If baking were a feature film, flour would be the lead actor. While there are a lot of important supporting castmates, flour is the star. Different types of flour serve as the foundation upon which baking masterpieces are built, providing structure, texture, and mouthfeel (the physical sensations food provides in the mouth) to the final product.
But here is the thing: Not all flours are created equal. There are many types of flour out there, but not all of them will provide the same results. Different types of flour have different levels of protein, gluten, and fiber, and react differently with their companion ingredients. Need all-purpose flour but only have rye flour? Expect a nuttier, grainier outcome – or even possibly a disaster!
Depending on the type of flour used, different quantities of other ingredients may be called for, such as water or oil, salt, butter, sugar, baking soda, or baking powder. Not all flours are easily interchangeable, and some flours can only be partially substituted for others, or the final product may be dramatically different.
For example, want to substitute whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour? Sure, it’s possible, and is much easier to pull off in quick (non-yeast) breads such as muffins, pancakes, and biscuits. However, in yeast breads, switching out 100% of white flour for whole wheat without adjusting other ingredients will inevitably result in a final product that is less airy and more dense (less rise), which may adversely affect the flavor and texture.
What to do? Since whole wheat flour absorbs more liquid than white flour, for every 1 cup of whole wheat flour substituted, increase the liquid by 2 teaspoons, and then let the dough rest for 30 minutes before kneading to allow the liquid to be absorbed. This will result in a softer, more malleable dough that will yield more favorable final results.
There are many more substitution tips out there – more than could possibly be covered in one article. But here are a few common types of flour that may be called for in baking:
All-purpose flour: Made from the soft, chewy internal part of the wheat kernel – the endosperm – it is a highly versatile type of flour that can be used in just about any baking recipe. This type of flour generally contains about 10-11% protein.
Self-rising flour: I like to think of this as all-purpose flour with a kick. Why? Because it already contains the salt and baking powder that would otherwise need to be added to all-purpose flour to make the final product rise. While it can be substituted for all-purpose flour, it is important to remember to leave out the additional salt and baking powder called for in the recipe.
Bread flour: This type of flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour – about 12% – and produces a dough with more gluten, resulting in a light, airy loaf with good volume. All-purpose flour can be used instead with positive results.
Cake flour: This type of flour contains about 7.5% protein and results in a final product that is crumblier than bread, which is desirable in a cake or cupcake. If using all-purpose flour instead, substitute 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for every 1 cup of cake flour called for in the recipe.
Flour is a vital ingredient in nearly all baked goods. Using too much, too little, or a different kind than called for can result in an unsatisfactory final product. Learning the differences between common types of flour and how they can be interchanged with one other will go a long way towards achieving baking success.
Check out this great resource from Colorado State University for even more helpful flour tips.
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