Including how to make an easy homemade substitute.

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strawberry swirl Bundt cake
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

As baking remains a choice quarantine activity in light of the coronavirus pandemic, flour is on our minds a lot these days. Namely: What should we do with it? Where can we find it? And in the event that we can't track down all-purpose flour on our grocery store shelves, what can we substitute instead? While there are a number of good all-purpose flour alternatives, there's another variety that's near and dear to our hearts (and our pantries): cake flour.

You'll most often see cake flour called for in cake recipes, like the Bundt cake shown here. But what makes it better suited to cake baking than all-purpose flour? Well, by most standards, the platonic ideal of good cake involves words like soft and fluffy, the opposite of which would be tough and dense. And the number one culprit when it comes to toughness in baked goods is—say it with us—overmixing.

But on a more functional level, what's really happening when we mix? Gluten, the protein found in wheat flour, is forming bonds that help give baked goods their structure. If we're too heavy-handed, though, those gluten bonds multiply, which affects the texture of the final product. Cake flour is lower in protein than all-purpose flour—it contains seven to nine percent protein to all-purpose flour's ten to twelve percent—which acts as built-in insurance to help keep things fluffy and light. It's also ground finer than all-purpose flour and bleached by chlorination. This leads to a more uniform dispersion of fat and air bubbles, helping your cake stay level and even-textured throughout.

What to Use If You Don't Have Cake Flour

So, what about bread flour? Can you substitute that? In a word, no. If all-purpose is our neutral when it comes to gluten content, bread flour is closer to the opposite end of the spectrum—high in protein, which is ideal for a chewy sourdough, but ruinous to a delicate cake. You can, however, make a homemade substitute for cake flour: For every cup of flour you add to your recipe, remove two tablespoons of flour and add two tablespoons of cornstarch. Be sure to sift them together before adding your other ingredients, since this will not only help them disperse evenly, but also aerate the mixture.

And What If You Only Have Cake Flour?

If you find yourself with the opposite conundrum, only cake flour in the pantry, can you use it in place of other flours? Yes, you can use it in most recipes but you'll need a bit more of it to achieve a similar texture and density to all-purpose. Try substituting one cup plus two tablespoons of cake flour for each cup of all-purpose flour your recipe calls for.

Ready to Bake a Cake?

While you can technically use cake flour in any cake recipe, you'll want to stick with all-purpose flour for cakes that are naturally heavy and moist, such as carrot cake or banana cake. Chocolate cake recipes also often don't do as well with cake flour, since cocoa powder itself is a fine, dry ingredient that can benefit from the added structure. Other than that, feel free to experiment by substituting cake flour 1:1 for all-purpose flour. Happy baking!

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