I went to the market yesterday to pick up ingredients to make bread with the overripe bananas on our kitchen counter. I noticed right off the bat that the baking aisle was spare.
The shelves were empty of all white flour, with just a few sacks of whole-wheat flour to be found. What I saw in abundance were some of the more unusual flours, including teff, brown rice, and hazelnut flour. With standard baking ingredients in short supply, I figured this would be a good time to talk flour, with tips on working with different varieties and suggestions for swapping one for another.
Your basic, everyday white flour is made from wheat that’s been stripped of its bran and germ, resulting in a pale, fluffy flour with lots of flexibility for baking. Several varieties fall into this category:
- All-Purpose Flour: AP Flour is the workhorse for everyday baking. It’s sold both bleached (a chemical process to whiten the flour) and unbleached. It’s what you likely stock in your pantry and what the great majority of baking recipes on the internet call for. You can use bleached and unbleached flour interchangeably.
- Bread flour: This flour has a slightly higher protein content than all-purpose, which is what gives yeast bread and pizza dough that appealing “chew.” The high protein creates a stronger gluten network, which helps create structure for loaves of bread. You can use bread and all-purpose flour interchangeably in a 1-to-1 ratio but know that it will impact the texture. Breads won’t be quite as chewy with all-purpose flour and I wouldn’t recommend using bread flour for delicate baked goods, such as celebration cakes and pastries. It could make them dense. However, some pound cake recipes like this Lemon Pound Cake use bread flour.
- Cake Flour: Flour specifically intended for cakes has less protein than all-purpose and is ideal for baked goods with a light, delicate crumb. You can replace 1 cup of cake flour with a scant cup of all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Conversely, use 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour in place of 1 cup all-purpose flour.
- Self-Rising Flour: Self-rising flour is a combination of flour, baking powder, and salt. It’s traditionally lower in protein than all-purpose flour and common in southern cooking. You can make your own by whisking 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt to every cup of all-purpose flour
- Pastry Flour: Pastry flour has less protein than all-purpose flour but isn’t quite as low in protein as cake flour. It’s useful for pie dough and other pastries and can be swapped for all-purpose in a 1-to-1 ratio, though I’d avoid using it for yeast breads and pizza dough.
WHOLE WHEAT FLOURS
Relative to white flour, whole-wheat flour is less processed, with the bran and germ of the grain still intact. That means it’s more nutritious than white flour — higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It’s also got a heartier taste and coarser texture.
In my own kitchen, I routinely swap it for all-purpose in a wide variety of baking recipes, from cookies to quick breads. Start by replacing 1/3 of the flour called for in a recipe with whole wheat flour and see how it goes. If the result is pleasing, try 50 percent and continue to scale up from there. Within the whole-wheat category, you’ll find a few variations:
- White whole-wheat flour is a whole-grain flour, even though the name implies otherwise. It’s just a different type of wheat with a paler color and mild flavor. As such, it has all the nutritional benefits of conventional whole-wheat and works for a variety of baked goods in a 1 to 1 swap. I often see it at Trader Joe’s.
- Whole-wheat pastry flour is lower in protein than standard whole-wheat. It’s my “go-to” for much of my baking, particularly for more tender baked goods, such as cupcakes and quick breads. I use it as a 1 to 1 replacement for standard whole-wheat flour and often in place of 1/2 (and sometimes more) of all-purpose flour. That said, it’s not good for yeast breads and pizza, which benefit from more protein.
- Ancient varieties of whole-wheat, such as spelt, kamut, and barley, as well as rye (which is not a type of wheat). These all deliver good nutrition, distinct flavor, and can reliably be used in place of 25 percent (or more) of white or whole-wheat flour in pancakes, muffins, cookies, and quick breads. They tend to be heavier and more full-flavored, but that often results in more interesting baked goods. You may need to bump up the liquid just a touch in recipes using heavier, ancient grains.
Replacing any type of wheat flour with gluten-free flour is a science unto itself. The gluten in wheat plays an important role in creating structure in baked goods. Without it, things can flop, literally. Breads may not rise so well, cookies can be crumbly.
A number of brands, such as Pamela’s, King Arthur, and Cup-4-Cup sell a gluten-free flour blend that combines gluten-free grains, such as rice flour, with other ingredients, like xanthan gum and cornstarch.
Gluten-free flours are ideally used with recipes developed for gluten-free baking. That said, I routinely work moderate amounts of gluten-free flour into my recipes. I have the best success with pancakes, cookies, brownies and even muffins that don’t need a lot of structure. I’m partial to nut and whole-grain flours over gluten-free baking mixes, because they’re nourishing and each has a unique flavor profile.
Start by replacing 25 percent of white or whole-wheat flour with a gluten-free flour and see how it goes. Here are a few favorite varieties to consider adding to your repertoire:
- Nut flours, such as almond, coconut, and hazelnut
- Grain flours, such as buckwheat, oat, millet, teff, brown rice, quinoa, and amaranth
- Other alternative flours, such as chickpea, soy, and mesquite
Flex Your Flour Power!
Below you’ll find a whole line-up of tasty recipes to help you flex your flour power: