FAQ #3: Flours

Posted on 07/05/2012 by rhiannon_666
With users from 148 different countries, it stands to reason that a lot gets lost in translation, even amongst English speakers. For a number of years now, the mod team has rejected posts asking questions such as, "What is self-raising flour?" and answered them ourselves. It's something that appears constantly in the queue (twice already this week) so this week's FAQ is going to tackle a lot of these questions.

Please feel free to contribute and add to (or correct) anything here. Some of you are professionals and/or have been to culinary school and will have a much better grasp on this than I do.

All flour related questions will be directed here from now on, so don't forget to hit "track this" so you can keep track of new questions and have your questions answered.


For the following types of flour, I mention the protein content. Why? The amount of protein in flour is important in flour mixes as, when they come into contact with moisture, they release the gluten that gives your baked goods strength, shape and elasticity. The flour you choose will affect the final product, as will substituting the wrong type of flour into a recipe. Higher protein gives a stronger or denser product, lower protein gives softer, more crumbly texture. High protein flour in cake or pastries will result in a dense and chewy product, where using a low protein flour for bread will result in a soft texture with a cakey crumb. 

  • Plain: Plain flour is synonymous with all-purpose flour. It contains no leavening agent and typically has 10-12% protein, though this will vary across brands, seasons and regions. It's often made from a blend of different types of wheat and is designed to have a decent result across a large variety of different products. It can be used effectively in most baked goods, particularly cakes, cookies, pastries and breads.

  • Self-Raising Flour: Also known as self-rising flour or, uncommonly, phosphated flour. It is simply plain flour that has had a leavening agent and a little salt added to it. You can taste the salt in the flour, which is a good trick to remember if you forget to label your flours and can't tell if it's plain or self-raising. Its main advantage is that you don't have to add the leavening agent yourself, though some people caution against this as you cannot guarantee that the leavening agent is equally dispersed throughout your flour (it won't make a phenomenal difference and most home bakers won't care). Like plain flour, it's designed to be useful across the board. If you don't have any on hand, or can't get it, mix two teaspoons of baking powder per cup of plain flour, or use one teaspoon of cream of tartar and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate per cup of plain flour

  • Cake Flour: Cake flour is made from soft wheat flour, with a high starch content and a lower protein content (typically 6-8%). Cake flour isn't just for cakes: it's desirable whenever a more delicate texture is required. It's often used in cookies, muffins, biscuits, pie crusts and cookies. During baking, the proteins set faster and don't spread as much, and the fats become more evenly distributed (resulting in a better texture). Recipes with a high sugar-to-flour ratio are best suited to cake flour as they will rise better and be less likely to collapse. Here in Australia, the wheat is a lot harder, so cake flour is fairly rare to come across (in fact, I've never seen it. I assume some store somewhere would import it) so I always have to make it myself. If you can't find cake flour, it's easy enough to make by replacing two tablespoons of flour per cup of flour with cornflour (corn starch), or use a ratio of 3 parts plain flour : 1 part cornflour.

  • Bread Flour: Also known as bakers flour, bread flour has the highest protein content of all flours (typically 12-14%). It will require more kneading to properly develop the available gluten. It's great in recipes that use yeast, or where strength is required (e.g. choux pastry and puff pastry). It's the best choice for yeast breads as the gluten creates a network with enough strength to trap the gases from the yeast. If you don't have any or can't get it, the best substitute is plain flour: try to get one on the higher end of the protein spectrum. The rise won't be as good with plain flour, but it will still be decent. 

  • Pastry Flour: Sometimes called cookie flour, pastry flour has a high starch content and low protein content. It is similar to cake flour, but it has not been chlorinated and as such is a little harder (around 8-10% protein). It's uncommon, usually found in health or speciality stores. As the name suggests, it's great for pastries as well as pies and cookies as the final product is tender and crumbly. To make your own by mixing a ratio of 2 parts cake flour to 1 part plain flour (though I have read some people use a 1:1 ratio and others 3:1 -- personal preference and experience will influence your choice). 

  • Whole Wheat Flour: Also called whole meal flour or graham flour. As the name suggests, it is produced from the whole wheat kernel. It is darker in colour, grainy, and high in dietary fiber (and higher in overall nutrients). While it is high in protein, it's not very good at forming gluten. For that reason, it is often blended with plain flour or bread flour to increase the elasticity. Whole wheat flour will go rancid more readily that other flours. It has a shelf life of a few months if stored in the pantry so it is often better to keep it in an air-tight container in the fridge. The protein content will depend on the type of wheat used. Soft white whole wheat sits around 9-11%, where red or golden wheat is around 15-16%.

marsbareater12 5th-Jul-2012 01:18 pm (UTC)
I'm not an amazing cook, but I'm enrolled in a commercial culinary course at the moment, and we were told there were four types of flours - plain, bakers, cake, and whole wheat. I understand why the others are there, but I'm just curious as to which one bakers would fit in/is synonymous to?
rhiannon_666 5th-Jul-2012 01:32 pm (UTC)
I think it's the same as bread flour, but I'm not 1000% sure on that one.
someoneingrey 5th-Jul-2012 01:34 pm (UTC)
The 50LB bag of Baker's flour I have is labled as both. And it performs as break flour should.
rhiannon_666 5th-Jul-2012 02:10 pm (UTC)
Great, thanks. I'll edit that into the post.
mercy_rain 5th-Jul-2012 02:04 pm (UTC)
OK, but what's cornflour? Is this the same as corn starch?
rhiannon_666 5th-Jul-2012 02:09 pm (UTC)
Yep, same as corn starch, but not corn meal. I nearly included a section for it, but left it out because it doesn't form the basis of the most common dry flour mixes. There's a lot that isn't here.
lizziebuffy2008 5th-Jul-2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
You might want to put corn starch in parentheses after corn flour, because I don't think most people (at least in the southern US) would know that is what you mean.
doubletake 5th-Jul-2012 06:03 pm (UTC)
Especially with the advent of gluten-free baking, where there is now in fact, "corn flour" which is NOT "corn starch"--just really finely ground corn meal. Eep!
rhiannon_666 6th-Jul-2012 03:52 am (UTC)
Good idea. Will edit it in as soon as I can access a PC.
kalaam 5th-Jul-2012 02:38 pm (UTC)
You know when how when you say/read a word so many times it starts to look a little nonsensical? That's what has happened to me with "flour" after this post. Super informative, thanks!
rhiannon_666 5th-Jul-2012 02:42 pm (UTC)
Haha! Oh I'm glad that wasn't just me. After writing this I saw the subject heading on the front pages and I was like, "Oh crap, typo, that's not how you spell flour" and couldn't remember how to spell it and now it doesn't look like a real word any more.
sushidog 5th-Jul-2012 03:27 pm (UTC)
Yep, me too. And yes, this is a really helpful post, thanks!
mummy_owl 5th-Jul-2012 06:18 pm (UTC)
I'm in France and here the flours have a numbering to give the protein content - I know plain flour is "65" but I'll have to check on all the others.

There's also "Farine a gateux" (cake flour) which is actually equivalent to self raising as it has raising agents included.

What you refer to as "cake flour" doesn't exist in France but I regularly make biscuits and shortbread with 4 parts plain flour / 1 part cornflour or rice flour.

What really confuses me is American measures - cups? - sticks of butter?? Why no weights?
someoneingrey 5th-Jul-2012 06:35 pm (UTC)
I can't describe the weight of a cup of flour, I don't know it. However, a stick of butter is 4OZ, so... 113 grams. aproximately.

I have to say, I like that your flour has the protien content easy to find and compare.

Edited at 2012-07-05 06:36 pm (UTC)
mercy_rain 5th-Jul-2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
Shirley Corriher gives the following weights for flour in Cookwise:

Cake, dipped: 130g/cup
Cake, spooned: 112g/cup
Cake, sifted: 99g/cup
AP, dipped: 145g/cup
AP, spooned: 120g/cup
AP, sifted: 114g/cup
Bread, dipped: 160g/cup

With a footnote pointing out, "The only way to be accurate with flour is to weigh the flour over and over in the manner that you measure volume and take an average."
mummy_owl 6th-Jul-2012 12:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that - I do have an "american cup"measure, but it always struck me as a very vague way to do it :-/
eofs 5th-Jul-2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
Note to UK bakers: self-raising flour does not contain salt here in the UK. So I guess when using American recipes which call for self-raising flour (which are few and far between, in my experience) we should probably be adding more salt.

(How strange to add salt! That must limit the sweet applications a bit.)
frenchroast 5th-Jul-2012 11:46 pm (UTC)
There's not *that* much salt in self-rising flour--certainly not enough to mess with sweet applications. It brings the sweet flavor out, in the same way a pinch of salt does.
lotus555 5th-Jul-2012 11:56 pm (UTC)
you'd best do a 'what is caster sugar?' post one day too! hahaha!
rhiannon_666 6th-Jul-2012 03:56 am (UTC)
Definitely! It was originally going to be in this post, but then it got too long.
mummy_owl 6th-Jul-2012 12:36 pm (UTC)
I could give you whole story on different sugars in France....they use caster sugar to put in tea and coffee!?

Isn't diversity wonderful :-)
musingaloud 7th-Jul-2012 12:08 am (UTC)
I was wondering the other day: Can I substitute 1/2 of the regular flour in a recipe (specifically, a sweet bread) with whole wheat flour? Or would I need to adjust the sugar/liquid/oil?
rhiannon_666 9th-Jul-2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
I was leaving this question for someone else to answer as I've never baked with whole wheat, but since no one has -- I'm under the impression that it's fine to substitute in bread. I wouldn't do any more than half as it would probably be too dense, but I've read that half plain half whole wheat is fine for breads.
musingaloud 10th-Jul-2012 02:40 am (UTC)
Thanks for answering. I'll give it a try and see what happens.
weerainbow 9th-Jul-2012 04:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for this post, since I've been picking up more recipes online instead of from my own books I've been getting confused by the many names used for things like flour. Great to finally have it all compiled and so easy to understand! THANK YOU!!! ♥♥♥♥♥
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