All About Flours

Fall means baking. And baking means flour. And flour means….well, tons of different types. All-Purpose flour. Whole wheat flour. Self-rising flour. Cake flour. And (nowadays) a gazillion different kinds of gluten-free flours. It can be so confusing! So, I thought it might be helpful to discuss flour. Pass along a little knowledge. Throw in a few ideas.

Mommy, Where does flour come from? 

Let’s start from the beginning. Where the heck does flour come from anyway? Most common flours you’ll see are made from wheat. The top of the wheat plant (“seed head” or the “wheat berry”) has three parts: the germ, the bran, and the endosperm. To make white flour, the bran and germ are removed and the endosperm is milled. Whole wheat flour is made from grinding all three parts of the seed head.

Protein is King (or queen)

One thing to know is that protein content is kind of important. Why, you ask? Because the higher the protein content flour (a “harder” flour) is best used with natural yeast on chewier, crustier breads. Lower protein flours (“softer”) are better with chemical leaveners like baking powder for more tender, softer baked goods like cakes, pie crusts, and cookies. Your typical all-purpose flour (think Gold Medal) is about 10.5%. King Arthur (which is a pretty widely-used fine flour) is 11.7%. Most all-purpose flours are in the 9-12% range.

It depends on the type of wheat used for the flour. The harder the wheat (TALK about wheat grades?), the higher the amount of protein in the flour.

Here’s an interesting little tidbit: There are actually TWO proteins present in the endosperm of the wheat berry: “gliadin” and “glutenin”.  Once liquid is added to the flour, these proteins are transformed into gluten.

Let’s Talk About Flour Types

So, here’s the low-down on a few of the more common flours you’ll run across:

  • All-Purpose. This is the most common flour you will come across and use. In general, all-purpose flour is a pretty good choice for most baking. 
  • Whole-wheat. Whole-wheat flour has a higher protein content (about 14%) than all-purpose flours. This makes for firmer baked goods. The bran in whole-wheat flour can cut the gluten strands in your dough, making your loaf less elastic. Another thing to know about whole-wheat flour is that it has a shorter shelf life. It has a higher oil content, which can lead to spoilage. These are better stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Also, whole-wheat flour absorbs more water than white flour - and so requires additional liquid, maybe more skill to work with the moister dough, resting to allow structure to form.
  • Bread flour. Bread flour is made from a harder wheat, so it has a higher protein content (12-14%). It has a higher gluten development which is great for chewier things like pretzels, breads, and bagels.
  • Pastry Flour. This flour is made from the softer wheats and has a very fine texture. It has a lower protein level - usually in the 8-9% range.
  • Cake flour. Cake flour has a protein level about the same as pastry flour. It is very finely milled. Also, these flours tend to be bleached a little - which allows them to absorb more of the liquid you are using. That leads to higher rising - which is great for cakes (especially the lighter cakes like sponge cake and angel-food cake).

OK, so what’s “self-rising” flour?

Self-rising flour is a softer, lower protein (about 8.5%) flour plus baking powder and a little salt. If you are using a recipe that calls for baking powder and salt, adjust your recipe. They’re already in the self-rising flour.

Let’s Go Gluten-Free

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that in recent years we have seen the rise (no pun intended!) of gluten-free well just about everything. And flours are of course at the heart of that. I thought I’d hit on a few of the more common low-gluten and gluten-free flours bakers are using. 

It’s pretty darn hard to make a good baked good that is completely gluten-free (as I’m sure you know!). Most people settle for lowering the gluten they are using by replacing part of the wheat flour(s) with some gluten-free flour. Most of these flours tend to do better in baked goods such as cookies, pies, etc. (as opposed to breads which really need more structure that these cannot provide).

  • Rice flour. This is a pretty coarsely-ground gluten-free flour. 

  • Oat flour. Obviously from oats which are gluten-free. It’s typically super-fine and fluffy. It has a sweet taste. It….
  • Nut flours (i.e. almond flour or almond meal). These are just like they sound - essentially finely ground nuts. They are gluten-free.


So, there you have it! Taking a little of the confusion out of the world of flours!!