Getting to Know: Flours
In spite of its name, all-purpose flour isn’t the best choice for every task. Here is a primer on common flours and the best ways to use them.
All-purpose flour is a workhorse because its protein content (between 10 and 11.7 percent) is high enough to provide structure to sandwich breads yet low enough to produce a tender crumb in many cakes. We prefer unbleached flour: We’ve found that some bleached flours carry off-flavors. Our favorite all-purpose flours are made by King Arthur and Pillsbury.
Whole-wheat flour contains the entire wheat kernel, including the germ, which means that it’s higher in fiber, fat, and protein than all-purpose flour. Because the protein in the germ doesn’t form gluten, whole-wheat flour is often bolstered with all-purpose flour or bread flour in baking recipes. Whole-wheat flour is prone to rancidity; store it in a zipper-lock bag in the freezer.
Cake flour creates a finer, more delicate crumb than all-purpose flour. While all-purpose flour is used to provide structure in many sheet and layer cakes, we like to use lower-protein (6 to 8 percent) cake flour for more delicate cakes like angel food and pound cakes. You can substitute 7/8 cup of all-purpose flour and 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for every cup of cake flour called for.
Primarily used by professional bakers, pastry flour is a soft wheat flour with a protein content between those of all-purpose flour and cake flour. It’s used for pastries like Danish and tarts and for butter-rich shortbread; it produces a fine crumb in baked goods. We’ve found that in most recipes, all-purpose or cake flour (used singularly or in combination) can approximate pastry flour’s effect.
This staple in dried pasta making comes from coarsely ground durum wheat, a hard winter wheat that is high in gluten. In addition to featuring in pasta, semolina is used to make bread, couscous, puddings, and Roman-style gnocchi. The test kitchen sometimes uses it in pizza making to keep pizza from sticking to the peel (it doesn’t char as easily as flour and will let the pizza release without sticking).
Both brown and white rice flours are fairly high in protein (5 to 7 percent) for nonwheat flours and help provide structure in gluten-free baked goods. Be aware that the coarseness of the grind will affect its performance in recipes; coarse flours can impart grittiness to baked goods. While white rice flour will keep in your pantry, brown rice flour should be stored in the refrigerator.
With a protein percentage of 12 to 14, bread flour is the highest-protein flour available. It’s aces at developing gluten, which in turn gives great structure and chew to rustic breads like ciabatta and our seven-grain Dakota Bread (see related content). We’ve also turned to bread flour in some of our pizza crusts; the gluten gives the crust elasticity and chew.
While grinding nuts produces a fine powder akin to flour, it’s not a straight substitute for flour because nuts don’t contain the proteins that produce gluten, which gives structure to most baked goods. We often add nut flours to regular flour to flavor and tenderize cookies like madeleines. These flours are expensive and prone to rancidity, so make them last by storing them in the freezer.
Self-rising flour has leavener and salt already added. It has a protein content similar to that of cake flour and is often used in biscuits and quick breads. Don’t substitute self-rising flour for other flours in recipes. However, in recipes that call for self-rising flour, you can substitute cake flour and add your own leavener and salt (1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt for every cup of flour).
Don’t be fooled by its name: Gluten-free buckwheat isn’t related to wheat at all. It’s an herb, more closely related to rhubarb or sorrel than to wheat. Buckwheat flour is made by grinding its triangular seeds, which contribute a dark color and earthy flavor. With a protein content of 13 percent, it adds structure to buckwheat crêpes, soba noodles, and the Russian pancakes known as blini.
Instant flour (Wondra is the most common brand) is finely ground, low-protein flour that is able to dissolve instantly (with very few lumps) in hot or cold liquids like sauces, gravies, and soups. This is due to pregelatinization, a process in which the flour is effectively precooked and then dried. Instant flour is also used as a coating for fried chicken or fish, as the tiny particles distribute evenly into thin crusts.
Also known as besan, garbanzo flour, or gram flour, beany-tasting chickpea flour is made from ground raw or roasted chickpeas. It’s a common ingredient in Indian, Middle Eastern, and European cooking and is used to make unleavened crêpes called socca, as well as pakoras and pappadams. Because of its high protein content (20 percent), chickpea flour is often used in savory gluten-free baking.