flour 101

Different Types of Flour and When to Use Them.

Types of flour, Flour 101: a simple guide to the different types of flour available, the fundamental differences between them and what they are used for. Okay, lets get nerdy. Flour is an essential part of every bakers cupboard and yet I have found that most people don’t understand the basic science behind baking. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a baking nerd, I love science and I’ve always loved getting to grips with baking science.

If you’ve ever wondered the difference between cake flour and self raising flour or pondered the use of bread flour, then flour 101 is the post for you. We will delve into the structure, differences and uses of the variety of different flours available and examine when and why you would use each.

Types of flour: What is flour?


Flour is produced by the milling of wheat kernels, these kernels are comprised of three parts, germ, bran and endosperm. Milling is the process of grinding the kernels into a fine powder, this process separates the grain into its three parts. Once separated, the elements are then used to make the different flours. Wheat germ and bran are high in natural oils, nutrients, fibre, and minerals. They also contain protein. The endosperm consists primarily of protein and starch molecules. Plain flour is almost exclusively made by milling the endosperm, whereas whole wheat flours are made by grinding the whole of the grain. This produces a flour which is higher in protein.

types of flour

Types of flour: Understanding Gluten

Gluten is the name used for proteins found in wheat. All proteins are made up of amino acid chains which, when dry, have almost no structure at all. The magic of gluten happens when it gets wet. When gluten is combined with water the amino acid chains bond together to form tightly coiled elastic structures.

Much like a coil, these structures have the ability to stretch and hold their shape. The more water is added to flour, the more concentrated the gluten becomes. When this mixture is worked or kneaded, the proteins stretch and become more elastic. The less the mixture is worked, the less concentrated the gluten will be. This is why when making things like shortcrust pastry we try to handle the dough as little as possible. This is also why when making bread we knead and work the dough extensively to create a dough that will stretch as it rises.

Different types of flour

Plain Flour – 10% – 12% Protein

Plain flour is the most commonly used in baking. It should be generally assumed that unless a recipe states otherwise plain flour should be used. Plain flour is produced from the endosperm of hard red winter wheat, which produces a light flour with a mid-level amount of protein. It is this mid-level of protein which makes it ideal for most baking. There are always differences between brands of flour, however, I have always found that plain flour is plain flour and I have never seen the difference between an expensive plain flour and the cheapest on the market. If you need to save some money in the baking department, I would save on plain or self-raising flour.

Here in the UK the two most commonly used flours are plain and self raising. When I talk about self raising flour, I speak of UK self raising flour which comprised of plain flour and baking powder. US self raising flour tends to also have the addition of salt. This is why I do not use self raising flour in my recipes, because if you were to use it in the US and didn’t alter the salt content of the recipe, the result would be too salty.

If you would like to recreate self raising flour with plain flour and baking powder I generally use 150g of plain flour with 2 teaspoons of baking powder.

types of flour

Bread Flour – 12.5% – 15% Protein

Like plain flour, bread flour is produced only from the endosperm of the grain. Bread flour is produced from hard red spring wheat, which gives the flour the higher protein content. This higher protein content makes for more gluten. This extra gluten allows dough’s made from bread flour to expand and hold large amounts of air. This is what gives bread its distinctive rise.

With its higher protein content, bread flour is beneficial to dough’s and bakes that need more elasticity and structure: yeast breads, pizza dough, certain pastry dough.

Whole Wheat Flour – 12% – 14% Protein

Unlike other flours, whole wheat flour, as the name suggests is made by milling the entire kernel. This process produces a flour with a slightly darker colour, stronger nutty flavour, and higher nutritional content.
Since whole wheat flour contains the whole kernel it is generally higher in protein than other flours. The exception to this is bread flour, which is higher in protein despite only the endosperm of the kernel being used. It is higher in protein because of the type of wheat used to produce it.

Despite its high protein content, the bran and the germ in whole wheat flour hinders gluten development and results in less elasticity than plain or bread flour. This is why whole wheat bread is denser than bread made with bread flour. Flours with a high protein content absorb more liquids than low protein flours. When substituting plain or bread flour for whole wheat flour it is important to adjust the liquids in your recipe accordingly.

Because of it’s nutty flavour, whole wheat flour does not make a good option for cakes in most cases.

types of flour

Pastry Flour – 9% Protein

Pastry flour is milled from a soft white wheat which contains significantly less protein than other types of wheat. The less protein results in less gluten forming in baked goods made with pastry flour. This benefits bakes that don’t need elasticity, cakes, pancakes and shortcrust pastry are all types of bakes that have no need for elasticity.

Cake Flour – 6.5% Protein

Like pastry flour, cake flour is milled from a wheat that contains little protein. Cake flour has even less protein than pastry flour and has been milled much finer to produce lighter than air cakes. In addition to being milled finer, most cake flours also have the addition of cornflour. This addition dilutes the protein even more.

types of flour

00 Flour

00 flour tends to cause more confusion than all the other flours put together. In Italy flour is graded according to how finely it is ground, with 00 being the finest and 4 being the coarsest. The 00 flour is so fine it is almost like talcum powder.  So it is possible to buy 00 flour with a whole host of different protein contents.

Most people outside of Europe who are looking to buy 00 flour are making pasta. 00 flour suitable for pasta will produce the most amazing pasta you have ever tasted. The tiny particles absorb liquid better which in turn produces more gluten. This gives the pasta its fabulous elasticity and if you have ever made pasta you know that elasticity is paramount.

types of flour

Conclusion

Knowing the differences in the different flours available is one step to becoming a more competent home baker. Knowing what you are baking and the texture you are looking for will help you choose a flour best suited for the job.

The next time you find yourself in the baking isle check out the flour options and try to choose the right flour for your project.

There you have it, flour 101: my ultimate guide to the different types of flour and when to use them.

For more baking basics check out my Baking 101 series or my Pinterest.

Sarah xx

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