What’s the difference between flours?

A good recipe and some basic skills can take you places in the kitchen, you get that major satisfaction when that new recipe you tried out comes out just right, making you feel like a Great British Baker, but you know what? Understanding your ingredients goes a long way, it prevents lots of rookie errors and keeps your overall cooking & baking experience on a nice smooth upward scale.

When it comes to baking, flour is one of the most obvious essentials. When you’re just starting out you’ll probably realise you need quite a few differnt types for different recipes. You’ve probably seen all the varieties of flour in your grocery store’s shelves and it can be seriously confusing if you don’t know what their differences actually are. You’re not alone!

To clear up some confusion I have compiled a nice little list for you all to distinguish what I consider the main different types of flours to be, the list isn’t exhaustive but I’m sure you’ll your curiosity will be well covered by the list below.

Here’s my list of 10, you can click on the quick links to jump to any of the one’s you want to know more about!

All purpose/ Plain flour

This is one of the most commonly used flours. Essentially it is the most basic flour, made from processed wheat. If your recipe doesn’t specify a type, you are most probably safe to use plain flour. Plain flour is a white flour that doesn’t contain the wheat germ or bran, it only contains the endosperm. This means it is less nutritious but it is more shelf-stable.

Plain flour is available as “bleached” or “unbleached”. When it is labelled as “bleached”, it has been treated with chlorine or benzoyl peroxide. But wait, why bleach it in the first place? Well… bleaching flour accelerates the aging process of it. Contrary to popular belief, freshly milled flour is actually pale yellow. Aging flour lifts the colour to a more white- like colour. However, aging doesn’t only change the color of the flour—it also improves it. Aged flour is better for baking. However, If you have a sensitive stomach, you might prefer unbleached flour.

Plain flour is my go-to flour for biscuits, cookies, scones and pastries( it is hard to source pastry flour in Ireland).

Note that bleached flour is banned in both Europe and Australia.

Self Raising Flour

Self-rising flour is basically plain white flour with chemical leavener added (white flour mixed with baking powder and salt).

If you only have plain flour, you can totally make self-raising flour in your kitchen! Just mix 1 cup of plain flour with 1½ teaspoons of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon fine salt.

Generally you shouldn’t use this in place of plain flour because it will cause your baked products to rise more than intended. If you have no choice, you can reduce the amount of salt and baking powder in the recipe because it’s already in the flour.

I love using self-raising flour in cake, cupcake, some pancake and some scone recipes so always check your recipes twice to make sure you’re using the right flour x

Cake flour

Cake flour is most commonly cited in American recipes. It’s a finely milled, very low protein flour used for baking cakes. It is generally available bleached, this gives the cake a fluffy, tender texture, and gives more rise. This is particularly true american recipes with a high proportion of sugar.

Most cake flour doesn’t contain raising agents, so for recipes using cake flour you can use plain flour. To take it the extra mile, for 1 cup of plain flour, you can remove 2 tablespoons of flour and replace this with 2 tablespoons cornflour (metric: 105g plain flour + 20g cornflour per 125g flour in a recipe). This will reduce the protein content of the flour and give you a mock cake flour.

Cake flour is not available in all countries, so using self-raising and plain flour is good enough. If you can get cake flour, it’s a better choice for cakes with a light texture e.g angel food cake.

Pastry flour

Pastry flour is a low-protein flour aswell resulting in tender and delicate pastries. It falls in between plain flour(~11% protein) and cake flour (~7% protein). Pastry flour contains ~9 %

Again it’s not available in all countries, and to be honest unless you are a high end bakery owner don’t fret if you can’t get your hands on it, Using plain flour is perfectly sufficient for home pastry making. Cake flour can also be used but in some cases the lower protein content won’t provide enough strength and structure to your products. Therefore, to state the obvious avoid using it in bread recipes which need high protein content flours.

Strong / Bread flour

Strong flour is flour made from high-protein varieties of wheat (~14%) . The more protein found within it, the stronger the flour. To get a bit scientific about it for a minute, there are actually 2 proteins found in flour, gliadin and glutenin, when wheat flour(of any strength) is mixed with water, gluten is formed.

Gluten’s elasticity enables the dough to rise, helping baked goods retain their shape when baked. So you can understand something as structered as bread needs more protein/ gluten in it.

If you’re really in a pinch, you can substitute all purpose flour or self-raising flour for strong flour, however, if you were to substitute strong flour for plain or self-raising in a cake recipe, you would end up with a tough and dense product, instead of a desired delicate mouthfeel.

Tipo 00 Flour

So what is Italian 00 flour? To put it simply it’s the best flour to use if you are making homemade pizza dough or pasta! It is a super fine flour, and even though it’s very soft, it’s protein content is between 8-12%, unsurprising when you consider how deliciously chewy pizza bases are.

I wouldn’t be using this flour for cake recipes, nor bread recipes. But you can make pizza dough with all the other flours I’ve mentioned above, they just won’t compare to using Tip00, I use Bread flour over anything else if I don’t have tip00 on hand.

“Brown” flour

To be honest I’ve probably made this category up, allow me to explain.

Basically this is my own personal group of flours that are brown in colour. I mean why complicate things? My 3 favourites being Rye, Spelt and Buckwheat. Buckwheat could fall into the gluten free category but what about the other two?… So yea we’ll just go with “brown” flours, in quotes because if heavily processed they can also be avalable in “white” forms.

Rye flour

Rye flour is milled from rye kernels (a cereal grain), It varies in color from dark to light depending mainly on how much of the whole grain it contains. Therefore, dark rye flour has more of the wholegrain and light rye flour is more refined and has less.

Rye flour has an earthy, slightly sour/tart flavor that ideal for crackers and the classic rye bread recipes, it’s not typically used or suitable for sweet bakes.

Spelt flour

Spelt flour is pretty simple to work with, it is closely related to wheat and can be substituted for wheat flour. It yields a nice, fluffy texture in baked products and works pretty well for one-to-one substitutions in a wide variety recipes.It has a slightly nutty taste and a comparatively high content of minerals and fibre.

Buckwheat flour

Buckwheat flour is a pretty versatile flour, great for hearty baked goods, bread, and also for cakes, pancakes and waffles. It’s made from grainlike buckwheat seeds (Not actually a type of wheat and is therefore gluten-free.) It’s got a lovely rich and nutty flavour.

There are countless health benefits to these flours, I urge you to try them out. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Wholewheat flour

Whole wheat flour provides more fiber and other nutrients than white flours. Generally, wholewheat is mixed with plain flour in recipes to promote rising and improved texture, this is becaus eon it’s own it would result in heavier breads and baked goods. Due to its higher nutrient content and low processing it has a shorter shelf life than other flours. Wholewheat flour are available in “strong” versions too for bread making.

Generally speaking wholewheat flours are used to make crackers, brown breads and some muffins.

Grain free flour

There are many grain free flours available these days, I personally have only baked with almond flour for tart fillings which always comes out great. However, there are so many other things you can do with almond flour and other grain free flours, I have listed 3 popular grain free flours below, along with some pros and tips of baking with them. There are so many more available, if you ever want to bake with one of them, the rule of thumb is just to follow the recipes closely and do a bit of research around baking with them.

Coconut flour

Coconut flour is made from dried coconut flesh ground into a fine powder.  

Pros

  • It’s low carb, good for those on a low carb diet and for diabetics.
  • It’s a great source of lauric acid which has been shown to support the immune system.
  • It’s rich in dietary fiber.  

Baking with it:

  • Coconut flour is extremely absorbent, and little coconut flour is required to produce a recipe. You can get away with substituting 1/4 to 1/3 cups coconut flour for every cup of regular flour in your recipes.
  • Coconut flour recipes also require the addition of lots of wet ingredients to prevent a dry, dense product.  
  • Always sieve it because it can be very clumpy!
Cassava flour

Cassava flour is made from dried and ground cassava, a root vegetable. Cassava is gluten, grain and nut-free.

Pros:

  • Cassava flour is a good source of multiple minerals.
  • Cassava flour is high in fiber.
  • Of all gluten and grain free flours, it is the most similar in texture and performance to wheat flour.
  • It has a mild, neutral taste, so it won’t affect your baked goods in terms of taste.

Baking with it:

  • Cassava flour can be used as a 1:1 substitute for regular grain-based flours in most recipes.  
  • However, Cassava flour does not work in a 1:1 ratio for yeast-based breads.  (It’s gluten free remember?)
Almond flour

Almond flour is made from blanched almonds, that have been ground.

Pros:

  • Almond flour is rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin E.
  • Almond flour is low carb too.

Baking with it:

  • It’s lack of starch and gluten, means that it needs extra “binding” ingredients to give it volume and stability, e.g eggs.
  • It’s best suited to quick breads, cookies, crust, pancake and light sponge recipes.
  • It doesn’t work well in yeast-based recipes.

Gluten free flour

Putting it simply they are flours that contain 0% gluten. There are many kinds of gluten free flours available, some of them I have listed above in the grain free section, but I would like to raise the awareness of many “all purpose” gluten free flour blends now available. These are designed to be an easy 1:1 replacement for wheat flour. On their own gluten free flours don’t have elasticity and typically produce denser products, so these ones are blended in a way to produce a more versatile consistency that works well in the same applications as wheat flour.

That’s it guys! I hope I’ve not added to your confusion but cleared some of it away, if you have any questions you can leave them in the comments section x

Happy Baking!

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