How Do I Choose the Right Kind of Flour?
Susan of Olives and Figs Chronicles asked me this question the other day on the fan page. I gave her a brief answer and said I would go into more detail for Fundamental Friday. So here I am. First, let me share the short answer I gave Susan on Wednesday:
In short…the finer and more tender you want your end product to be, the “softer” (less gluten) and the finer mill you want in your flour. From highest protein bread flour for hearty and/or chewy breads down to lowest protein pastry flour for short and crumbly shortbread. All purpose is sort of in the middle, so it will make a nice loaf of bread or a pretty nice cake. But when I want a fine, even crumb, I tend to use cake flour.
There are lots of different flours available to commercial bakers across the spectrum from high to low protein, but for consumers (which is me, too), there are really three basic types: bread flour, all purpose and cake flour.
Happy to get into more detail on Friday, but I hope this has helped some!
Let’s break it down a bit more, shall we?
Introducing the Wheat Berry
Unless you’re growing your own flour, the most unprocessed form of wheat you are likely to run across is the wheatberry. This is the whole kernel of wheat (minus the outer hull) and is made up of the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The endosperm is the starchy stuff inside flour that is there as reserved food for the germ (wee, baby proto-wheat) to eat if the seed should sprout and grow.
The bran is the outer coating of the berry. Once processed, it looks like little flakes and is where a good portion of the nutritional value of flour comes from: fiber, proteins, essential fatty acids and such. Since bran is made of sharp little flakes, it tends to cut gluten strands (we’ll get to that later), making breads that rise less and are thus a bit more dense. Still delicious though!
The germ is the potential little plant that hangs out inside the kernel waiting to germinate. It is full of potential life. That’s a good thing for people since it is full of vitamins and minerals. It is also full of oils which are good for us but can become rancid pretty quickly. Storing it in the fridge is an excellent idea.
If you run across some wheatberries at your local health food store, you should pick some up. Cooked, they’re nutty and chewy and make a great base for cold salads or even a yummy hot cereal.
What Kinds of Wheat Are There?
The following information paraphrased from Smallgrains.org, the website of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers
There are six basic classes of wheat, although the USDA recognizes eight types. (See page 13-1, section 13.2)
- Hard Red Winter Wheat The United State’s largest wheat export, it is grown in the Great Plains and is used primarily for yeasted applications (breads, rolls, etc).
- Hard Red Spring Wheat Grown in the northern states, it has the highest protein content, mills well and is great for baking.
- Soft Red Winter Wheat Grown primarily in the Eastern half of the US, it has a relatively low protein content and is used for things that don’t need to rise really high (stuff other than bread) such as cakes, crackers, flat breads, etc.
- Durum Wheat This is the hardest of all US wheat and is grown primarily in North Dakota. Used for pasta making. Algeria is the primary importer–who knew?!
- Hard White Wheat Very similar to Hard Red Wheat, except for color, hard white wheat is the newest entry into the US wheat market. Used mainly in yeasted applications, it has a milder, sweeter flavor than its red cousins.
- Soft White Wheat Used in much the same way as soft red winter wheat, soft white is grown mainly in the Pacific Northwest. Good for all sort of non-yeasted baked goods.
What is the Difference Between Hard and Soft Wheat?
Protein content, plain and simple. Hard wheat, of which durum is the Super-Hardest, contain the highest levels of protein. Soft wheats contain lower protein levels. When we’re talking about protein content, we’re talking about the presence of two proteins, glutenin and gliadin that, in the presence of water-type liquids, combine to form gluten, the stretchy, boingy protein that helps create the structure in baked goods.
I should note here for folks with gluten intolerance and Celiac, gliadin is found in all three parts of the wheatberry: the bran, the germ and the starchy endosperm all contain gliadin. So wheat flour in any form is strictly off limits to you.
What Kinds of Flour Are There?
(Limited to types of wheat flour. I can ask my gluten free friends for a gf flour tutorial if you like)
Wheat flours are classified by protein content and can range in protein from 5-15%. So per 100g of flour, there can be between 5 and 15g of protein (specifically glutenin+gliadin to equal gluten once combined when wet). The lower the protein, the more tender the final product. The higher the protein, the more chewy.
Cake flours range in protein from about 5%-8%. The one I use is Softasilk, although I’ve also had good luck with Swan’s Down and the unbleached King Arthur cake flour. Pastry flour has a slightly higher protein content, but you will have reasonably similar results using either higher-protein cake flour or lower-protein all purpose flour. Here’s a general breakdown:
Protein Range (Brand-dependent)
|Self-Rising (all purpose+leaveners+salt)||9-11%|
–Chart from this article on FineCooking.com: Choosing Flour for Baking
What About Bleached Flour?
Bleaching weakens the protein structure in the flour, yielding an even more tender final product. Honestly, though, if you are not a fan of extra chemical processes, the differences between using unbleached and bleached flour will be fairly minimal. Some people swear they can detect a flavor difference between the two, but even with my pretty sensitive palate, I’ve never been able to. I default to unbleached whenever possible, especially with all purpose flours, as a matter of personal preference.
Can I Substitute One Flour for Another?
The short answer is yes, within reason. You can absolutely sub a lower-protein all purpose flour (such as White Lily, a southern brand that is made from soft wheat and has a low protein content–great for biscuits, by the way) for pastry flour or even cake flour. Your results will not be identical to results from the actual flour called for, but chances are you won’t have ever tried it so you won’t know what you’re missing. And you’re probably not missing anything.
You can sub unbleached for bleached flour, and vice versa. Just know that the bleached flour will give you more tender results, so know what you want your end result to be.
It’s hard to find high gluten flour on store shelves, so you will probably just go ahead and use bread flour when you’re making bagels or pizza dough. Your results will still be delicious. You can up the protein content of your bread flour, or any flour for that matter, by adding in a bit of vital wheat gluten (Bob’s Red Mill makes one that is widely available).
How Can I Substitute All-Purpose Flour for Cake Flour?
Your first question should be “Do I want to make this substitution?” In other words, will the difference in final product be great enough to warrant subbing and not just proceeding with all purpose if you’re out of cake flour? If your answer is “yes,” and you don’t want to drive to the store to buy what you need, I know of a couple of ways to substitute one for the other.
My mom always taught me to measure out 1 cup of all purpose flour and then take out 2 Tablespoons of flour. By volume (and possibly by weight) this would leave you with 1/4 less flour. If you want to keep the bulk (starch content) but just lose a bit of the gluten, take out the two tablespoons of flour and replace it with 2 Tablespoons of corn starch.
Since I almost always default to using my scale, if I only own all purpose flour and want to make something that I normally make with cake flour, I weigh my flour a bit lighter. I might weigh all purpose flour at 4.5 oz per cup, so to use it in place of cake flour, I will go with only 4 oz and not bother to make up the volume with additional starch. This is a personal preference, and you can play with the way that works best for you.
If Whole Wheat Flour is So High in Protein, Why Doesn’t My Whole Wheat Bread Rise Very High?
This is a great question which I answer like this: Which blows a better bubble, gum that has been chewed for a long time and is smooth or gum that still has a lot of sugar and flavor crystals in it? The answer, of course, is smooth gum that has been chewed for awhile. Whole wheat flour contains little pieces of bran that, like the sugar crystals in “new gum” break the soft and stretchy strands of gluten (or chewy, gummy goodness) before they can stretch as much as we want them to. It’s like having a bunch of little razor blades in your flour, cutting gluten strands before they can stretch very far.
To combat this, many folks either mix their whole wheat flour with some white bread flour or high gluten flour (or add vital wheat gluten) so that, per ounce, there are fewer bran razors there to cut the gluten strands.
What’s the Deal with Self-Rising Flour? Can I Make My Own?
Self-rising (or self-raising) flour is all purpose flour that also contains leavening and salt. If a recipe calls for sr (self-rising/raising) flour and you don’t have any, you can make your own by whisking together 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of all purpose flour.
When weighing, I would recommend you weigh out 4 oz all purpose flour and then add the baking powder and salt by volume.
I am getting this particular sub information from the back of a bag of Gold Medal Self-Rising Flour per the Wegman’s website (one of my go-tos to find out the ingredient lists of almost anything Purchaseable at the grocery store). At home when coming up with recipes, I start with 1 teaspoon baking powder per cup (4-4.5 oz) of flour and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. More leavening will give you a more ebullient rise, but be sure not to go too far overboard or one of two things can happen: you end up with molten cake dripping off your oven racks and onto the floor of your oven, or the cake rises shockingly high and then collapses in a pancake in the bottom of your cake pan. Either way: no bueno.
Are There Any General Substitution Rules for Flour?
First of all, know that you will get the best results from using what is called for. Then understand that you won’t get in too much trouble if your stay close in protein content. For instance, it makes more sense to substitute cake flour for pastry flour than it does to substitute pastry flour for high gluten flour.
The higher the protein content of your flour, the more water it can absorb. So, especially in breads where the directions are sometimes nebulous (“add enough flour so it’s not too sticky”–this sort of instruction can strike terror into the heart of folks who are new to bread baking), a dough made with–and this is just an example from my brain, not from any recipe–12 oz of high gluten flour and 8 oz of water will be much firmer than a dough made with 12 oz all purpose flour and 8 oz of water. And if you try to use 12 oz of cake flour and 8 oz of water, you may very well end up with batter rather than dough.
Here are very general rules for subbing on a 1:1 basis.
Cake flour=pastry flour.
Pastry flour=White Lily or other low-protein all purpose flours
All purpose flour=bread flour (know you will have to adjust the amount of liquid a bit)
Bread flour=high gluten flour
Past these 1:1 subs, I’m fairly comfortable with the cake flour sub discussed earlier. I’d also be comfortable adding a bit of vital wheat gluten to bread flour to get a nice chewy bagel or pizza dough. I would not be comfortable adding vital wheat gluten to cake flour to make all purpose flour. That just seems wacky to me. I’m not saying that you can’t experiment, but I am saying that if you find yourself turning to a substitution chart frequently, it might behoove you to invest in a few more types of flour.
What’s The Best Gluten-Free Flour to Use?
I am by no means an expert in gluten-free baking.
Fortunately, I know people. My friend Sandi from Fearless Dining runs a blog that is an invaluable resource for people who have to eat gluten-free.
She recently wrote a post about the best gluten-free flour blends to use in different situations.
Please read that, and if you have questions about gf baking, get in touch with Sandi at Fearless Dining or with Jane at The Heritage Cook.
This part is up to you. Anything I didn’t cover that you think I should have? Let me know in the comments. And also let me know if you’d like a gluten free primer if it is medically necessary for you to adopt a gluten free way of eating. I have several friends who can help with that.
Thank you for spending some time here with me today. Have a lovely day.
What Others Are Saying...
Susan Rebillot says
Thank you so much for this great information about selecting flours!! Very helpful! I had no idea that White Lily is a lower protein all- purpose! I am finding that I really like pastry flour for tender sweet or savory tart doughs!
Jennifer Field says
You might really like White Lily then. It’s great for cakes and pastries, Susan. If you can’t find it where you live, it’s available online. 🙂
Smith Bites says
great info and a fantastic resource Jenni – baking GF is tricky and i’ve made a chart similar to the one you show above, marking out the various flours and their protein content and play with various combinations. asking what you want that end product to look, feel and taste like is always the starting point. this is a tremendous amount of work – thanks for taking the time to put this together
Jennifer Field says
Happy to do it, Debra. I’m just really slow! =) I bet the gf one was difficult to put together too. I bet there is way less info available out there about gluten free…
what a wealth of information! You touched on vital wheat gluten. I have had a box in the freezer for ages and just started playing around with it in my sour dough bread (which I have perfected – so why was I playing with it?). The first time I used it I gave the bread away so I never got to cut into the loaves to see how the crumb was. The crust was crusty as it always has been. The following week, I made another batch, which I got to keep and I wasn’t happy with the crust. It was soft and didn’t become crusty. I don’t know if it was the VWG or just a different day with a different temperature/humidity in the air. The bread itself had a softer crumb as well and the sourness flavor which I normally have with my SD was there either. Any thoughts? I’ll certainly try using it again as the bread rose nicely. I sometimes put the dough in the fridge overnight to let the sourness come through more. I may try that the next time too. Oh so many variables! Keep up the good work with Fundamental Fridays!
Jennifer Field says
I am not completely sure why you’d get those results, but I would bet that, when using VWG, you’d need to increase the amount of liquid in the recipe–and that part of the structure would not be “sour,” so an overnight or 36-hour retard in the fridge might help with both flavor and texture, Jo-Anne.
What a comprehensive post! This was way more helpful than any of the essays I’ve seen on the bread blogs I frequent. Thanks once again, Jenni, you really ARE a teacher.
I especially loved the “If WW flour is so high in protein…” section. I’ve always wondered about that, and after 30 years of breadmaking I still get haphazard results when baking whole wheat loaves.
re: Jo-Anne’s comment above, I also recently tried VWG for the first time, and got a softer crust. I was making whole wheat loaves (not sourdough) using your Tangzhong method, which worked so well the first time I tried it, but when I added the VWG I got a denser, flatter, soft-crusted loaf. Need to experiment more with that.
Jennifer Field says
Interesting. I know very little about VWG, so if you do experiment further, let me know what happens!
Charles Corbet says
can you tell me what to use when European recipes call for 00 [double zero] flour please?
Jennifer Field says
Great question. The short answer is that there is not a great sub for 00 flour since the 00 refers to how finely it’s ground. It has about the same protein content as regular US bread flour, but since it’s fine, it takes less water to fully hydrate. Using 00 will give you that light, crisp bite while using US bread flour will give you a heartier chew, even though both have about the same amount of protein. Honestly, I would mail order it, although I hear you can sometimes find 00 at Whole Foods. I hope that helps, Charles!