There are so many flours on store shelves today: rye, wheat, almond, quinoa, bread, pastry, cake…it’s hard to know which one to use for what.
The first quality of flour is what substance it’s made from. There are lots of non-wheat flours these days, due to the gluten free craze. However, many flours you’ll find at your local grocery all use wheat as a base. I’m only going to talk about those. All wheat flours contain gluten.
What is Gluten?
What is gluten anyway? When you’re trying to figure out the difference between flours, you will often see either “protein content” or “gluten content” of the flours. It’s the same thing. Gluten is actually just the wheat’s form of protein.
Gluten is what gives dough it’s elasticity, and gives the final product its structure and texture. Try making a pizza dough with cake flour, a low gluten flour, and you’ll see what I mean. It can be done, but it won’t be easy or pretty. The dough just doesn’t roll or knead as well as it does with bread flour or all purpose flour. Once you proof it, you’ll see a difference too.
Yeast produces air, which get surrounded by gluten to make little bubbles. This is the basis for the structure and texture of yeast breads. Think about soup bubbles and chewing gum bubbles. A weak, easily popped soap bubble would compare to a low gluten flour. It doesn’t have much holding it’s structure so it’s not very stable and pops easily. A higher gluten flour is more like a chewing gum bubble. It has some structure and is a lot hard to pop. That’s why cake flour never rises like bread flour.
Gluten hardens when it’s cooked and that’s what gives bread that delicious texture. The more the dough is mixed or kneaded, the more the glutens develop. That’s why some breads are kneaded longer than others. It’s also why we don’t want to overmix cake and pastry batters. We don’t want gluten to form.
Cakes shouldn’t be chewy or hard. You want a silky, soft, smooth cake (normally anyway). The lower gluten content of cake flour gives cakes a smoother texture. Again, make a pizza dough with cake flour. It’s smoother, softer and more delicate than a pizza dough should be. Make a cake with bread flour. It’ll be terrible, dense, too chewy and closer to a brick than cake.
I have a friend who says she never gets the same consistency of a cake mix when she makes homemade cake recipes. It’s because most cake mixes use a lower gluten flour (and possibly some other things too, the temperature of your ingredients matters a lot). She uses all-purpose. You can get a decent cake with all-purpose (and I use it for cupcakes all the time), but it won’t be quite as fluffy as a cake flour cake.
What Should You Use?
All-purpose actually works for most things. For cookies, brownies or cupcakes, I don’t worry about cake flour. You could use it for those purposes, but they taste and look just fine with all-purpose. I do use it for big cakes, biscuits and pastry dough. If I am making a big cake, I’m probably going to display and decorate it more than I would a cupcake. I might as well put in the effort to use cake flour. I’ve honestly only used bread flour a few times in my life. All-purpose makes awesome bread and pizza dough. I’ve never had the pantry space for all three, and I think cake flour is less similar to all-purpose than bread flour is. Using cake flour actually makes a big difference. Using bread flour? Eh. Not in the breads I make.Pastry flour is about the same as cake flour. You can use them interchangeably.
Self-rising flour is all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt added to it. I never buy it. I can add my own. If a recipe calls for self-rising, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to each cup of all-purpose.
Whole wheat flour is a high gluten flour too, around 15%. The difference is that the flours above wheat on the chart only contain the endosperm of the wheat. Whole wheat flour includes the endosperm, the germ and bran. Bran has sharp edges. Think back to your chewing gum bubbles. If someone came after it with a knife, it wouldn’t last long. Bran is like a knife. That, and not the gluten, is why whole wheat breads are denser and less textured. It’s also why we normally mix some white flour into wheat recipes.
If you want to use whole wheat flour in a recipe that only calls for “bread flour,” “cake flour” or “all-purpose flour,” you can. It will change the texture of whatever you’re making. Generally, it’s suggested that you sub no more than 1/4 of your white flour for wheat flour. So, if a recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, you would use 1 and 1/2 cups of white flour and 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour. For some baked goods, you need to decrease the amount of flour, or increase the amount of wet ingredients when you add wheat flour since wheat flour is drier. It takes some experimentation to get good results.
They also make white whole wheat flour, which comes from albino wheat. It is said to behave almost exactly like white flour, but it has the whole grain. Supposedly, the bran is softer and milder in flavor. I’ve never used white wheat, so I can’t say.
I’ve heard some people who think that whole wheat bread is gluten free. People with celiac disease will most definitely react to wheat breads. Wheat bread is said to be healthier than white not because it is gluten free (there’s no evidence that gluten is bad for most of us), but because germ is rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. Bran is high in fiber.
How do I Substitute Flours:
You’re generally safe to sub all-purpose flour for other flours, but the reverse isn’t true. If a recipe calls for “all-purpose flour,” bread flour or cake flour may or may not work. If you keep those specialty flours on hand, be sure you know what they’re used for. I personally keep all-purpose flour, wheat flour and cake flour.
I generally sub 1:1 for these specialty flours, especially for breads and cookies. Those things aren’t really as sensitive as cakes. That being said, the gram weights of the flours are slightly different and so the cup measures would be slightly different too. Most professional bakers weigh their flours instead of measuring them. In all but the fussiest preps, a tablespoon of flour doesn’t make that much of a difference. I’m pretty particular with cakes and pastries, but that’s about it.
|You need one cup of…||How much all-purpose flour you need:
|Cake flour||1 cup minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour|
|Pastry flour||1 cup minus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour|
|Bread flour||1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour|