If you’re a baker, you’ve likely been in this position. You’re gathering ingredients, or worse, you are halfway through a recipe, and realize you don’t have enough of the type of flour needed. What do you do? Can you swap in another kind and still expect the same results? How will the texture and finished product be affected?
A quick understanding of the different types of flour and their protein levels can go a long way toward rescuing your dessert.
The main difference in the types of flour that you’ll likely find at your local grocery store is the varying levels of protein. The percentage of protein indicates how the flour will behave and how much structure the flour will provide for the finished baked good.
Higher protein levels means there is more gluten and more structure. This is typically good for bread, cut out cookies and things baked with yeast. Think chewy, crusty baked goods.
Lower protein levels means a more tender crumb for things like cookies, muffins and quick breads or recipes that call for a chemical leavener instead of yeast.
Something like cake flour, which has gone through a special bleaching process that increases the flour’s ability to absorb sugar and water, is best for biscuits, cakes and some pie crusts.
Whole wheat pastry flour (8-10% protein) is actually closer in protein to AP flour than whole wheat and often makes a better substitute in recipes than regular whole wheat flour.
Whole wheat flour is interesting. It has a high protein content (11 to 13% typically) but the bran left in the flour actually cuts up some of the gluten and elasticity of the dough, meaning it doesn’t behave in quite the same way that all-purpose flour might. This is often why you see AP and whole wheat flours mixed together in recipes.
Finally, self-rising flour is just that. It’s a softer all-purpose flour that has had baking powder and salt added. It’s typically used in recipes for biscuits and quick breads. You can eliminate the baking powder and salt in the recipe.
Pro tip: anything labeled ‘soft wheat’ means lower protein.
Bread flour: 12-15% protein
Whole Wheat Flour: 14%
All-Purpose (AP) flour: 10-12%
Pastry Flour: 8-10%
Cake Flour: 5-8%
For the casual, novice baker all-purpose flour is versatile enough that it will still produce good results in most instances. It’s called all-purpose for a reason. A quick rule of thumb when using AP flour: if you are baking bread, use 1 tablespoon more per cub. If you are making cookies or biscuits, use 1 tablespoon less.