The deeper you dive into the seductive world of baking, the more you’ll notice that flour isn’t just plain old flour anymore. You’ve likely come across an ingredient list that calls for a very specific type of flour. Italian 00 flour anyone? And if you’re like me you’re probably wondering “aren’t all flours created equal?” The short answer is “no.”
Baking flours fall into a spectrum of “hard” to “soft”. This is due to their gluten content. Hard flours are higher in gluten, while softer flours have less. (Yes, I said gluten!) I’m not going to dwell too much on the g-word right now, that’s a post for another time, but I do want to talk about the very important job that gluten performs. Gluten is what creates the elasticity or texture of the dough. If you’ve ever taken a big bite of chewy country bread or conversely had a melt-in-your-mouth croissant, you’ll know these are two very different experiences and are directly attributed to gluten development.
The hardest of these flours is bread flour, then all-purpose, then pastry and the softest is cake. All-purpose flour, or APF, is the most commonly used as it falls somewhat in the middle of this spectrum and therefore has the most versatility. This is an easy choice and makes a lot of sense for the home baker, but if you’re looking for more professional results, you might want to give some of these other flours a shot.
Looking for a chewier loaf of bread or pizza dough? Try using bread flour. Want a finer feel from your cookies? Give pastry dough a chance. Trying for a super tender cake or delectable danish? Cake flour is your new best friend.
You might be wondering where whole-wheat flour falls into this equation? Whole wheat flour is a completely different beast. It’s comprised of the entire grain, including the bran, germ and endosperm, while bread, APF, pastry and cake flours contain only the endosperm. There’s a lot to love about whole wheat flour, especially the fiber it provides, but that same fiber can be a killer to many recipes. Unless a recipe specifically calls for whole wheat flour, it’s best not to substitute it for “white” flour as you risk breaking the gluten strands with the toothy bran and creating a denser, less chewy end result.
Speaking of substitutions, these different flours weigh different amounts, so be sure to adjust your recipes accordingly.
The next time you’re planning to pump out some popovers, bust out a loaf of bread or crank out a cake, harness the power of the right flour and take your bake to a whole new level!