How to use different types of flour

flour sprinkled over a loaf of bread on the counter
© @ch_ch / Twenty20

Learn which kind of flour to use for each purpose, and how to substitute one for another.

All-purpose flour, self-rising flour, bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour – what does it all mean? What makes them different? What do you do if you don't have a specific flour called for in a recipe? Do you use an equal amount when swapping? Gather 'round, friends, and let us tell you all about the diverse and mysterious world of flour.

So, when I first heard rumblings that my city was potentially heading toward a COVID-19 lockdown, I went directly to the supermarket and bought a five-pound bag of all-purpose flour. It is the most versatile staple I know of; a pantry shapeshifter that can become bread, pasta, pizza, tortillas, dumplings, pastry, muffins, crackers, cake, cookies, and the list goes on.

At the time I did not anticipate that flour and its beloved sidekick yeast would be amongst the hottest commodities of lockdown larders across the land. As Public Radio's Marketplace notes, "demand for flour and yeast is on the rise. Red Star Yeast, one of the country’s major producers, has said the surge is unprecedented. At Vermont-based King Arthur Flour, sales are three times higher than usual..."

And here we are, many supermarket shelves are bereft of all-purpose flour. But that doesn't mean that we can't still bake! It's time to play around with the flours that are available – or ones that you may have stashed away from old recipes; learning about flour swaps is a great way to help ensure ones you have on hand don't go to waste. Here's where to start.

What makes different flours different?

There are several kinds of wheat grown that become the flours we use today. The important thing that makes them different from one another is the content and quality of their gluten proteins.

Hard wheat versus soft wheat

As Harold McGee explains in the book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," wheat with high protein content and strong gluten often has a "hard, glassy, translucent grain interior." These are the hard wheats, which make up around 75 percent of the American crop. Soft wheats have a lower amount of weaker gluten proteins. There is also club wheat, which has especially weak gluten, and durum wheat, which has high protein and is used for pasta.

Spring and winter wheat; red and white wheat

North American wheats are also identified by their growth habit and kernel color. Spring wheats are planted in the springs and harvested in the fall; winter wheats are sown in the fall and harvested in the summer. Red wheats are the most common variety; but white wheats are becoming more popular because whole wheat flour made from these are milder in flavor than their red whole wheat counterparts.

Protein content of popular flours and their uses

Here is the protein content by weight of the major wheat types; the figures are from the the McGee book.
  • Hard red spring wheat: 13 to 16.5 percent protein, used for bread flours
  • Hard red winter wheat: 10 to 13.5 percent protein, used for all purpose flours
  • Soft red wheat: 9 to 11 percent protein, used for all-purpose and pastry flours
  • Hard white wheat: 10 to 12 percent protein, used for specialty whole-grain flours
  • Soft white wheat: 10 to 11 percent, used for specialty whole-grain flours
  • Club wheat: 8 to 9 percent protein, used for cake flours
  • Durum wheat: 12 to 16 percent protein, used for semolina to make dried pasta

A note on bleached versus unbleached flour

When flour is milled, it has a yellowish hue that naturally fadens when all-purpose flour is left to age. But some companies choose to hasten the process with chemicals (usually benzoyl peroxide) – those are "bleached" flours. I always prefer unbleached since is has less chemical alteration. On the same note, I always opt for adding as much whole grain flour as I can to a recipe.

Basic types of flour

Different types of wheat flour on the counter© Current situation at the author's house. (Photo: Melissa Breyer)

All-purpose flour

It's all in the name here, all-purpose is easily the most versatile – even if it's not necessarily the best flour for "all" purposes. Generally a mix of soft and hard wheats, all-purpose is the most commonly used flour and the one called for in most recipes. That said, protein content varies from brand to brand, and especially between regions.

  • National brands: Across most of the United States, all-purpose flour will ring in at 11 to 12 percent protein.
  • Southern brands: Most southern brands are much softer than their northern neighbors, with protein content ranging from 7.5 to 9.5 percent – which is generally cited as the reason why southern biscuits are unique from anything one can find north of the Mason-Dixon line. The classic White Lily flour, for example, is made of 100 percent soft red winter wheat and has a protein content of 8 percent, which makes it perfect for light and fluffy baked goods.

SWAPS: If you have an all-purpose flour like White Lily and want to use it in place of normal all-purpose flour, you just need to use more. As the company explains, "because White Lily Flour has a lighter texture, more flour must be used. For every cup of flour in a recipe, use 1 cup and 2 tablespoons of White Lily Flour."

Self-rising flour

These flours have baking powder and salt so that they can be used without additional leavening agents – they are generally made with the softer, lower protein all-purpose flour of the south. They are used for quick breads, biscuits, muffins, pancakes, and other foods that get their lift from chemicals like baking powder.

SWAPS: To make your own, combine 1 cup pastry flour or southern-style all-purpose with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. You can use regular all-purpose here, but the results will not be as tender.

Whole-wheat flour

Whole-wheat flour is generally made from hard red wheat; after milling, germ and bran are added back into the flour, making it the complex carbohydrate with more nutrients that we should be striving for. It's high in protein, King Arthur for example, rings in at 14 percent. As the Food Network points out, whole-wheat flour's gluten-forming ability is compromised by the bran and germ, which is one of the reasons whole-wheat flour tends to produce heavier, denser baked goods.

SWAPS: In most recipes, you can replace half the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour. You can experiment with adding more; if you get to the point where you are swapping all whole-wheat for all-purpose, use 7/8 cup whole-wheat for every cup of white flour.

White whole-wheat flour

King Arthur makes an unbleached whole-wheat flour with a twist: they use hard white spring wheat. Using the lighter wheat makes for a pale whole-wheat flour that doesn't have the heavier, sweeter flavor of regular whole-wheat flour. This one has 13 percent protein content, making it a pretty strong flour. This is easily my favorite whole-wheat flour.

SWAPS: Like regular whole-wheat flour, you can mix this flour in with all-purpose flour to bump up the nutrients. If you want to substitute some whole grain flour in a yeast bread recipe calling for white flour, King Arthur recommends letting the dough rest for 15 minutes before kneading.

Pastry flour

Pastry flour is at the lower end of the protein content and ranges from 8 to 9 percent; it's perfect for tender, flaky things, like biscuits, pie crusts, and a number of cookies.

SWAPS: Food Network notes that you can make your own pastry flour by mixing together 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour with 2/3 cup cake flour. McGee writes that "it's not really possible to turn all-purpose flour into pastry flour, and vice versa," because the protein quality is different. That said, he explains that you can dilute the gluten proteins by adding cornstarch: He recommends making a workable pastry flour by adding one part cornstarch (by weight) to two parts all-purpose flour. Likewise, to make a workable all-purpose flour out of pastry flour, add one part (by weight) vital gluten (which has a protein content of 70+ percent) to two parts pastry flour.

Cake flour

McGee gives the range of protein content for cake flour as 7 to 8 percent; I've seen them go as low as 5 percent, and also as high as 10 percent. But the bottom line is that cake flour is generally very low in protein content. It is also usually processed with chlorine dioxide or chlorine gas, which brings about certain characteristics for making tender, moist, and velvety cakes, as well as biscuits, muffins, and scones. However, King Arthur makes an unbleached version that has 10 percent protein content and makes the loveliest cakes.

SWAPS: You can use cake flour for all-purpose in a direct swap, but it's not going to be great for things like dense or chewy breads – it's just too light. Meanwhile, if a recipe calls for cake flour and you only have all-purpose, you can turn it into a cake flour approximation like this, scaled up or down as needed: Take a cup of all-purpose flour and remove two tablespoons, then add in two tablespoons of cornstarch.

Bread flour

Bread flour is amongst the strongest of flours, with a protein content of 12 to 14 percent – which lends its products good structure and support. Bread flour is great for yeast baking for everything from from bread and rolls to pizza. It is also a great thing to add to dense whole grain baked goods to add a little lightness.

SWAPS: You can generally use unbleached all-purpose flour for bread flour. Likewise, you can swap in bread flour for all-purpose if you are out, just don't overmix in batters because the extra protein may lead to a tough or springy outcome. Also, as King Arthur notes, "When baking with bread flour, add about 2 teaspoons extra liquid for each cup of flour in order to produce the proper consistency of dough."

Italian "00" flour

This is like baby flour, highly milled, low in protein (around 8 percent), and super mellow. It makes for a very easy dough to work with, one that's smooth and easy to shape. I use it for focaccia, it is also exceptional for pizza, crackers, and flatbreads because it bakes into a light and airy structure with a crispy crust.

SWAPS: Use it in recipes calling for it, but you can also use it for all-purpose or bread flour in recipes for things like pizza and focaccia; it will make them even lighter and crispier. One note, however, since it has less protein, use around 20 percent less water since it will absorb less than all-purpose or bread flour.

Semolina flour

Semolina flour has a high protein content, like up to 15 percent. Unlike most of the other basic flours, this one is made from durum wheat – which gives it a slightly sweet and nutty tinge. It is also notable for its pale golden color. Its most famous use if for pasta, where the high gluten helps the pasta keep its shape and texture. It's also used frequently in pizza dough and is a great flour to use for dinner rolls.

SWAPS: Many homemade pasta recipes will call for semolina flour, but I often used all-purpose flour and it works beautifully. I just recommend not rolling it out quite as thin; if you're using an Atlas hand-crank machine, for example, stop at 5 or 6.

Spelt flour

There are a lot of flours made from ancient grains, but spelt flour is my favorite. It comes from an ancient strain of wheat and is high in protein, up to 17 percent. It has a more interesting flavor than plain flour, but it's not stodgy like red whole-wheat can sometimes be. I find that it imparts a very desirable velvety texture. It is great for muffins, pancakes, scones, and my favorite, homemade flour tortillas, where I use a 75:25 mix of spelt flour and all-purpose.

SWAPS: Try mixing in 25 to 50 percent of spelt flour into baked goods, and increase from there if you like. For yeast breads, don't go higher than 50 percent. For items that don't rely on a lot of structure, like pie crust or crackers, you can even go up to 100 percent spelt.

All of the above are wheat flours (and contain gluten, for the record). For a selection of wonderful less-known flours, see: 7 alternative baking flours and how to use them.

How to use different types of flour
Learn which kind of flour to use for each purpose, and how to substitute one for another.

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