Let’s talk about four of the most used flours in our baking kitchen!
We’re going to talk about the nitty-gritty of wheat flour today. We’re going to get into wheat berries and protein content. Real baking stuff! The specific protein contents below are specific to King Arthur Flour which really is the only flour I use in my kitchen. I learned from my days as a professional baker that consistency in flour is paramount when you’re making huge batches of cake batter, biscuits, and scone dough. If your protein levels fluctuate, your end product will fluctuate, and customers tend to want the same awesome biscuit every single time. King Arthur Flour has some of the tightest milling specs in the industry which means their bags of flour are consistently great every single time, plus all of their flours are unbleached, too! A baker knows what they’re getting into when they open a bag of King Arthur All-Purpose Flour. That sort of consistency still matters to me, even if I’m just baking small batches of cookies in my home oven.
Where does flour come from? The baking flour we’re talking about today comes from the wheat berry of the wheat plant. A wheat berry is divided into three parts: bran, endosperm, and germ. Whole wheat flours contain the entire wheat berry while white flour variations contain only the endosperm of the wheat berry.
The bran is the hard outer shell of the wheat berry. Bran is like the shell of an egg. Once that shell is broken it adds small sharp shards of bran to milled flour. These small bran shards are also known as fiber!
The germ is very inside of the wheat berry. Think of it as similar to the yolk of an egg because both the wheat germ and egg yolks contain fat. Because whole wheat flour contains the whole wheat berry (bran, endosperm, and germ), it can sometimes go rancid or sour. It can spoil! Rancid flour tastes bitter (which can be prevented by storing whole wheat flour in the freezer!).
The endosperm is the inside body of the wheat berry and makes up most of the mass of the wheat berry. Only the endosperm is used in the milling of white flours.
What’s protein got to do with it? When we’re talking about the difference between various types of flours, what we’re really talking about is the difference in protein content. Yes. Flour has protein.
There are two proteins present in the endosperm of the wheat berry: gliadin and glutenin. Once liquid is added to flour, the proteins are transformed into gluten.
Think of it this way, when we knead flour into a yeasted dough, we’re transforming the protein into gluten. As the gluten starts to develop we’re creating gluten strands that resemble more of a mesh than a pile of spaghetti. It’s this mesh structure that will trap the carbon dioxide created by yeast. When the carbon dioxide is trapped within the gluten strand mesh it creates a sturdy, reliable dough.
All-Purpose Flour: The name really says it all with all-purpose flour. This flour is great for just about everything! Whether we’re baking yeasted cinnamon rolls or tender cupcakes, all-purpose flour is our happy go-to! King Arthur All-Purpose Flour has a middle-of-the-road protein content of 11.7% (while other brands typical fall around 10.4% to 10.5%). This allows for the flour to be sturdy enough to hold its structure in a yeasted bread and light enough to produce an easy crumb in a layer cake.
I always have a giant container of all-purpose flour in pantry and I find that I use it for absolutely everything.
Whole Wheat Flour: Whole wheat flour means business. It is made by milling the entire wheat berry, not just the endosperm. Whole Wheat Flour is darker in color, is full of wheat flavor, and creates a more dense flavorful baked good. It has a higher protein content (about 14%) as opposed to the 11.7% in all-purpose flour.
How do you substitute Whole Wheat Flour for All-Purpose Flour? Start by substituting 25% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. You can work you way up to substituting up to 50% of the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour. Beyond 50%, we’ have to make adjustments in terms of liquid, as whole wheat flour is more absorbent than all-purpose flour. The easiest way to add the goodness of whole wheat flour to your all-purpose flour recipes is to use White Whole Wheat Flour.
How is White Whole Wheat different from Whole Wheat Flour? Traditional Whole Wheat Flour is milled from a red wheat berry. White Whole Wheat Flour is milled from a white wheat berry. Just a different variation of wheat berry. Different wheats! The white wheat berry is sweeter in flavor and milder that the red wheat berry. Cool, right?
Bread Flour: Bread flour is designed for yeasted baking! It has a protein content of just under 13% which helps to create more gluten and more rise in our baked breads. It’s a very sturdy flour great to hold together the structure of yeasted doughs.
Irene from King Arthur Flour explained it in dinner roll terms. Think about how you like your dinner rolls. Do you prefer your rolls soft and supple and tender? All-purpose flour is the way to go. If you prefer your rolls more firm, chewy, and substantial then bread flour would be your go-to bread baking flour.
Self-Rising Flour: Self-rising flour is a biscuit makers dream! It is a softer, lower-protein (8.5%) wheat flour that creates wonderfully tender biscuits and muffins. Self-rising flour has an even lower protein content that all-purpose flour because it’s made using a soft wheat flour rather than the hard wheat flour that makes up all-purpose flour.
Self-rising flour also contains non-aluminum baking powder and a dash of salt so we don’t have to deal with measuring spoons and extra additions.
How to make your own Self-Rising Flour: 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon salt. Of course, if using all-purpose flour, the protein content will be a bit higher.
Can we substitute Self-Rising Flour for All-Purpose Flour? We can! First, we look for a recipe that calls for baking powder. Omit the baking powder and salt from the recipe and simply use self-rising flour. Unfortunately, a recipe with only baking soda won’t work. If a recipe calls for both baking powder and baking soda, omit the baking powder and salt, and add the baking soda. Phew.
Cake Flour: Using cake flour in recipes creates the lightest cakes with the most tender crumb. King Arthur Cake Flour, specifically is very unique because it is unbleached (the only unbleached cake flour on the market), with a protein content of just over 9%. In this way, the flour is free of super-gross bleaching chemicals yet has the structure and goodness of a light wheat flour, making it strong enough to hold together the tender crumb of a cake without adding toughness.
Think about it in terms of muffins vs cupcakes. The inside of a muffin will have bigger holes and a more chewy texture. Cupcakes, on the other hand, will be more fine, tender, and even in texture.
How to make your own Cake Flour: 1 cup = 16 tablespoons. Cake flour is 2 tablespoons cornstarch + 14 tablespoons all-purpose flour and a lot of sifting.
Hope you enjoyed this article as much as I did. I find the more you apply science to baking, the more successful your final product will be. Must be my left brain taking over once it a while from the artist’s right brain. Here are some baguettes that I made yesterday. Simple, but quite good with dinner.
Ingredients (Most US cups have Metric measurements)
- olive oil, for greasing
- 500g (1 lb 2 oz) strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting (4 cups)
- 10g (¼ oz) salt (2 tsp)
- 10g (¼ oz) fast-action yeast (2tsp)
- 370ml (13 fl oz) cool water (1 2/3 cups)
- Lightly oil a 2¼ liter (4 pints) square plastic container with olive oil. (It’s important to
- use a square tub as it helps shape the dough.)
- Put the flour, salt and yeast into the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with a dough hook (don’t put the salt directly on top of the yeast). Add three-quarters of the water and begin mixing on a slow speed. As the dough starts to come together, slowly add the remaining water, then continue to mix on a medium speed for 5-7 minutes, until you have a glossy, elastic dough.
- Tip the dough into the prepared tub. Cover and leave for 1 hour, or until at least doubled in size.
- Dredge a linen couche with flour and lightly dust the work surface with flour.
- Carefully tip the dough onto the work surface. Rather than knocking it back, handle it gently so you can keep as much air in the dough as possible. (This helps to create the irregular, airy texture of a really good baguette.) The dough will be wet to the touch but still lively.
- Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Shape each piece into an oblong by flattening the dough out slightly and folding the sides into the middle. Then roll each up into a sausage – the top should be smooth with the join running along the length of the base. Now, beginning in the middle, roll each sausage with your hands. Don’t force it
- out by pressing heavily. Concentrate on the backwards and forwards movement and gently use the weight of your arms to roll out the dough to 30cm (12 in) long.
- Lay a baguette along the edge of the linen couche and pleat the couche up against the edge of the baguette. Place another baguette next to the pleat. Repeat the process until all 4 baguettes are lined up against each other with a pleat between each. Cover the baguettes with a clean tea towel and leave for 1 hour, or until the dough has at least doubled in size and springs back quickly if you prod it lightly with your finger.
- Preheat the oven to 464F and put a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven to heat up.
- When the baguettes are risen, remove them from the couche and dust lightly with flour. Slash each one 4 times along its length on the diagonal, using a razor blade or a very sharp knife. Transfer to a large baking tray.
- Fill the heated roasting tray with hot water, to create steam, and put the bread into the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the baguettes are golden-brown and have a slight sheen. Cool on a wire rack.
For this recipe you will need a freestanding mixer with a dough hook attachment, a 2¼ litre/4 pint square plastic container and a linen couche.
Note: This recipe contains U.K. measurements and may require conversions to U.S. measurements. It has also not been professionally tested.