Ever wondered, “What’s the difference between all purpose flour vs cake flour vs bread flour vs almond flour?” Wonder no more!
I love getting baking questions from my friends and family. It makes the pastry nerd inside of me glow bright and warm like an oven light.
Can I make buttermilk? Do I need to sift powdered sugar? Can I substitute baking soda for baking powder?
Yes. Probably. And don’t you dare.
Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about flour, and if you don’t frequent the baking aisle as much as I do, it can be intimidating. All of those seemingly identical but totally different boxes of flour stare back at you like you’re suppose to have an opinion on bleached vs unbleached flour.
To clear up some of the confusion, let’s sort through a few basic flours.
The Importance of Protein
Before we get into it, we need to have a quick chat about protein. A tantalizing subject matter, I know.
You’ll see that the major difference between most of these flours is the percentage of protein content in them. This matters because when flour proteins are combined with water and mixed into a dough, gluten forms.
Gluten is the framework that most baked goods are built upon. Depending on what you’re making, you may want lots of gluten development (a sturdy load of bread) or not much at all (a delicate layer cake). The amount of gluten development is determined by how you mix the dough and, more importantly, what kind of flour you choose.
More protein = more gluten = “stronger” flour. Less protein = less gluten = “weaker” flour.
The Parade of Flours
All Purpose Flour is a staple for any homebaker. It sits at about 10-11.5% protein, which is a nice middle ground in the flour world. It’s versatile enough to use in cookies, cakes, some breads, and even savory dishes. If your pantry only has room for one type of flour, make it all purpose.
Self-Rising Flour is a cousin of all purpose. I very rarely have it in my pantry, because 1) not a lot of recipes call for it and 2) if you have all purpose flour on hand, then you can make self-rising flour. To make your own, add 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt for every 1 cup of all purpose flour.
Cake Flour is ground fine from soft wheat, is bright and has only 8% protein content. The lower protein content means it produces less gluten, which makes it perfect for baking delicate cakes.
You can often get away with substituting all purpose flour for cake flour, but your final product will be tougher. That being said, I always reach for cake flour when the recipe calls for it. The lightness that it adds to cakes can be the difference between a good cake and an oh my god that’s good cake.
Bread Flour is ideal for making yeast-leavened breads, because it has a higher protein content, ranging from 11-13.5%. If a recipe calls for bread flour, listen. I’ve been working a lot with bread flour lately, and I’ve noticed it has a slight yellow tint to it. It also doesn’t clump like all purpose and cake flour, so in addition to making breads, it’s great for dusting on your work space if you’re rolling out and working with dough.
Almond Flour is the outlier in this round up. It contains no wheat and therefore no gluten. Instead, it’s the result of grinding almonds until they’re a flour-like consistency. It’s not as fine as any of the other flours we’ve discussed, so I would always sift it before using it in a recipe. Speaking of recipes, the reason I have almond flour in my pantry is because it’s a main ingredient in any macaron recipe.
We’ve only scratched the floured surface. There’s pastry flour, high gluten flour, whole wheat flour…I could go on and on. For the baking addicted, these flours should get you through most recipes, but if you have a question about another type of flour or just flour in general ask it below in comments!