Bread flour, cake flour, self-rising, oh my!

With the recent world-wide closing of most everything, including many restaurants, we have found ourselves in our kitchens a lot more, if not for really the first time.  What to cook, bake, or put together for meals has been a chore.  For some of us, that’s lead to a little bewilderment going down those aisles of the grocery store that – perhaps – we’ve never been down before, such as the baking aisle.  Naïvely, you may have thought flour was – well – flour, but now you are faced with decisions, and lots of them.  Which one do you buy for this or that recipe?  All-purpose flour or bread flour?  Cake flour or pastry flour?  The self-rising flour looks nice.  Does it even really matter?

We thought we would solve your baking bewilderment, and maybe even expand your knowledge of food a little, by comparing and contrasting a few of the more local and readily-available types of flour.  Here are some of the similarities and differences between them, including all-purpose flour, self-rising flour, bread flour, cake flour, and pastry flour, to name a few:

As the name indicates, all-purpose (or “AP” for short) flour is suitable for most purposes, such as baking, cooking, basting meats, vegetables, and as a thickening agent for sauces and gravies. AP flour is very versatile, as it includes an average amount of protein, known as gluten. But what is that?  Gluten provides elasticity to the dough, helping it to stretch and entrap gases created by agents, such as yeast and baking powder. This results in your baked goods rising naturally, resulting in baked goods that look and taste delicious.  If there is one downfall, though, AP flours can be very different depending on the brand.

Self-rising flour is all-purpose flour that simply has had baking powder and salt added to it. It can be used in recipes that call for all-purpose flour, but do not forget to omit the salt and baking powder from the recipe because it is already in the flour.

Bread flour has a high gluten content. As the dough is worked or kneaded, the gluten strands develop and will become stronger. This is how the structure is formed for yeast bread, but not the flour you would want to use for cakes or cookies. The higher gluten content in bread flour provides the elasticity that other flours do not provide. Bread flour is typically unbleached with a high gluten content and made of durum wheat, which makes it the second-most cultivated species of wheat worldwide.  Around the world, people love bread!

Cake flour has a finer texture and higher starch content, making it ideal for making cakes, cookies, biscuits, and cakes that do not need to stretch and rise significantly.

Pastry flour is similar to cake flour, but has a slightly higher content of gluten. This helps the elasticity necessary for holding together the layers with lots of butter, such as flaky croissants, puff pastry, and pie crusts. Pastry flour has a finer texture, but lower gluten than AP, by comparison.  It is ideal for delicate desserts because there is less of a chance that it will be overmixed, so the resulting baked goods are more consistent.  It also absorbs liquids faster; this makes cakes tend to be softer and keep moisture better and longer.  With a gluten content between AP and cake flour, it is preferred by many in puff pastry recipes.  Scones, brownies, turnovers, and some cookie recipes just come out better when pastry flour is used too. The baked product is lighter and flakier than with AP, but still firm enough to hold together.

This all said, though, use what you have in your pantry and explore the differences for yourself.  Many of the differences are subtle.  If you stick to the middle for safety, AP flour can be used for most baked goods, including buns, cookies, and quick bread.  Many use AP for cakes and other desserts.  As long as the batter is not excessively mixed, they will turn our fine.  It will still make great cookies too.  As its names implies, it is very versatile, even beyond baking, such as creating a roux and using it for thickening sauces.  Most importantly, enjoy your time in the kitchen – and be sure to explore a little!

Photo by Mariana Kurnyk from Pexels

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