Back in the day, when one wanted to buy flour in a supermarket, there was but one choice—all-purpose flour. Nowadays however, there is an abundance of flour available right in your supermarket. All-purpose flour, bread flour, unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, cake flour, whole-wheat cake flour—the list goes on! Here is a breakdown of some common flours, and their optimal uses.
All-Purpose Flour. If a recipe doesn’t specify which flour to use, assume you should use all-purpose (or AP) flour. It has 8-11% gluten, which is suitable for cakes as well as some breads. AP flour is available in bleached and unbleached forms—both are light in color, but bleached flour has been chemically treated to be white, rendering it with less protein than its unbleached counterpart. Use AP flour in pie crusts, popovers, pancakes, quick breads, and yeast breads. This flour can last up to one year if sealed tightly and kept in the refrigerator, or 8 months in a cabinet.
Cake Flour. This flour is preferred for baking desserts that require a high volume, like cakes, due to its high-starch and low-protein content. If substituting AP flour for cake flour, subtract two tablespoons of flour for each cup required in the recipe.
“Instant Flour” (or Wondra). This flour cannot substitute AP flour, but is great to use as a thickening agent instead of AP flour in sauces and gravies, since it is formulated to dissolve quickly in liquids.
Bread Flour. Bread flour is made from high-protein wheat, which lends it more gluten strength, or elasticity, when forming dough: it has a gluten content of 12-14%. Mary Jane D. Toribio explains the difference between bread flour and high-gluten flour on the website www.thefreshloaf.com:
“Bread flour is a high-gluten flour that has very small amounts of malted barley flour and vitamin C or potassium bromate added. The barley flour helps the yeast work, and the other additive increases the elasticity of the gluten and its ability to retain gas as the dough rises and bakes. Flour sold as high-gluten or simply gluten flour has been treated to remove most of its starch, which leaves it with proportionately more of the proteins that produce gluten. It is generally used as an additive to doughs made of low-gluten flours, such as rye flour, to give them the elasticity that they can’t muster on their own. Some people use high-gluten flour to make a low-calorie loaf of bread, but, because high-gluten flour is about eight times as expensive as bread flour, most people don’t make the substitution.”
For best storage, keep in a freezer, where it will last for up to one year.
Buckwheat Flour. This is a good choice for individuals with Celiac, as it is gluten-free and packed with nutrients. Buckwheat flour has a nuttier flavor and a slightly chewier texture than wheat flour.
SemolinaFlour. This extremely high-gluten flour is made from durum wheat, the hardest type of wheat. It is used mainly in pastas. (In cooking school, we would coat pans with semolina to give breads a crunchy crust, as well as to prevent gnocchi from sticking to a pan before plunging in hot water.)
Whole-Wheat Flour. This flour is made using the whole wheat kernel, giving it more fiber, whole grains, and nutrients. Due to its low gluten content, it is often mixed with AP or bread flour when making yeast breads, to help the dough’s texture and elasticity.