5 Most Common Types of Flour—and How to Sub One for Another

Here's what to do when a recipe calls for self-rising flour and you don't have any.

Photo: Bryan Gardner

Whether you're an occasional home baker or one who creates pies, cookies, muffins, and more on the regular, you likely keep your refrigerator and pantry stocked with basic baking ingredients, like butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, sugar...and flour. But if a recipe calls for cake flour when all you have is all-purpose flour on hand, what's a baker to do? Read on to learn everything you need to know about the most common types of wheat flour—plus, how to substitute one for another in a pinch.

The Basics: Hard vs. Soft Wheat Flour

First, it helps to understand what defines each type of wheat flour, and what distinguishes one flour from another. Most common flours are derived from wheat, either hard or soft, and choosing the right flour makes a big difference in how successful a baker you will be.

Of the two, hard wheat is higher in protein, and protein is what allows baked goods to develop gluten. The amount of protein—and thus, gluten—determines whether the texture, or crumb, will be soft and tender or hearty and chewy, or anywhere in between. Anything baked with hard (high protein) wheat is generally stronger and more dense (think bread). Soft wheat is lower in protein and produces a lighter, more tender crumb (think cakes). Of the flours available in most supermarkets, protein contents run from about 5 to 14 percent—a considerable range.

Most Common Types of Wheat Flour

All-Purpose Flour

As its name suggests, all-purpose flour suits many purposes and is the most widely available flour. With a protein content of 10 to 12 percent (depending on the brand), all-purpose is the best choice for a wide variety of baked goods, from simple-to-mix to spectacularly involved. It's a combination of hard and soft wheat.

1 cup of all-purpose flour weighs around 4 1/4 ounces or 120 grams.

Cake Flour Explained

Cake flour is made from soft wheat and has the lowest protein or gluten content, generally from 5 to 8 percent. It is much finer than other flour and much whiter in color. Cake flour is the best choice for cakes, naturally, but it's not essential for all cakes. It works best for super light and airy cakes like angel food and chiffon. (Rich pound cakes and other buttery desserts generally call for all-purpose flour.)

1 cup of cake flour weighs around 3 1/2 ounces or 99 grams.

Pastry Flour

Pastry flour has 8 to 9 percent protein, making it slightly stronger than cake flour, but with less gluten than all-purpose. It is often used for more delicate baked goods like biscuits and scones, and for traditional pastries. You'll notice it's not as bright white as cake flour.

1 cup of pastry flour will weigh around 3 3/4 ounces or 106 grams.

Self-Rising Flour

Made from softer wheat, self-rising flour includes a leavening agent (baking powder) and a tiny amount of salt. It's used in many Southern recipes, and has a protein content of 8 to 9 percent.

1 cup of self-rising flour will weigh around 4 ounces or 113 grams.

Bread Flour

Sometimes referred to as a strong flour, bread flour averages 12 to 14 percent protein, meaning it has the highest gluten content of the wheat flours available in supermarkets. It's generally used for making bread and rolls, and other yeasted baked goods.

1 cup of bread flour will weigh about 5 ounces or 140 grams.

How to Use All-Purpose Flour as a Substitute for Other Wheat Flours

Because of its versatility and wide availability, all-purpose flour takes the central spot in most home bakers' pantries. It's a versatile flour, not just because it is used in so many recipes—it can also be used as a substitute for other types of wheat flour in a pinch.

Homemade Cake Flour

You can "make" cake flour at home by swapping out 2 tablespoons from each cup of all-purpose flour with an equal amount of cornstarch. Use this formula when you need cake flour for a recipe like this favorite birthday cake.

How to Make Self-Rising Flour

For a homemade version of self-rising flour when you don't have any on hand, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt to each cup of all-purpose flour.

Homemade Bread Flour

This specialty flour substitute requires an ingredient you probably do not have on hand, vital wheat gluten, so it's not as easy a swap as the other homemade specialty flours. Replace 1 1/2 tablespoons per cup of all-purpose flour with 1 1/2 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten. An alternative substitute for bread flour is to swap it one for one with all-purpose flour. The bread may not rise quite as high, but you will likely still end up with a nice, tasty loaf.

Of course, many professional bakers don't use these flour hacks, arguing that the crumb and overall texture will never be quite as good. But if you are baking for your friends and family, rather than for a panel of judges in a baking competition, chances are you will be just fine.

How to Use Self-Rising Flour in Recipes That Call for All-Purpose Flour

If you have self-rising flour that you want to use up, there are ways to swap it for all-purpose flour. Look for recipes that use about 1/2 teaspoon baking powder to each cup of all-purpose flour. Then don't add any baking powder—it's already in your self-rising flour. Remember that self-rising flour is a softer flour, so baked goods made with it will not be the same as when you use all-purpose flour—for example, cookies may spread more and be thinner and crisper than if made with all-purpose flour.

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