Flour is used to create structure and body for baked goods and a non-stick surface for kneading dough or coating cake and bread pans. Flour is key in baking, providing structure for many baked goods, from pancakes to pie crusts. Most flour contains gluten, a wheat protein that helps create structure in baked goods. Depending on the flour used, it can even contribute flavor. Flour comes in many forms; learn about the most common types of flour and why some recipes specify a certain type over another.
Types of Flour
Although some may be familiar only with all-purpose flour, there are many varieties of flour that bakers should be aware of, since they have different properties and sometimes act differently in baked goods. The major difference is the percentage of protein present in the flour, which indicates the level of gluten and how it will affect the overall structure and mass of the baked goods. Below is a list of some common types of flour used in commercial and home baking.
All purpose flour is so named because of its versatility and strength in a variety of baked goods. It is known for its high protein content—10 to 12 percent—although this can vary by brand or region. This flour is ideal for baking cookies, cakes, and even some breads and pastries. It is great to use when adjusting recipes at high altitudes, since the added protein content can improve the overall structure of baked goods.
This flour has a lower protein content—six to eight percent—and is generally made from a soft wheat flour. Cake flour is bleached to break down the strength of the gluten, and as a result has a smooth and velvety texture. Cake flour is ideal for making cakes, biscuits, and cookies where a tender, delicate texture is the goal. Usually these baked goods are more likely to crumble because of the lower gluten content. In a bind, add ¾ cup or 84 grams of sifted all-purpose flour with two tablespoons or 15 grams of cornstarch to replace one cup of cake flour.
Bread flour has a high protein content of 12 to 14 percent. It is composed of hard wheat flour. The high protein content means it has a high gluten content, which is critical for giving the bread its shape, structure and rise. Bread flour is available in whole wheat, white, organic, bleached and unbleached varieties.
Made from a soft wheat flour, pastry flour is a lot like cake flour but without the chlorination. The result is a higher protein content of eight to 10 percent, great for pastry dough, pies and cookies. It is less common than cake flour, and can be reproduced with a combination of 2/3 cups cake flour and 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour for every two cups of pastry flour required.
Whole Wheat Flour.
Whole wheat flour is made using all parts of the grain, including bran, germ and endosperm. This is unlike white and refined flours, which do not contain the bran or germ. Whole wheat flour has a high protein content, close to 14 percent. Whole flour has a textured, brown appearance and is more nutritious than refined white flour. However, it does not always rise as well as white flours, and it is typically more expensive in comparison.
Self-rising flour is white flour, usually cake flour, that has baking powder and salt added to it. Baking powder is a chemical leavener that allows the recipes that use this type of flour to rise without the addition of extra leavener. This kind of flour is best used for muffins, cakes and quick breads.
Bleached Vs. Unbleached Flour
Some manufacturers whiten their flour with a chemical bleaching agent, such as chlorine. This is generally done to achieve a more attractive appearance for consumers. Unbleached flour retains a slightly yellow color until it has aged several months, at which point it begins to whiten naturally. Most bleached flours are also enriched, since the chemical bleaching process removes some of the nutrient value of flour. Bleached flours are recommended for cakes, cookies and quick breads, where a light and fluffy texture is desired. Unbleached flour is ideal for making yeast bread and some pastries.
Enriched flour contains vitamins and nutrients that have been added by a manufacturer. These usually include niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, iron, and sometimes vitamins A, C and D. This is meant to make up for nutrients lost in refined white flours, which do not contain wheat bran or wheat germ.
High Altitude Flour.
High altitude flour is often available in cities above 5,000 feet. A popular type of high altitude flour is Hungarian high altitude flour. This type of flour is actually a bit of a misnomer. The flour is not from Hungary, but refers to the process used to mill the flour, which is said to have been developed in Hungary. Additionally, the grain for this type of flour is milled from wheat grown in high altitude regions, like Colorado or Montana; it actually does not have properties that make it preferable to use at high altitudes.
The types of flour listed above all contain the protein gluten. There are many other types of flour that are gluten-free. >> Learn more
Flour is packaged with a certain moisture content, typically about 14 percent. Depending on how it is stored, and in what environment, the moisture content of flour can fluctuate over time. Generally, flour will lose more moisture the longer it is stored. At high altitudes, flour tends to dry out more quickly, but in wet climates, flour may actually form clumps from excessive moisture. Storing flour in an airtight container is the best way to keep the moisture content constant.
Conversions for Measuring Flour
Measuring flour accurately involves a dry graduated measuring cup and a flat utensil, or the back of a knife blade. Fluff the flour with a spoon, and then scoop it into the measuring cup, taking care not to shake or tap the cup. Never pack the flour down. Rather, scoop the flour into the cup until it forms a mound, then scrape off the top with the knife until you have a flat, level surface. If the recipe calls for sifting, sift the flour with a flour sifter or sieve prior to measuring. The conversion chart below indicates the weigh conversions for one cup of flour. Check the weight of your measurements on a scale for maximum accuracy.