Flour is a pretty obvious baking essential. When you first start baking, you’ll very quickly learn you need at least a couple of different types of flour in your pantry. All-purpose flour. Bread flour. Cake flour. Pastry flour. The list goes on. It seems you need at least one kind for all of your favorite desserts. (We’ll admit that we have fallen in love with at least few flourless dessert recipes.) You’ve probably seen multiple varieties of flour on your local grocery store’s shelves. But do you know the differences between those types?
Unless you’re already a baking aficionado — or even if you are — you might not know what goes into each variety. And you might not be sure which type will work in which recipe. Plus, you’re probably not aware that in some cases, you can mix up your own blend instead of heading to the grocery store. To make things simpler, we’ve put together an easy overview of the most commonly found varieties. Read on for a rundown of nine types to learn the distinctive characteristics and uses of each variety of flour.
1. All-purpose flour
All-purpose flour is one of the most commonly used types of flour, according to What’s Cooking America. Berkeley Wellness notes this variety is made from a blend of hard and soft wheat. That gives it a middle-of-the-road protein and starch content.
The Kitchn explains protein content directly influences how much gluten can be formed with a particular flour. Flours with low protein contents generate less gluten. Flours with high protein content generate more. And gluten determines the structure and texture of a baked good. All-purpose has a 10% to 12% protein content. Bread flour has more, at about 14% to 16%. But pastry flours (9%) and cake flours (7% to 8%) have less. SF Gate reports that almost 95% of the white flour sold in the United States is enriched with iron and B vitamins, including thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid.
2. Bread flour
According to Berkeley Wellness, bread flour is made entirely from hard wheat. The larger amount of gluten generated by this higher-protein flour helps bread rise higher. That’s because the gluten traps and holds air bubbles as you mix and knead the dough.
According to What’s Cooking America, bread flour is the best choice for yeasted baking products, such as bread (hence its name). So what should you do if your recipe calls for this variety, and you don’t have it on hand? The Kitchn notes you can “bump up a flour’s protein content” and increase its gluten-producing potential by adding a few tablespoons of vital wheat gluten to plain old all-purpose.
3. Cake flour
Cake flour is very finely milled from soft wheat, according to the Huffington Post. That gives it an almost silky feel. As The Kitchn pointed out, this variety has a low protein content. It’s also bleached. (Flours that bleach naturally as they age get the label “unbleached.” But chemically treated flours are “bleached.”)
The bleaching process alters the structure of cake flour’s starches and fats, resulting in a more acidic pH. The acidity actually helps cakes — and other baked goods with a large amount of sugar — rise instead of collapsing. Meanwhile, the low protein content ensures a tender and fluffy texture.
Bon Appétit reports that cake flour is great for, well, cakes. But you should avoid it if you’re baking bread. If you need cake flour and don’t have it on hand, The Kitchn recommends adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to a cup of all-purpose.
4. Pastry flour
Pastry flour is made from soft wheat, which makes it finer than all-purpose flour. Its protein content places it between all-purpose and cake flours. Food.com notes this variety is ideal for tart crusts, pie dough, muffins, and some cookie batters. What’s Cooking America recommends it if you’re trying to achieve a “tender but crumbly pastry.”
Suppliers offer pastry flour in both whole-wheat and regular varieties. But your local supermarket might not keep in stock. In that case, you can find it at specialty baking stores, or order it online. Alternatively, you can mimic its characteristics by mixing a 2-to-1 ratio of all-purpose to cake flours.
5. Whole wheat flour
According to The Huffington Post, you make whole wheat flour by grinding entire kernels of red wheat. Bon Appétit explains that a wheat seed head has three portions: the germ, bran, and endosperm. White flour includes just the endosperm, not the bran and germ. But the bran and germ contain the bulk of the fiber and protein.
Because whole wheat flour has all three portions, it’s higher than white flour in nutrients and dietary fiber. Fine Cooking explains that the bran in whole wheat flour tears strands of gluten, thus inhibiting gluten development. And Bon Appétit notes that whole wheat is more absorbent than white flour. That necessitates the use of more liquid and results in a stickier dough, which can be challenging for novices. You can offset the effect — and subdue the telltale whole wheat taste — by blending whole wheat and all-purpose flours.
6. White whole wheat flour
White whole wheat flour sounds like an oxymoron. But this variety contains the endosperm, germ, and bran of a paler variety of wheat, called hard white wheat, according to Bon Appétit. It tastes slightly sweeter than traditional whole wheat, thanks to its lower tannin content.
Despite the difference in look and taste, whole wheat and white whole wheat flours have the same nutritional value. For that reason, The Huffington Post recommends using this variety blended with all-purpose “to achieve heartier and healthier results” than if you used all-purpose flour on its own. Not convinced yet? The Mayo Clinic explains, “If you prefer the taste and texture of white bread but want the natural nutritional benefits of whole wheat, choose white whole-wheat bread.”
7. Oat flour
Oat flour doesn’t come from wheat. Instead, it’s made from ground oats. Bon Appétit reports that oat flour has a superfine, even fluffy texture. And its sweet flavor makes it “one of the most approachable ‘whole grain’ flavors.”
Oat flour is gluten-free and therefore perfect for people on a gluten-free diet. However, Livestrong notes this variety can leave your baked goods heavy or crumbly. So you might need to add more liquid or rising ingredients to your recipe. (Or, if you aren’t gluten-free, Bon Appétit recommends using oat flour in conjunction with a high-gluten variety, such as bread flour.)
You can find oat flour at the grocery store or health food store. Or you can make it at home. Just grind dried oats in your food processor or blender until they become a fine powder. Each 1¼ cups of oats will yield 1 cup of oat flour.
8. Self-rising flour
Not sure whether you need self-rising flour, or wondering what’s in it? We can help. This variety is a blend of all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt, according to The Kitchn. And yes, you can definitely make it in your kitchen. Mix 1 cup of all-purpose flour with 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon fine salt.
Recipes for breads, biscuits, and pancakes often call for it. Sometimes, you’ll also see it in cake and cupcake recipes. However, you shouldn’t use it in yeast breads. And unless you’re really in a pinch, you shouldn’t use it in place of all-purpose. If you did, you would need to reduce the amount of salt and baking powder in the recipe.
Semolina, which you might run across in recipes for pasta and Italian puddings, is made from the coarsely ground endosperm of durum wheat. What’s Cooking America notes durum wheat is the hardest type of wheat. Interestingly enough, semolina has the highest gluten content of all flours.
The Kitchn reports you might see semolina flour labeled as 00 flour, a finely ground pasta flour that has a mid-range protein content of about 11% to 12%. The gluten from durum wheat flour tends to be strong but not very elastic. In contrast, the gluten in flours made from red wheat is both strong and elastic.
The Kitchn says semolina gives “a nice bite” to breads and pasta — “but not as much chew.” However, Bon Appétit reports that 00 flour is too fine to make a good bread.
Catherine Northington also contributed to this post.