Whether you’re an experienced baker trying to get out of your all-purpose rut or a rookie wondering if those specialty flours are just a marketing gimmick, you’ve no doubt seen the plethora of different types of flours in the grocery store or in recipes you’d like to try. But now that we’re trying to make as few trips as possible to the grocery store and all-purpose flour is often out-of-stock, what’s the deal with all the other types of flour in the baking aisle?
Well, if a recipe was specifically developed with a certain kind of flour in mind, you should either use that flour or a white flour with a similar protein content. Work with what you’ve got.
Yes, protein content actually matters in your baked goods, even though they’re considered a carb. Each type of flour is slightly different in its protein content, which affects how much gluten can be formed during the mixing and kneading process. The more protein, the more gluten is made and the more structure your finished product will have. So, if you want the spongiest of sponge cakes, you’ll want a low-protein flour that won’t build up a lot of gluten during the mixing process, while yeast breads and pizza doughs in which a chewy texture is desirable should use higher-protein flours to really get that gluten going.
It also bears mentioning that white flours are made using only one of the three components of the wheat berry: the endosperm. Whole-wheat flours are made using the endosperm plus the other two components, the bran and the germ. As such, whole-wheat flours can’t be substituted outright with flours of similar protein content because they’re also way thirstier — that is, they need a lot more hydration. Recipes designed specifically for wheat flour will have a ton more liquid, so white flour isn’t a good substitute. By the same token, when subbing in wheat flour, it’s usually best to use a ratio of 50 percent wheat flour and 50 percent white flour. It still might make the baked goods a bit denser, but you’ll have results closer to what you’re used to without upping the water content significantly. In yeast breads, whole-wheat flours also ferment faster because there’s more for the yeast to feed on.
So, before you dust that clean, dry surface with flour again, we’ve put together a simple chart to give you the scoop on each type of flour’s differences, benefits and best uses.
Protein: 9 – 12%
Best in: Anything that calls for just “flour,” yeast bread and with the addition of baking powder and salt, anything that calls for self-rising flour
Benefits: Holds structure reasonably well
Substitute for all-purpose? Can be substituted for anything except wheat flour; when substituting for low-protein flours, you must be very gentle with the dough or batter and when substituting for self-rising, you must add salt and baking powder (see self-rising entry below)
Protein: 12 – 14%
Best in: Breads, pizza doughs and flatbreads calling for whole-wheat
- Holds structure very well
- Results in denser textures in baked goods
Substitute for all-purpose? No substitute for whole-wheat flour exists, but whole-wheat can be substituted for 50 percent of the flour in breads calling for white flour
Protein: 12 – 13%
Best in: Yeast breads
- Holds structure
- Creates more gluten than other white flours
Substitute for all-purpose? All-purpose is fine, but may result in a slightly different texture
Protein: 7 – 9%
- Pie crusts
- • Less structured
- Creates a light, airy texture
Substitute for all-purpose? Yes, but overworking it can toughen the dough or batter — if the recipe specifically calls for pastry flour, using pastry flour is probably best
Protein: 5 – 9%
Benefits: Creates soft, even crumb
Substitute for all-purpose? Yes, but overworking it can toughen the batter — if the recipe specifically calls for cake flour, using cake flour is probably best
Protein: 9 – 11%
- Quick bread (i.e., banana bread, zucchini bread)
Benefits: Salt and baking powder are already added to the flour
Substitute for all-purpose? To substitute all-purpose, add 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt per 1 cup flour
Protein: ~ 20%
- Rye breads
- Sourdough starter
- Main flavor in rye bread
- Best first-step flour for sourdough starter (can be fed with all-purpose thereafter)
Substitute for all-purpose?
- For rye breads, there is no substitute
- You can substitute all-purpose to begin a sourdough starter, but it may take longer to get started because there’s less for the yeast to feed on
Before you go, check out these impressive Ina Garten recipes.
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