It’s the most common ingredient in baking! Your ancestors used it to make their single loaf of bread in the 1840s, and your children may use it to make a mess in your kitchen. That’s right, flour! The sheer number of different types of flour is staggering and could easily overwhelm a beginner baker, but that’s okay because I’m here to help you.
What actually is baker’s flour?
Bakers flour is an incredibly important ingredient for a multitude of different types of cooking but that doesn’t exactly answer what it is. Flour is a finely grounded powder made from raw materials such as grains, roots, nuts, seeds, and beans. From the list of materials used to make flour, you can assume that different materials make different flour, which is actually what I am here to talk about today.
Flour made from wheat, better known as wheat flour, is used for making most types of bread. However, bread can also be made from rye flour for a more dense and hearty loaf. Aside from bread and baking, flour has other important uses such as thickening sauces without ruining their flavor (compared to other substances that may be used), or can be used to make various types of pasta which unlocks the door to the world of Italian cuisine!
Down to the more precise details of flour; it is an ingredient high in starch (a complex carbohydrate) which can vary in levels of protein. Higher levels of protein will give you heavy chewy loaves of bread, whereas lower protein levels will produce more soft and elegant loaves or sweet treats like cookies and cakes if you so wish.
What type of flours are there?
To make sure the information is digestible and doesn’t instantly get lost in a wall of words, I shall spare you the details of their molecular structure and instead briefly sum them up for your convenience! Some flours are categorized into groups such as baking flours. These usually have their purpose in the title so cake flour, bread flour, and self-rising flour all count as baking flours.
All-Purpose Flour: This is by far your most common flour and is found in almost every kitchen or store. This is a more general use wheat flour that has a longer shelf life and is best for making most baked goods but especially sweet treats such as pancakes as it is typically low in protein.
Whole Wheat Flour; Denser than all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour is richer in fiber and rises less. This means that when using it, any doughs or batter will have to rest so that the liquids in it can permeate the bran it is made from, giving you a less coarse final product. While this can be used for some of the same items as all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour is especially good for making scones and waffles due to its 14% average protein content.
White whole wheat; This uses a whole head of wheat seed and is made from a lighter variety of white hard winter wheat. What this means is that this is a lighter flour in color (not to be confused with bleached flour) and a sweeter flour in taste. Due to this sweeter flavor than standard whole wheat, white whole wheat is better suited to the sweeter baked goods such as cookies and muffins.
Pastry flour: If it was not clear by the name, this flour is typically used for pastry and sweet baked goods. All of this is because it is bleached and has a lowered protein content which comes from being made by a softer wheat variant, resulting in a fine texture. This flour, however, should not be used for baking bread as it has a lower gluten profile which would make the bread have a far too light texture.
Cake flour: Once again, I’m hoping this flour’s expertise is obvious by its name alone. Cake flour is usually bleached which allows the starch in it to absorb more fat and liquids from your batter or dough. The protein content is very low so your final product will have a very spongy texture to it, which makes it perfect for cakes.
Bread flour; Despite the name, you’re not going to be making standard wheat bread with this. Bread flour has a very high protein content which makes the final product a lot more chewy and dense. Bagels would come out wonderfully, as would artisan bread, but that does not mean this is a substitute for when you have run out of all-purpose flour.
Self-rising flour; As mentioned with the whole wheat flour, some doughs have to rest so that they may rise before use. This is the perfect flour for someone who simply wants to avoid waiting. With baking powder (usually) and salt built right in, self-rising flour is perfect for biscuits. You can decide to make your own by using a ratio of flour to salt to baking powder, but make sure to check your recipes to see if this can be used as a substitute. After all, sometimes it’s better to just wait.
Gluten-free flour; as the consumer’s dietary needs or lifestyle choices are forever changing, gluten-free food has grown in popularity. This flour is perfect for someone looking to reduce their gluten intake while still enjoying their favorite baked goods. This flour usually mimics the traits of wheat flour and will often have the same functionality. Instead of the protein content being related to the flour, with gluten-free, the protein content differs from brand to brand so feel free to shop around to find your perfect pick.
Bleached flours; this flour is less natural but some flours may have a yellow tinge after the milling process is complete, so to counteract this they can be treated with chemicals such as chlorine to make them pearly white. While you may think it is purely an aesthetic choice, you’d be wrong. Bleached flours have been treated with chemicals and therefore their starch and protein structures have been meddled with. This makes the starch more absorbent and protein tends to bind less which all results in a less sticky and much easier to work with dough.
How can I choose the right types of baker’s flour?
Luckily, a lot of this is down to personal preference. It may be overwhelming but by looking at the list above and deciding which flour you want to use for a certain product, you can then think about how you enjoy that product. For example, if you want to make a homemade pasta dish such as ravioli, you will want a very high in gluten flour but one that is also not too high in protein as that will make the pasta excessively chewy.
You may well find yourself looking at all-purpose flour vs wheat flour or whole wheat flour as it has a lower protein content. After you have decided on which type of flour to use, it is as simple as going to your local grocers (or online one-stop-shop) and looking at a few different brands and bags. Some brands will have more protein than others so it is up to you to decide which one to use. After all, this is the fun of cooking. Buy a couple of different bags and experiment, get messy, but most importantly have fun.
As a short answer, no. It all comes down to the protein content of the flour. Plain flour, better known as all-purpose flour, has a lower protein content than most baker’s flour. This is because all-purpose flour is less specialized and can be used for, well, all purposes (within reason). Whereas, baker’s flour is more specialized for what baked goods you are trying to create and therefore needs to match the protein content required to make this selected item.
Bakers flour is a higher grade or ‘stronger’ type of flour that has a medium to high protein content and is used for making bread.
As a complete alternative, yes. You can use all-purpose flour. The product will turn out okay, but not as well as with baker’s flour. However, if it is a matter of having run out of baker’s flour, you can simply mix all-purpose flour with equal parts cornstarch to make a homemade baker’s flour substitute. Make sure to sift them together into a bowl, however, as this is crucial.
By far the easiest way to do this is to measure out a cup of your preferred all-purpose flour and remove 1 ½ teaspoon of it to be replaced by 1 ½ teaspoon of vital wheat gluten. If your recipe calls for 2 cups of baker’s flour then you’ll have to double up on the previous ingredients but anything other than that and you can use a calculator, or just ‘eyeball’ it if you want to look like a professional.