From sourdough bread to scones to chocolate chip cookies, many people are doing more baking during the pandemic. Flour, which is finely milled wheat or other grains, is a key ingredient in baked goods because of its ability to create essential structure. There are quite a few different types of flours to choose from, so we’re here to help you find out which will work best for your baking needs.
Before we dig into types of flours, it’s important to understand that the main differentiator among various kinds of flours is protein content. High-protein flours are referred to as “hard wheat,” and low-protein flours are referred to as “soft wheat.” The more protein a flour has, the more gluten it has. The more gluten a flour has, the more strength it gives a baked good’s structure.
Don’t worry—we’ll also outline a few gluten-free options as well. Let’s get started.
All-purpose flour is the most versatile flour. It’s a type of white flour, meaning it contains only the endosperm, not the bran or germ, of the wheat kernel. All-purpose flour is milled from a mixture of soft and hard wheat with a moderate amount of protein (8–11%). Quick breads, cakes, cookies and pastries can all be made using all-purpose flour. If a recipe calls simply for “flour,” you can bet it’s referring to all-purpose flour.
Cake flour, another white flour, has the lowest protein content (5–8%) of the wheat varieties. Cake flour is typically chlorinated, a bleaching process that further weakens the gluten protein and increases the flour’s ability to absorb liquid and sugar. As the name suggests, this flour is best suited for cakes (think sponge cakes and angel food cake). Cake flour can also work for scones, biscuits and muffins.
Pastry flour is a white flour made from soft wheat with a protein content in between all-purpose and cake flour (8–9%). Pastry flour provides a flakiness and tenderness that other flours do not. This flour is used for many pastries, including pies, tarts and several types of cookies.
Bread flour is a white flour—the strongest of all types—that contains a high amount of protein (12–14%) and provides a lot of structure. Not only is a higher amount of protein needed for the volume and structure found in bread; it also results in more browning. Not surprisingly, bread flour is mostly used for breads, bagels and pretzels.
Self-rising flour is typically all-purpose flour that has had salt and baking powder added to it. One cup of self-rising flour contains 1½ teaspoons baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. It’s mostly used for biscuits, muffins, pancakes and quick breads.
During the milling process, the wheat kernel is separated into its three parts: the endosperm, the germ and the brain. Unlike white flours, whole-wheat flour also includes the germ and bran, making it a whole-grain option that is higher in fiber and other nutrients as compared with other types of flour. Whole-wheat flour also is high in protein (13–14%), but the germ and bran impede its gluten-forming ability. Whole-wheat flours typically result in denser, heavier baked goods. If you’re interested in using whole-wheat flour in a recipe that calls for all-purpose flour, many bakers suggest starting with substituting 25% of your all-purpose flour with whole-wheat.
Almond flour is a high-protein, low-carb flour made from blanched or unblanched almonds. It has a nutty flavor and does not contain any gluten. Macarons are made using almond flour, and some cookies, brownies, breads and muffins can be made using it as well. Due to the absence of gluten, baked goods made with almond flour will not rise as much and will spread more compared with those made using wheat flour.
Coconut flour is high in fiber and low in calories. It soaks up a lot of moisture when it bakes and is generally more difficult to bake with. It’s not meant to be substituted one-for-one for wheat flour, but it is often used in cookie, muffin and cake recipes when combined with other gluten-free flours.
Oat flour is made by grinding oats into a flour-like consistency. Its flavor is relatively mild, and its texture is very fine. Oat flour is best for gluten-free cakes; it also can be combined with wheat flour in cookies and breads.
Check out these articles if you’re interested in learning more about grains:
- Whole Grains Fact Sheet
- Getting in Touch With Whole Grains
- (Eating) Tools for Success: Whole Grains
- Gut Check: Whole Grains and the Microbiome
This article contains contributions from Ali Webster, RD, PhD.