In today's modern world of baking, the expansive selection of wheat-based flour available in the supermarket can feel downright overwhelming. Furthermore, it feels incredibly confusing to try to differentiate when to use which flour. Can you make a cake with all-purpose flour, or does it need to be cake flour? Why do you need 00 flour for pasta?
So, if you're looking for a comprehensive introduction to wheat flours that answers the above questions, read on below.
The Major Types of Wheat Grains
There are several types of wheat grains. First, there are the modern wheat grains, of which common wheat is the most widely produced wheat grain in the world. Then, there are ancient grains: spelt, emmer, Khorasan (Kamut), and einkorn.
Additionally, there is another category known as heritage wheat. Heritage grains predate modern wheat varieties but came after ancient grains; these typically refer to varieties grown before the 1950s and can be found at many local mills. While common wheat has been bred to be more resistant to pests, disease, and weather, heritage grains are more vulnerable.
Finally, durum wheat is a grain used to make semolina flour. Across the globe, semolina flour provides a base for carbohydrates such as pasta and couscous.
How Flour is Made
Flour is made by grinding wheat grains into a powder. There are two distinct methods of milling flour: stone-milled and roller-milled. To understand how these processes work, we'll need to learn about the parts of a wheat kernel.
A wheat kernel, or the seed of a wheat plant, consists of three parts: the bran, endosperm, and germ. The outer shell of the kernel is the bran, which contains antioxidants, Vitamin B, and fiber. On the inside, the germ is the embryo and contains nutrients and fats. The endosperm makes up the largest area of the kernel - and the largest percentage of carbohydrates - and provides food supply to the germ. White flour is made with just the endosperm, while whole wheat flours contain the bran and germ.
Stone-milled flour mills typically grind the whole kernel (the bran, endosperm, and germ) together. As a result, the flour tends to be fresher and more flavorful. However, because of the inclusion of the germ (which contains fat) in the milling process, stoneground flour is significantly more perishable than roller-milled flour.
On the other hand, roller-milled flour separates each part of the kernel before grinding. Then, depending on the end product, the mill may discard the bran and germ or add them back in with the endosperm. A final step could include bleaching or enriching the flour.
Understanding Protein Content
Before we discuss the different varieties of flour you can buy off the shelf, we need to understand more about the science of baking with flour.
Different flours contain different amounts of protein. For example, some all-purpose flours have 10% protein content, while a given bread flour might have a 13% protein content.
Why does this matter? Higher protein leads to more gluten formation.
There are two proteins in flour, glutenin and gliadin; without any kneading, these proteins will randomly arrange. Once kneading begins, the proteins interconnect into a gluten matrix. Gluten is what gives bread and pizza its characteristic structure with a chewy, elastic texture.
Conversely, a piece of cake or muffin tastes best with a fine, tender crumb. A cake containing a lot of gluten would be dense and tough. So, you would seek high-protein flour for bread and low-protein flour for cake.
Types of Wheat Flour
All-Purpose (AP) Flour: All-purpose flour is typically a blend of hard and soft flour. This type of flour ranges in protein from 10%-12%, so it falls in the middle of the range. Be aware that different all-purpose flour brands have different levels of protein. For example, King Arthur's AP Flour is 11.7% protein, while Gold Medal Flour yields about 10.5% protein.
AP flour is very versatile and can be used for many different bakes, such as biscuits, muffins, cakes, and pies. This flour can often, but not always, be a good substitute if you are unable to find a specialty flour for a particular recipe.
Bread Flour: High in protein content (at least 11%), bread flour is most suitable for baked goods high in gluten, such as bread and pizzas. Bread flour helps give your bread that classic chewy texture.
Whole Wheat/White Whole Wheat Flour: Whole wheat flour includes the endosperm, bran, and germ, so unlike white flour, it has a more flavorful, nuttier texture. White whole wheat flour is made from white wheat kernels with a sweeter, milder flavor and lighter appearance. Regular whole wheat bread, in contrast, is made with red wheat. Both of these flours add a nice nuttiness and flavor to baked goods, like scones or cookies.
Pastry Flour: Pastry flour has a low protein content (around 8% - 10%), making tender pastry crusts and cookies.
Cake Flour: Cake flour is very finely milled and has the lowest protein content (5%-8%), ideal for delicate cakes and tender baked goods, like muffins. Most cake flour is bleached, which provides a lighter appearance and mellow taste.
00 (Doppio) Flour: 00 flour is a unique type of finely milled, soft Italian flour used for pasta and pizzas. The number refers to the fineness of the grain, with '00' on the finer side and '2' on the coarser side. 00 flours can vary considerably in protein content depending on the brand and usage. Homemade pasta can benefit from this flour because its texture allows it to slide more easily between rollers. For pizza, 00 flour typically produces a crispier, less chewy texture than bread flour.
Frequently Asked Questions about Wheat Flours
1. What is the difference between "hard" and "soft" wheat?
Hard" wheat flours have high protein content (and high gluten content), while "soft" wheat flours have low protein content.
2. What should I know if I'm purchasing flour from a local mill?
Flour from a local mill is more perishable than commercially available packages. As such, it's essential to use the flour by the best by date before it goes rancid.
Additionally, local flours may vary considerably in protein content, wheat type (i.e., hard or soft wheat), and absorption rate (how much water you can add to the dough). These flours also add more flavor, which can usually be a good thing, but sometimes you might want a neutral-tasting flour that won't overpower the baked good.
When in doubt, don't hesitate to ask the local mill about the qualities of the flour you're purchasing.
3. How can I add more whole grains into my baked goods?
It's great to add more whole grains to your baked goods for additional flavor and nutrition. Though whole grain flours tend to have more protein, the bran and germ particles act like tiny shards of glass and cut the gluten in your dough, inhibiting gluten development.
I typically start by replacing up to 25% of my white flour with whole wheat flour. For some recipes, you may be able to replace as much as 50% of the flour without a negative impact, but I always advise experimenting with lower percentages and working your way up.
Finally, whole grain flours absorb more moisture, so you may need to add more water to properly adjust the dough's consistency.
4. What flour brands do you recommend?
The Simply Recipes editorial team has a few favorite flour brands, You can read their thoughts and recommendations here: What We Cook With: Our Favorite Brands of Flour.
5. How can I substitute flours for each other?
We have a guide to help you with that! How to Swap, Substitute, and Supplement Your Favorite Flours.
6. What's the best way to measure flour?
We recommend measuring flour by weight with a kitchen scale. But if you'd rather use a measuring cup, then there is a proper technique to know for the most accurate results. We delve into all that in How to Accurately Measure Wet and Dry Baking Ingredients.
7. What about gluten-free flour blends?
This guide is specifically about wheat flours, but if you landed here and are curious about baking with gluten-free flours, we don't want to leave you hanging! Check out A Beginner's Guide to Gluten-Free Baking and this list of The Best Gluten-Free Flour Blends.