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Kitchen Basics: Flour 101

Flour 101If you are happiest spending your days elbow deep in flour it’s important to know the difference between the varieties available. This point was brought home to me just the other week as I dashed through the store in search of a box of cake flour. I arrived at the baking aisle to find at least six different types of flour made by several well-known brands in various types of packaging. It was amazing, the selection, and while experience has taught me which flour to use when, I thought it was high time for a review. Often recipes call for different types of flour and assume the home baker knows the difference. And, while most of you do, here is a brief overview of the most common flour varieties used in the home kitchen:

Flours are often differentiated by gluten content. Gluten is the protein responsible for helping a dough rise, stretch and remain elastic. Delicate or light baked goods like pie crusts, cakes or biscuits call for flours with a lower gluten content since they are not at all dense or elastic. Goods like breads and pizza crusts often call for flours with a higher gluten content since they tend to be denser and chewier. Here are six common flours ranked in order from LOWEST to HIGHEST gluten content and their most common uses:

LOW GLUTEN CONTENT:

Cake Flour: This flour has the lowest gluten content of all flours. It is bleached when is it made, reducing the amount of gluten and giving it a soft silky texture. Recipes for airy baked goods like angel food cakes often call for this since the absence of protein allows the dough to achieve a soft, snowy consistency.

Pastry Flour: Unlike cake flour, pastry flour is not bleached therefore the gluten content is slightly higher. It is sometimes called for in cookies, pastries and sheet cakes. It is not necessary to have pastry flour on hand at all times, it is usually fine to substitute all-purpose flour for pastry flour when baking at home.

AVERAGE GLUTEN CONTENT:

White All-Purpose Flour: The most commonly used flour, all-purpose flour is easily the most versatile in the kitchen. It’s average gluten content is appropriate for most baking endeavors including brownies, cookies and quick breads. It does not contain a leavening agent so you must always add baking soda or powder to this flour when baking with it.

Whole Wheat All-Purpose Flour: Similar to all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour can be slightly healthier to use when baking since it contains more bran. However, the presence of bran also increases the flour’s ability to absorb moisture. This can create denser, heavier doughs so it shouldn’t be substituted measure for measure with white all-purpose flour.

Self-Rising Flour: This has the same gluten content of all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt already added prior to packaging. Therefore, when baking with it there is no need to add any additional leavening agent. This flour is most commonly found in recipes for biscuits and quick breads, recipes where the author has already calculated the amount of leavening needed based on the powder and salt in the flour.

HIGH GLUTEN CONTENT:

Bread Flour: This flour contains more gluten then the all-purpose flours. It’s high protein content is important in breads because it’s what creates the dense structure and shape of a bread loaf. It is also commonly used in pizza crusts because of the desired chewiness the extra gluten provides.

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