Flour “101”

If you are like most people, you are on auto-pilot when you purchase flour. You most likely buy the same flour as your mother or what’s on sale. But, do you really know what you are buying? Or rather, what you are feeding to your family & friends? Please pay attention to the section- “Bleached” vs “Un-bleached” flours; a little knowledge is power 🙂

One of the basic differences in flours is the protein content. The higher the protein, the more potential for gluten formation; gluten is what makes the dough elastic and allows it to expand & hold air bubbles (formed by yeast). In a nutshell – high protein flours produce heavier, denser baked goods think breads; while lower protein flours produce baked goods that have a tendency to spread (think drop cookies) or do not hold their shape (think cake before it’s baked).

It’s as easy as ABC to remember the 3 most common types of flour. A =All Purpose (AP) flour, B=Bread flour, and C=Cake flour.  All flours are composed of soft and hard wheat.  Cake flour has a greater percentage of soft wheat compared to the hard.  AP flour is somewhere in the middle and bread flour has more hard wheat than soft.  The harder wheat berries contain more gluten which is the component that makes bread elastic.  So if you have AP flour and would like it to behave more like bread flour you would add gluten to the bread dough. *

ALL-Purpose (AP) Flour – The flour that most people are familiar with is All Purpose (AP) flour which typically has a high protein content of 10-12%. The protein content does vary according to manufacturer. So, in essence, all AP flours are not created equal – and changing the brand when making your favorite recipe can affect the results of the final product. (so, it’s not you – it’s the flour)

Also, AP flour is sold as either bleached or unbleached and, in my experience the end results are the same with both. Unbleached goes through less chemical processing. I ALWAYS use un-bleached now. (If you haven’t yet, read Baking Powder 101, aluminum is often added to baking powder and you don’t really need aluminum in what you are baking either.) Many people tout the virtues of King Arthur (KA) Brand as being even less chemically treated vs. other un-bleached brands. Yay for King Arthur. However, keep in mind that King Arthur AP flour = 11.7% protein & Gold Medal and Pillsbury = 10.5%. (I started buying my flour in bulk to save money since I’ve been using A LOT recently.)

Bread Flour – Flours with a protein content above 12% are typically called bread flour. As mentioned before, high protein facilitates gluten development. Gluten is what produces the chewy texture, appealing flavor and crisp crust = yummy bread.

Pastry Flour – Pastry flour is a high-starch and low-protein flour. It falls somewhere between the 10-11% protein content of all-purpose flour and the (average) 8% protein content of cake flour.

This brand is "bleached". King Arthur makes an unbleached Cake Flour.

Cake Flour – Flours with protein contents of less than 8% are typically considered cake flours. The lower protein content produces the characteristic light-weight cake texture (commonly called fine-crumb) and fluffy biscuits. Note: King Arthur makes an “un-bleached” cake flour, but the protein content is 9.4%.

*Many people make their own cake flour using the formula – 1 cup AP flour less 2TBL, replaced by 2 TBL cornstarch.  NOTE: this will work if a lower protein AP flour is used (both Gold Medal & Pillsbury AP Flours have a 10.5% protein content)

Whole Wheat (WW)  Flour – From what I have researched thus far, there is a huge difference in Whole Wheat Flours – especially those that are milled commercially vs. grinding it yourself like a blogging buddy of mine Stacy; this is another blog post entirely. However, I will focus on the whole-wheat flours purchased in the store. Whole wheat flours come from the “whole” wheat berry – the outer or bran layer, the germ, and the endosperm.  White flour is produced from the endosperm alone. Whole Wheat flours have a much shorter shelf-life, because they contain the “germ” which is perishable. Whole-Wheat flour is best stored in the freezer. Lastly, because whole-wheat flour is denser, it will affect the final results of your baked goods if you substitute it 1-1 with the other flours. I have had decent results substituting AP or Bread Flour with WW Flour using a 50/50 ratio – for example if a recipe calls for 2 cups of AP flour, I use 1 cup whole-wheat and 1 cup AP. (WW Flour is sold as whole wheat (same as AP), WW Bread and WW Pastry.) Flour labeled as Whole Wheat is made from ground hard red spring wheat, however more brands (King Arthur=13% protein like bread flour, Baker Josef’s=??% protein, and Gold Medal) are making & more stores are selling White Whole Wheat – which is 100% Whole Wheat ground from hard white spring wheat.

Another option is to add Vital Wheat Gluten – which boosts the wheat’s flour ability to rise… producing a thicker, chewier bread/crust. *Vital Wheat gluten can also be added to AP flour to make your own bread flour.

I would be very careful substituting commercial WW flour in cake recipes. However, I have had success using WW flour in bread, pancakes, waffles, tortillas and pita bread. I typically use Baker Josef’s White WW Flour  picture above) or WW Pastry flour. WW Pastry flour is a low-protein flour made from whole grains. Many cookbooks that focus on whole grains encourage bakers to use this type of flour because it is much softer and more finely textured than regular whole wheat flour, and baked goods made with it will have a similar consistency to those made with regular white flour. (Another alternative is to mix half white flour with half whole wheat flour in your recipe; use either AP or Bread depending on what your recipe requires.)

Feeling a little over-whelmed? Me, too… which is why I wrote all of this down. More information on whole wheat flours can be found at Cliqueclack— However, if you learned anything from this, next time you are at the store hopefully you’ll reach for the un-bleached flour and the aluminum free baking powder.

Source: Baking Illustrated and the King Arthur Flour website for some of the percentages listed above.


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