Ask Chef Mom - Basic flour differences

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

Do you have a question about cooking or planning meals for your family? Chef Mom is here to help! Ask her your question, and she will offer you her time-tested, mom-smart advice.

The question:
Dear Chef Mom: What is the difference between bread flour, self-rising flour and all-purpose flour? - Denise

Chef Mom says:
There are many different kinds of flours, although most of the recipes on this site call for wheat-based flour. These flours contain proteins which have a chemical reaction when mixed with water.

But when it comes to the most common flours -- such as all-purpose flour, bread flour and self-rising flour -- what's the difference?

Angella Kay of notes, "Besides the price difference, the only other difference between bread flour and all purpose flour is that bread flour contains more gluten, which helps 'hold' the bread together."

Cheri Sicard of Fabulous Foods explains further, "Bread flour consists of 99.8 hard wheat flour, a small amount of malted barley flour, which improves yeast activity, and either vitamin C or potassium bromate, which increases the gluten's elasticity and the dough's gas retention." She also notes that retaining gas in yeast dough is a good thing -- it helps the dough rise.

So -- is bread flour worth the extra money? "I have been using a Bread Machine for over 6 years now, and at first I always used bread flour," says Brenda Hyde from Seeds of Knowledge. "Due to our shoestring budget, I started buying regular flour on sale, and noticed NO difference in my breads. Granted, they aren't the fancy recipes, but my pizza and bread stick dough, my sweet breads and even herb breads all turn out great with regular all-purpose flour rather than bread flour. So, if you are on a budget, I wouldn't worry about the difference."

Which brings us to the another common flour you will find on your grocer's shelf: self-rising flour. This kind of flour has leavening (in the form of baking powder) and some salt already added to the mix. If you needed to create a substitute for a recipe that calls for self-rising flour, use 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1-1/4 teaspoons of baking powder and a dash of salt.

For some great detailed information about the many types of flours, check the Cook's Thesarus.

Happy baking!