The key difference in flours is the amount of protein each contains. The higher the protein level, the more “sturdy” and chewier your end product will be, whereas lower protein levels will yield a flakier result. We have put together a list of some of the most common types of flour that you can use for baking, and how you can best use each one!
Your typical, run-of-the-mill all-purpose baking flour contains about 10-12% protein, which is a fairly moderate amount. All-Purpose Flour is made by separating the three parts of the wheat—the bran, the germ, and the endosperm—and only grinding the endosperm. It’s typically milled from high and low protein wheat, this makes it flexible enough for almost any baking purpose—it is sturdy enough to support different types of bread but not too strong for a flaky cookie or brownie. This flour is typically bleached, but you can also purchase the unbleached version as well. We recommend always having a bag of all-purpose flour in the pantry for your everyday baking needs!
Whole Wheat Flour
The main difference with Whole Wheat Flour is that it is made by milling the whole wheat—the bran, the germ, and the endosperm—not just the endosperm. This process gives the whole wheat flour a darker color, wheatier taste, and more density. These are the same qualities your baked goods will have if you substitute whole wheat flour. It also has about 13% protein, higher than your all-purpose flour. Start by substituting only 25% of your all-purpose for whole wheat flour, and work your way up to about 50% if you would like.
This flour is a Southern staple, and most self-rising flour comes from the Southern part of the United States. Self-Rising Flour is made with a softer protein at 8.5%, which makes it ideal for creating tender and flaky biscuits and muffins. Self-Rising flour is also a wheat flour and contains baking powder and a dash of salt already, so you do not have to worry about mixing the extra ingredients!
At 5-8% protein, cake flour has the lowest protein content and is perfect for creating flaky cakes. Cake flour is milled to an extra-fine consistency, which helps it absorb more water and rise higher, as you want a cake to do. Your cakes will be extra tender if you use cake flour!
Pastry flour is a middle-man between your all-purpose flour and your cake flour, at around 8-9% protein content. It will make your dish tender and flaky, but still maintains the sturdiness you need for things like pies, tarts, and other pastries. You can even make your own version of pastry flour by simply mixing about two parts all-purpose flour to one part cake flour.
Of course, when making yeasted bread which has a specific shape in mind, a flour with a very high protein content is most desirable. The 12-15% protein in bread flour helps maintain the shape of the bread and reacts with the yeast to help it rise correctly. You can find bread flour in either white or whole wheat, bleached or unbleached, whichever you prefer.
No matter what you are baking, there is a perfect flour out there for you! We would suggest keeping some all-purpose flour in the kitchen in case you decide to bake on a whim, but you can get more specific when you have special projects in mind.