All-purpose flour, bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour -- there are a ton of different flours out there, and each one serves a very specific purpose. The trick is not only knowing when to use them (fortunately their names are good indications), but also knowing when and why they might be crucial, and when they may be substituted. "Are cakes that much better when they're made with cake flour?" you may be wondering. "Does a yeast bread come out better with bread flour instead of all-purpose?" Allow us to give you the low-down on flour.
First, for the purposes of this post, we're talking about only wheat flour. We're not going into garbanzo flour, nor are we considering rice flour. We're sticking with wheat on this one. With that in mind, there are two different types of wheat used in wheat flour: hard and soft. The difference lies in the protein content, with hard wheat containing a higher level of protein than soft. Also, wheat is milled and processed in slightly varying ways to create the different flours. For example, whole-wheat flour will be darker in color than all-purpose flour because it contains the whole kernel (the bran, germ and endosperm), rather than just the endosperm (the center of the wheat kernel).
Once you've understood the root of the differences, you can start to comprehend the advantages and disadvantages of different flours. Here are eight types of flours, and when you should use them:
What it is: Otherwise known as plain flour, all-purpose flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat with 10-12 percent protein. It's available in bleached and unbleached versions. Bleached flour has been treated with an agent, like chlorine or peroxide, to whiten it. It's also enriched to put back nutrients that were removed during processing. Unlike bleached flour, unbleached flour is naturally aged, contains all its nutrients and possesses a cream-colored tinge.
When to use it: Either type of all-purpose flour is great for all-purpose baking as the name suggests. Most recipes for pie doughs, cookies, quick breads, etc., will call for all-purpose flour.
What it is: Cake flour is a very finely milled flour from soft wheat. It has a high starch content and low level of protein (at about six-eight percent). It's also bleached, which alters the structure of the starches and fats to make the flour more acidic. The acidity helps cakes rise instead of collapsing. The low protein content ensures cakes turn out tender and fluffy.
When to use it: Cake flour is excellent for baking cakes and other baked goods that have a high amount of sugar -- try it in cupcakes, muffins and even cookies.
What it is: Like cake flour, pastry flour is also milled from soft wheat and has a level of protein between all-purpose and cake flours (at about 8-10 percent). That medium level makes it great to use in recipes where you want a tender and crumbly pastry (too much protein would give you a hard pastry and too little protein would give you a brittle dough to deal with).
When to use it:Try pastry flour in recipes for biscuits, pie doughs, brownies, cookies and quick breads. Do not use it for making yeast breads.
What it is: Made from hard wheat with a high level of protein (at about 12-14 percent), bread flour is great for bread baking, because when combined with water, it becomes elastic from gluten formation. This gives you the chewy texture you're looking for in a good bread, as well as the form and structure.
When to use it:Use this flour exclusively for yeast breads and pizzas.
What it is: Self-rising flour is a low-protein flour (similar in level to pastry flour) that has had salt and leavening (baking powder) added to it. Many Southern recipes call for self-rising flour.
When to use it:You'll see it used in recipes for biscuits, quick breads, muffins and pancakes (these recipes will not require you to add more baking powder or salt). Do not use the flour for making yeast breads.
What it is Whole wheat flour is made from the entire kernel of hard red wheat, which gives it a darker brown color than white flour. It's high in nutrients and dietary fiber.
When to use it: Whole-wheat flour is often used blended with all-purpose flour in recipes to lessen its strong wheat flavor. Try it in recipes for hearty and rustic breads.
White Whole-Wheat Flour
What it is: White whole-wheat flour is made from hard white wheat, which results in a paler color than regular whole-wheat flour. It has less of the strong wheat flavor.
When to use it: Use it blended with all-purpose flour in recipes to achieve heartier and healthier results than if you would use only all-purpose flour. Whole wheat and white whole-wheat have the same nutritional value.
What it is: Pasta flour is durum wheat semolina flour. Unlike all the other flours mentioned here, it's not characterized by its protein content. Pasta flour is broken down according to how fine it is. There are different levels: 1, 0 and 00. Double Zero, called doppio zero in Italian, is super fine and can be difficult to find in the U.S. Despite common conception, Double Zero isn't necessarily low in protein because it is super fine. Its protein content can vary depending on the kind of wheat used, and the kind we typically find in the U.S has a mid-range protein content of around 11-12 percent.
When to use it: If you're only using water and flour when you're making pasta, you should use type one because the more coarsely ground flour will hold up on its own. If you're using water, flour and egg, you can use Double Zero, because the egg can reinforce the super fine flour.