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Everything You Need to Know About Flour, From All-Purpose to Whole-Wheat

Including tips on which flour to use when.

all-purpose flour, wheat flour, cake flour
Photography by: Minh + Wass

Confused about which flour to use for what? Whether you're making bread, cake, cookies, or pasta, we've got you covered! Sift through our flour primer, and you'll always know which variety to pick up at the grocery store. 

 

Types of Wheat

There are two basic types of wheat grain. Hard wheat is high in protein and gluten, which give it a coarse and elastic texture. More gluten means the flour has more strength -- that is, the ability to hold baked goods together. Soft wheat is lower in protein and has more starch. The protein content of flour affects the way it absorbs water and determines its best use. About 75 percent of the wheat grown in the U.S. is hard wheat and 25 percent is soft wheat.

white flour
Photography by: Johnny Miller

White Flours

Wheat kernels are comprised of three components: endosperm, bran, and germ. These flours are all milled without the bran and germ of the grain.

 

All-purpose flour combines hard and soft wheats and thus lives in the middle on the protein scale, at 10 to 12 percent. All-purpose flour is available bleached, which creates a softer texture, as well as unbleached, which is what we recommend because it provides more structure in baked goods and retains more of the nuance of the wheat. You can bake just about anything with it -- breads, biscuits, pizza dough, cookies, you name it. Be careful not to use self-rising flour, which is all-purpose flour with leavening added, unless the recipe specifically calls for it.

 

Made entirely of hard wheat, bread flour is about 12 to 14 percent protein. It strengthens and brings structure to doughs and is best for yeast breads. The high level of gluten works in combination with the yeast, yielding a chewier consistency. Try using this flour to make our Japanese milk bread (shokupan).

 

Durum flour, also made of hard wheat, has an even higher protein content than bread flour, which is good for pasta. It helps noodles hold their shape and gives them a pleasantly rough texture that makes it easier for sauces to adhere. The flour itself is finely textured but is also available in a coarse grind, which is called semolina flour. Use it in our homemade orecchiette.

 

00 flour has a very fine, powdery texture -- the digits refer to the grind of the flour. The high-protein flour is typically used for pasta, yielding silky noodles with just the right amount of chew. Use it to make our homemade pasta in a food processor.

 

When a very fine texture is required, cake flour (all soft wheat) is used. It has a protein content of about 5 to 8 percent, yielding a softer, more tender crumb. It's of course good for cakes, but also cupcakesscones, biscuits, and muffins.

 

Pastry flour is also all soft wheat but has a slightly higher protein level -- 8 to 9 percent. Baked goods made with this flour, such as a pie or tart crust, will hold their shape nicely and have a tender crumb.

whole-wheat flour
Photography by: Johnny Miller

Whole-Wheat Flours

Ground from the entire grain, whole-wheat flour produces heavier and denser baked goods. Different brands have different ratios of endosperm to bran and germ, but they're all made from hard wheat. Whole-wheat flour also has a higher oil content due to the bran and adds fiber to whatever you're baking. It's often combined with a white flour in making cakes, breads, and muffins.

 

White whole-wheat flour also contains all three components of the wheat kernel but is made from white wheat instead of the usual red wheat. It functions like all-purpose flour in baking but has the nutrition of whole wheat. It makes an excellent cake or cupcake.

 

Ready for more? Here are 11 whole-grain flours you should try!

Watch our Kitchen Conundrums expert Thomas Joseph further demystify the different varieties of flour: