for rye bread, and will actually help bread stay fresh longer. You’ll see both dark, light and even medium rye flour for sale, while some packaging simply says “rye flour.” Cook’s Illustrated goes into the details, if you’re interested.
To be honest, I rarely bake with rye flour. I use it to feed my sourdough starter. This article from The Perfect Loaf explains why rye flour and sourdough go so well together.
Many people have gluten allergies or sensitivities, making it difficult for them to digest anything made with traditional wheat flours. This has spawned a huge industry for alternative flours and gluten-free blends.
However, using a gluten-free flour can be tricky since, as you now know, gluten plays a huge role in many baked goods. That being said, there are tons of amazing gluten-free baked goods out there. It’s an art form (one that I’m not very good at).
Let’s look at a few popular gluten-free flours. This list is not all-inclusive.
Gluten-Free Flour Blends
There are many gluten free blends on the market that you can use in place of flour with a 1:1 ratio. These blends are typically made from rice, corn, potato, tapioca, arrowroot, flax meal and even quinoa.
They are blended to act like an all-purpose flour and are great to use in many baked goods. However, you want to read the packaging to see what the recommended uses are. Many of these blends will not work properly with yeast recipes.
Nut flours are simply made by grinding nuts until they’re a fine texture. You can make your own nut flour at home using a food processor. The most commonly found option is almond flour, which is often sold as almond meal.
Rice flour is a finely milled flour made from ground rice, both white and brown. All varieties of rice flour are completely gluten-free, even if the packaging says “glutinous rice flour,” which is an ingredient commonly used in Japanese desserts.
Rice flour is often used in gluten-free baked goods to give them structure and substance, but it has a variety of other culinary uses are well, such as thickening and dredging.
Here are a few more alternative flours you might see at the grocery store:
- Corn Flour
- Tapioca Flour
- Oat Flour
- Coconut Flour
- Chickpea Flour
For a more comprehensive list of gluten-free flours, check out this article from Spoon University.
How to Store Flour
All types of flour should be stored in a food safe, airtight container in a cool, dry place. You can opt to keep flour in the fridge or freezer as well to extend it’s shelf life. Flour can be kept at room temperature for about a year, in the fridge for about two years or in the freezer indefinitely.
How to Measure Flour
For baked goods (as well as desserts like custard and ice cream), I always recommend using a kitchen scale to measure flour by weight instead of volume. Weight (ounces, grams, etc) will always give an accurate measurement of dry goods; volume (cups) can created varied results.
A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 3 1/2 to 5 ounces. That could make a big difference in your recipe! If you still want to use cups, there’s a proper technique to make sure you get the best results possible.
My post How to Measure Flour explains all of this in more detail.
How to Make Cake Flour, Bread Flour, and Self-Rising Flour
There’s no need to run to the store every time you need cake flour, bread flour, or self-rising flour. Learn how to make flour substitutes with this easy tutorial!
More Ingredient Guides
You can also see my full archive of ingredient guides here!