Baking Basics: Flour 101 - The Definitive Guide to the Different Types of Baking Flours... Everything you need to know, plus tons of substitution tips!

I have another Baking Basics post for you, and I think it’s one that many of you will find extremely helpful! This was on my list of topics to tackle, but since posting my chocolate chip cookie bars last week and receiving a lot of questions about the inclusion of bread and cake flours in the recipe, I thought I would shoot it up to the top of my list. Today we’re tackling all of the most common flours – what makes them different, the best things to make with them, as well as substitutions for each.

As you’ll see below, protein content is the primary differentiator in flours and plays an important role in how the flour performs in different recipes. Let’s dig in!

All-Purpose Flour

Protein Content: A moderate range of 10% to 12%.

Description: The middle-of-the-road protein content allows the flour to be sturdy enough to hold its structure for things like yeast breads, but still light enough to produce a tender crumb in a layer cake. Wheat’s seed head (the top of the plant) is made from three portions: the germ, the bran, and the endosperm. White flour has been stripped of the bran and germ, leaving behind the fine, pale endosperm. It is more shelf-stable than whole wheat flour, but as a result, has a milder flavor.

Make This: Just about anything! Cookies, breads, any baked goods.

Not That: N/A

Substitutions: N/A

Bread Flour

Protein Content: 12% to 14%.

Description: Bread flour is the strongest of all flours, providing the most structural support, especially with yeasted doughs. It is made from hard wheat and the high protein content helps to create more gluten and more rise in baked goods. The gluten development contributes to a chewier consistency, which is exactly what you want when making things like artisan breads and bagels.

Make This: Bread, bagels, pretzels, anything chewy and requiring plenty of structure.

Not That: Tender cakes and pastries.

Substitutions: All-purpose flour can most times be substituted for bread flour. While the resulting texture will be slightly altered, using all-purpose flour should not ruin the recipe.

Cake Flour

Protein Content: 7% to 8.5%.

Description: Cake flour is milled to an ultra-fine consistency; the relative lack of gluten-forming proteins makes cake flour ideal for tender baked goods. This allows them to absorb more liquid and rise higher, which creates a tender crumb without adding toughness – an ideal quality in things like tall layer cakes. Pastry flour has many of the same properties as cake flour and can be used interchangeably.

Make This: Tender cakes, like sponge cakes

Not That: Breads

Substitutions: 1 cup all-purpose flour, remove 2 tablespoons of the flour and replace with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.

Pastry Flour

Protein Content: 8.5% to 9.5%.

DescriptionPastry flour is made from soft red winter or soft white winter wheat; it absorbs less liquid in recipes and produces a fine crumb in baked goods.

Make This: Biscuits, pancakes, pastries, pie crust, cookies, muffins, brownies, pound and sheet cakes.

Not That: Breads

Substitutions: All-purpose flour or cake flour, used alone or in combination.

Whole Wheat Flour

Protein Content: About 14%.

DescriptionWhole wheat flour is made by milling all three portions of the seed head – bran, germ and endosperm. It is darker in color and creates a more dense and more flavorful baked good than all-purpose flour. Whole wheat flour is more absorbent than all-purpose flour, which means that recipes using whole wheat flour will require more liquid. While it is higher in protein, its gluten-forming ability is compromised by the bran and germ, which is why whole wheat flour produces heavier, denser baked goods.

Make This: Breads

Not That: Cakes, pastries, any delicate baked good.

Substitutions: Look for recipes that specifically call for whole wheat flour. If you want to adjust a recipe that calls for all-purpose flour, begin by substituting 25% of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat and work from there, understanding that you may need to increase the liquid in the recipe to achieve the correct consistency as you add more whole wheat flour.

White Whole Wheat Flour

Protein Content: About 14%.

Description: Traditional whole wheat flour is milled from a red wheat berry, while white whole wheat flour is milled from a white wheat berry. The white wheat berry is sweeter in flavor and milder that the red wheat berry. If you’re new to whole wheat baking, using white whole wheat flour would be a great place to start, as the resulting baked goods are milder in flavor and less dense than those made with traditional whole wheat flour. [King Arthur Flour makes a white whole wheat flour that is available in most grocery stores in the U.S. and online.]

Make This: Almost anything you would use all-purpose flour for.

Not That: Tender cakes, pastries

Substitutions: You can substitute this on a 1:1 basis for any recipe calling for whole wheat flour. Other recipes can be substituted anywhere from 25% to 50% – check out King Arthur Flour’s Complete Guide: White Whole Wheat Flour. It’s an awesome resource!

Self-Rising Flour

Protein Content: About 8.5%.

DescriptionSelf-rising flour has long been a Southern U.S. staple, as it is made from the low-protein wheat that is grown in the south. It 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 has baking powder and salt added during the milling process. The softer, lower-protein flour creates tender biscuits, muffins and other baked goods.

Make This: Biscuits, muffins, pancakes, cakes

Not That: Breads, recipes calling for whole wheat flour

Substitutions: 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1½ teaspoons baking powder + ¼ teaspoon salt

Bake On!

These are the most common flours that you will find listed in a recipe, and the ones that most serious home bakers keep stocked in their pantry. I think it’s worth keeping as much as you have room for, as flour’s shelf life is quite long, as long as it is kept in an airtight container (whole wheat and white whole wheat flours should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness), and you never know when you’ll stumble upon a recipe that you have to make RIGHT NOW.

I hope this has helped demystify some of the question marks surrounding all of the different types of flours, what they’re used for, how to substitute for them, and what you should make with them!

Happy Baking! xo