Baking 101: The Difference Between Baking Flours

the difference between flours

the difference between flours

Last week I announced the first is a new baking series called Baking Bootcamp.  I asked you to bake along with me, and we started with  Triple Berry Cinnamon Swirl Bread.  I am absolutely blown away by your kitchen prowess! Hundreds of you baked along with me and all of your handwork can be found on Instagram #bakingbootcamp.  The next recipe in our Baking Bootcamp challenge will come at the end of summer, but until then we have some learning to do!  Let’s learn about FLOUR!

So…

I started our Baking 101 series last Fall.  It was a great way for us to learn things about baking that may seem obvious or natural to some, but be completely mind-blowing to others.  We all do things slightly differently when we step in the kitchen.  Everyone has their own knowledge and rhythm.

In the series we talked about things like:

How to Read a Recipe

Why We Use Unsalted Butter

The Difference Between Baking Powder and Baking Soda

and The Difference Between Natural and Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder.

Important things when we step in the kitchen to bake.

I’ve wanted to talk about the difference between the various flours we use in the kitchen for a long time, but to be honest… I felt a little stuck.  The truth of the matter is that I had more questions than answers when I came to describing the difference between All-Purpose and Bread Flour, and why White Whole Wheat Flour was different from traditional Whole Wheat Flour.

Thankfully, the bakers at King Arthur Flour came to the rescue… and they really do have all the answers.  I called up King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Hotline (YES!) and talked through all my nosy questions about flour!  The Baker’s Hotline is open to all of us!  1-855-371-2253.  I’m calling just as soon as I talk myself into making croissants at home.  Help!  They do.

Irene from the Baker’s Hotline was kind enough to answer my questions and the answers are detailed below.

Let’s talk about four of the most used flours in our baking kitchen!

Triple Berry Yeasted Cinnamon Swirl Bread // King Arthur Flour + Joy the Baker

We’re going to talk about the nitty-gritty of wheat flour today.  We’re going to get into wheat berries and protein content.  Real baking stuff!  The specific protein contents below are specific to King Arthur Flour which really is the only flour I use in my kitchen.  I learned from my days as a professional baker that consistency in flour is paramount when you’re making huge batches of cake batter, biscuits, and scone dough.  If your protein levels fluctuate, your end product will fluctuate, and customers tend to want the same awesome biscuit every single time.  King Arthur Flour has some of the tightest milling specs in the industry which means their bags of flour are consistently great every single time, plus all of their flours are unbleached, too!  A baker knows what they’re getting into when they open a bag of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour.  That sort of consistency still matters to me, even if I’m just baking small batches of cookies in my home oven.

Where does flour come from?   The baking flour we’re talking about today comes from the wheat berry of the wheat plant.  A wheat berry is divided into three parts:  bran, endosperm, and germ.  Whole wheat flours contain the entire wheat berry while white flour variations contain only the endosperm of the wheat berry.

Irene from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Hotline broke the wheat berry down for me:

The bran is the hard outer shell of the wheat berry.  Bran is like the shell of an egg.  Once that shell is broken it adds small sharp shards of bran to milled flour.  These small bran shards are also known as fiber!

The germ is very inside of the wheat berry.  Think of it as similar to the yolk of an egg because both the wheat germ and egg yolks contain fat.   Because whole wheat flour contains the whole wheat berry (bran, endosperm, and germ), it can sometimes go rancid or sour.  It can spoil!  Rancid flour tastes bitter (which can be prevented by storing whole wheat flour in the freezer!).

The endosperm is the inside body of the wheat berry and makes up most of the mass of the wheat berry.  Only the endosperm is used in the milling of white flours.

What’s protein got to do with it? When we’re talking about the difference between various types of flours, what we’re really talking about is the difference in protein content.  Yes.  Flour has protein.

There are two proteins present in the endosperm of the wheat berry: gliadin and glutenin.  Once liquid is added to flour, the proteins are transformed into gluten.

Think of it this way, when we knead flour into a yeasted dough, we’re transforming the protein into gluten.  As the gluten starts to develop we’re creating gluten strands that resemble more of a mesh than a pile of spaghetti.  It’s this mesh structure that will trap the carbon dioxide created by yeast.  When the carbon dioxide is trapped within the gluten strand mesh it creates a sturdy, reliable dough.

See?  Protein matters!

all-purpose flour

All-Purpose Flour: The name really says it all with all-purpose flour. This flour is great for just about everything! Whether we’re baking yeasted cinnamon rolls or tender cupcakes, all-purpose flour is our happy go-to! King Arthur All-Purpose Flour has a middle-of-the-road protein content of 11.7% (while other brands typical fall around 10.4% to 10.5%).  This allows for the flour to be sturdy enough to hold its structure in a yeasted bread and light enough to produce an easy crumb in a layer cake.

I always have a giant container of all-purpose flour in pantry and I find that I use it for absolutely everything.

Try:  Baking Bootcamp: Triple Berry Cinnamon Swirl Bread or Pistachio Orange Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls 

white whole wheat flour

Whole Wheat Flour: Whole wheat flour means business. It is made by milling the entire wheat berry, not just the endosperm.  Whole Wheat Flour is darker in color, is full of wheat flavor, and creates a more dense flavorful baked good. It has a higher protein content (about 14%) as opposed to the 11.7% in all-purpose flour.

How do you substitute Whole Wheat Flour for All-Purpose Flour?  Start by substituting 25% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour.  You can work you way up to substituting up to 50% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. Beyond 50%, we’ have to make adjustments in terms of liquid, as whole wheat flour is more absorbent than all-purpose flour.  The easiest way to add the goodness of whole wheat flour to your all-purpose flour recipes is to use White Whole Wheat Flour.

How is White Whole Wheat different from Whole Wheat Flour?  Traditional Whole Wheat Flour is milled from a red wheat berry.  White Whole Wheat Flour is milled from a white wheat berry.  Just a different variation of wheat berry.  Different wheats!  The white wheat berry is sweeter in flavor and milder that the red wheat berry.  Cool, right?

I’ve found that White Whole Wheat Flour is a really great way to incorporate whole wheat nutrition into many baked goods that may normally call for All-Purpose Flour.  Chocolate Chip Cookies and Blonde Brownies are especially great with White Whole Wheat Flour.  PJ from King Arthur Flour has a great tutorial on substituting White Whole Wheat Flour for All-Purpose Flour here.

Try: Whole Grain Waffles with Millet, Poppy, Sunflower, and Flax  Upcoming Baking Bootcamp: Whole Wheat Honey Maple Oat Bread

bread flour

Bread Flour: Bread flour is designed for yeasted baking! It has a protein content of just under 13% which helps to create more gluten and more rise in our baked breads.  It’s a very sturdy flour great to hold together the structure of yeasted doughs.

Irene from King Arthur Flour explained it in dinner roll terms.  Think about how you like your dinner rolls.  Do you prefer your rolls soft and supple and tender?  All-purpose flour is the way to go.  If you prefer your rolls more firm, chewy, and substantial then bread flour would be your go-to bread baking flour.

Try: Spicy Sausage and Sweet  Pepper Pizza  Upcoming Baking Bootcamp: Gruyère and Green Olive Mini Loaves

apple pie biscuits

Self-Rising Flour: Self-rising flour is a biscuit makers dream! It is a softer, lower-protein (8.5%) wheat flour that creates wonderfully tender biscuits and muffins.  Self-rising flour has an even lower protein content that all-purpose flour because it’s made using a soft wheat flour rather than the hard wheat flour that makes up all-purpose flour.

Self-rising flour also contains non-aluminum baking powder and a dash of salt so we don’t have to deal with measuring spoons and extra additions.

How to make your own Self-Rising Flour: 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Of course, if using all-purpose flour, the protein content will be a bit higher.

Can we substitute Self-Rising Flour for All-Purpose Flour? We can!  First, we look for a recipe that calls for baking powder. Omit the baking powder and salt from the recipe and simply use self-rising flour.  Unfortunately, a recipe with only baking soda won’t work.  If a recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda, omit the baking powder and salt, and add the baking soda.  Phew.

Try: Fluffy Self-Rising Biscuits Upcoming Baking Bootcamp: Apple Pie Buttermilk Biscuits

Cake Flour: Using cake flour in recipes creates the lightest cakes with the most tender crumb. King Arthur Cake Flour, specifically is very unique because it is unbleached (the only unbleached cake flour on the market), with a protein content of just over 9%.  In this way, the flour is free of super-gross bleaching chemicals yet has the structure and goodness of a light wheat flour, making it strong enough to hold together the tender crumb of a cake without adding toughness.

Think about it in terms of muffins vs cupcakes.  The inside of a muffin will have bigger holes and a more chewy texture.  Cupcakes, on the other hand, will be more fine, tender, and even in texture.

How to make your own Cake Flour: 1 cup = 16 tablespoons.  Cake flour is 2 tablespoons cornstarch + 14 tablespoons all-purpose flour.  Also a lot of sifting.  An official how-to here.

Try: Angel Food Cake with Vanilla Strawberries and White Chocolate Rose Cake 

39 thoughts on “Baking 101: The Difference Between Baking Flours

  1. Oh my goodness, I’m so excited! I have been waiting anxiously for this post!!! (as if I knew you would do it finally one day). I LOVE understanding things like this, but science is so difficult for me. I have many technical resources on breads and flours but they are just overwhelming to me and while they will help me in the moment, the information just doesn’t stick in my brain. Finally, these flours are explained by someone who speaks the same language as me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    (This might be my first comment, though I have been following you for some time now. I guess I am your silent admirer ha ha)

  2. Joy, I only recently discovered your blog, and I love it! Not only do you provide great recipes, you pass along the science of baking, as well. Keep it up, and thanks!

  3. This is a great article! Thank you Joy!

    I do have one question. A lot of recipes I look at call for “Pastry flour” which one of the flours above would be considered a pastry flour?

  4. Goodness, who knew an article on flour would keep me so captivated. I’m not even a prolific baker! But yet, I found this article super informative and will keep it saved for future reference. Thank you!!

  5. My dad, a bagel baker, used to refer to bread flour as using winter wheat. I guess for the higer protein. I wonder if that is even valid today with modern technology and global growing. Really cool breakdown on the flours, thanks!

  6. Thanx for all these hints!!I need to know about bleached and unbleached–their primary uses.
    Also, if doubling and tripling a recipe, is the yeast also doubled and tripled?

  7. this is so helpful, joy! protein contents are fascinating, and it’s great to know what you can do with all of them! loving baking bootcamp & baking 101 – so excited for more! oh, and i’m looking forward to your croissant attempt.. i’m sure they’ll be perfect!

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