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Differences in Flour Explained – Sift Out Your Flour Issues

April 5, 2008
I have been having an email conversation with another foodie who taught me a thing of too about meringue and was I ever thankful! But alas, we can all learn from one another, and soon she was asking me questions about flour and which flours are perfect for certain types of baking and cooking needs.

What is it about flour and how does it handle and stand up to our various baking and cooking needs? This simple question I wished to resolve and find out – and what I learned was more than I could almost handle since there seem to be several different points of views as to which flour is best to use for certain baking and cooking situations.

And as a result, a new article idea was born and hence the following is a result of today’s research. I sifted through a variety of blogs and websites to come up with the information provided below. I list the resources at the bottom of the article for those who are so ever curious including one for the photo to the above.

Now some of you may think all flours are equal – well that is simply not true. Not all flours behave equally when used in baking due to their varying levels of hard and soft wheat flour, level of proteins including nutrients. The flour your mother and grandmother used can be very different to the flours now available on the market today and certainly can behave differently when used in baking and cooking. Furthermore, what we may be able to buy in the grocery store is not what your commercial baker gets and in fact all purpose flour purchased in the Northeast may be and will be very different than flour purchased in the South or out West by California (who knew!?!) This was something I had no idea about – so how the heck does one use the same cookbook (such as The Joy of Cooking) in all areas of our blessed country? I am not even going to approach that subject. But I digress.

For many occasional bakers, all purpose flour will stand up (and rise to the occassion) as needed and is perfect for almost every baking and cooking need. For others who are particular in their baking perfections and confections – different flours are preferred for their specific gluten contents and yeast raising abilities – I will try and share what I have learned about all types of flours. I also included on the bottom of this article a substitutions list that can come handy if you are in a jam for some of you bakers out there. Do note that not all substitutions will work for every recipe – as their are some limitations to the chemistry compounds.

I divided up the information into two categories, one in which the different flours are described, and the second, which type of flour is best to be used in your different cooking and baking situations.

For the Divaliscious record, I prefer to use unbleached un-sifted all purpose flour such as Heckers or King Arthur’s for almost every baking and cooking recipe except for when the recipe calls for cake flour (I live in the NE). I also use the same flour for my gravies and sauces -I am personally not a big fan of Wondra -though I know it helps a lot of people in avoiding lumps in their gravies and sauces (but that can be avoided by not adding the liquid too fast and not walking away from your beginning gravy stages and using a whisk to stir).

And of course I will sneak in some Bisquick (a self-rising flour product) in making my oven-fried chicken, dumplings or a quick pancake or coffeecake when I am in a jam as it is a tried and true product – but would never use Bisquick as an all purpose flour if I was making cakes, breads or cookies from scratch.

Descriptions on the different type of flours:

All Purpose Flour – is made from a blend of high and low gluten wheats, and has a bit less protein than bread flour. All purpose flour sold in the North, usually has a blend of both soft and hard wheat flours whereas in the South, it is a blend of soft wheat flours. All purpose flour can generally be used in all recipes. But for the truly picky – see belows list for the preferred flour type for what you are baking and cooking.

Bread Flour – has a higher hard wheat content than say all purpose flour, and is used a lot by commercial bakers. There is also a higher gluten content (more protein) in bread flour with a small amount of malted barley flour and vitamin c or potassium bromate added to it in which the bromate helps increase the elasticity of the gluten, creating a dough with which can easily be worked.

Cake Flour – has a low and delicate gluten content and is finely milled with a super smooth texture allowing cakes to be light and airy – think of jelly rolls, sponge cakes and angel food cakes.

Pastry Flour – is finer in texture than all purpose flour but it is not as fine as cake flour. This flour is usually distributed to commercial bakers and contains a lower gluten content and is made mostly of soft wheat attributes.

Self-rising Flour – is an all purpose flour to which additional ingredients have been added such as baking powder and salt. And it should be used as according to its package directions since there are differences per each self-rising flour product out there – there are several available on the market (Bisquick comes to mind once again, and it was the one ‘allowed’ cheating self-rising flour we used in our household when I grew up – and still allow in my cupboard for those dumpling moments that come to pass every once in awhile when I make a stew) – You can also make your own if you wish, just keep it in a sealed container due to the baking powder which you want to keep fresh to retain it’s leavening properties. (1 cup self-rising flour is equal to 1 cup cake flour with 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and a pinch of salt added to it.)

Whole Grain Wheat Flour – wheat flours can vary in their amounts of white flours added, but most are tried and true and can now be used successfully in bread recipes without adding any additional ‘white’ flour.

Durham/Semolina Flour – is used primarily for breads and pasta doughs due to its high gluten and protein amounts.

Rye Flour – rye flour usually needs to have wheat flour added to give it some lightness due to its lacking the necessary proteins to form gluten which is essential in making breads.

Soybean Flour – Neither gliadin or glutenin, the necessary proteins when moistened to create gluten can be found in soybean flour, hence a strong wheat flour needs to be added to soy bean flour for good results in making breads with soybean flour. Although, with quick-breads and cakes, soybean flour may be substituted up to half of the amount of all purpose flour with good results.

Buckwheat Flour – has very strong characteristics, a nutty flavor and is very ‘heavy’ and must always be combined with wheat or white flours to create good results in breads.

Enriched Flour – since after WWII, the demand for an enriched flour product was at a all time high (and the FDA demanded it during the war), and since due to the milling process, many of the nutrients were lost and had to be replaced – so enriched is simply what it implies; enriched flour has added nutrients such as iron, niacin, thiamine, folic acid added to the mix.

Other types of flours can also include rice, peanut, potato and of course in the world we live in, a variety of other different types of flours can be bought over the internet from other countries and in local health stores and specialty stores.

Did you know that there are pizza restaurants out in California that have both water and flour ‘imported’ from NY so they can create the NY Pizza? That’s is how different flours and (water) can change a recipe and its’ basic tastes.

I would highly recommend, trying out some of the other types of flours when you make bread the next time – experiment with different combinations and you will soon be creating your own interesting hearty breads.

When in doubt, look at your package of flour to see what combinations of additional flours and/or ingredients have been added – you may find that the whole wheat flour is actually not completely whole wheat but in fact has white flour already added. This is particularly true when you wish to avoid certain ‘flours’ or are trying a new bread recipe that calls for different types of flour such as rye.

Unbleached Versus Bleached Flour – Bleached flours will have a slight lower protein content than unbleached. Unbleached flours will be so ever ‘not as white’ as bleached flours in their color. And due to the less protein amount, bleached flours when making breads specifically may not rise as much and bake out flatter (I know this since I have experienced this).

Sifted Versus Unsifted Flours – This may seem self explanatory – but there is a huge difference in weight when comparing one cup of unsifted flour to a sifted flour. I have personally experienced a half a cup more of flour once it has been sifted! Imagine adding unintentionally an extra half cup of flour to your recipe and what that could do to ruin a perfectly good recipe. Since I mainly refer to cookbooks that are 50 years old, I like to use the unsifted flour and sift accordingly to the recipe directions. Remember, cooking and baking is chemistry – and the correct amounts make for perfect results every time.

In most cases, my recipes will call for me to measure, sift, measure again, then add the salt, baking powder, etc. then sift once more. Yes, I will sift my flours twice. But, my cakes are extra light as are the cookies crisp and chewy as a result with having extra happy eaters.

If I happen to be using a pre-sifted flour (it has been known to happen) I will still carefully measure the flour, add the salt and other dry ingredients, then sift them all together, since flour whether sifted or not easily settles (like your bag of potato chips and cereals) during its many travels in shipping to your local grocery store.

Sifting the flour will aerate the flour, remove any lumps and will create a lighter texture to your fine baking goods. I do not sift my bread flour since I mainly use a bread machine to make my dough, but will sift my flour for when I make quick breads such as banana loafs, etc. which I do not make in my bread machine. And for the most part, I use my bread machine to simply make the dough, then I take the dough out of the machine so that I can create a more homemade and rustic-looking bread.

I use a fine mesh strainer to sift my flour – long gone are my flour sifters (which you may recall seen used by your mother and grandmother respectively) since they are hard on the wrists (from all the squeezing or cranking mechanisms) and they rust easily while taking up too much room in the kitchen where space is always at a premium especially for when they are used for one thing only. Why bother with sifters from year’s past?

The fine mesh strainer can be used for so many multi-purposes in the kitchen, can be easily hand washed along with going into the dishwasher to be cleaned that this tool is a must have in your kitchen – and can easily be purchased for about $6.00. Effective, easy to clean multi-purpose gadgets are what I like in my kitchen – as I am sure you would want that too!

How To Correctly Measure Flour:
Using a smaller scoop, scoop up flour and place flour gently into your one cup measuring cup or other needed measuring cup. With the FLAT side of a dinner knife, scrape gently off the excess of flour back into your canister or bag of flour to create a leveled measured cup of flour. Do not pack your flour down like it is brown sugar for Pete’s sake into your measuring cup. Doing so will result in heavy and dense baked goods. Yuck.

Pour your measured flour into your fine mesh strainer which is placed above a bowl, then measure any more additional flour amounts that you need. By tapping the strainer back and forth, you will quickly sift your flour. Just remember to measure the flour again now that it has been sifted once before putting your flour into your mixing bowls to get an accurate flour measurement.

When my baking recipe calls for sifting (since most of them do) I will measure and then sift for the first time. Then will have to measure again carefully since with one sifting a lot of extra flour can be created – try it and see for yourself (and as mentioned previously, I have experienced over an extra 1/2 cup of flour from the first sifting!) You will be amazed at the amount of extra flour which can come about from one sifting – and you will now understand why your cakes are not like your grandmothers’! This will be a thing of the past by following the simple tips as described above.

What kind of flour to use when baking and cooking:

All Purpose Flour – can be used for most recipes and for general cooking and baking purposes

Unbleached Unsifted flour – preferred by most fine bakers and cooks – great for cookies, pie crusts, cream pies fillings, gravies

Cake flour – for your angel food cake recipes and cake batters and recipes requiring a light batter (not brownies for example).

Wheat flour – great for your bread recipes since it has a higher protein and gluten amount than say your all purpose flour.

Self-rising flour – preferred by Southern cooks for perfect biscuits every time – one mentioned often enough is named Lily – It is not readily available here in the NE.

Substitutions:

  • 1 cup of all purpose flour = 1 cup + 2 tbsp sifted cake flour
  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour = 1 cup minus 2 tbsp unsifted flour
  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour = 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs

Article Sources:

I am so floured out after sifting through all these web sites, many more I read, that I simply did not feel were accurate enough to mention – but one thing I know, I am off now to make me some great homemade bread.

Hope this information is useful to those who need to know a little more about flour. Feel free to leave your comments, ask questions and share your ideas. I look forward to hearing from you! -Divaliscious.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosie permalink
    April 5, 2008 5:18 pm

    Divaliscious you are without a doubt the greatest! You sure know how to research and post a well written and highly educational article. I love it your site! Thanks for all you do!

  2. Norine permalink
    March 13, 2010 8:25 pm

    Thank you for this very informative article! This really explains the differences in flours and why I won’t be using generic anymore.

    • March 13, 2010 9:26 pm

      Thank you Norine for your comments – I just reread this article – and will update it since I have learned much in the year since writing this article.

      One thing to point out to those trying to avoid gluten – I have found that my local C-Town grocery store which is geared to the large Latino Community has many types of flours available – in fact I saw pea flour and even toasted corn flour among the amazing varieties.

      So check out your grocery stores and dont’ forget to ask your manager about flours they should carry if you don’t see other options available to you.

      • Ann permalink
        September 27, 2010 4:06 pm

        I learned a lot from your article!! I still am searching for a specific answer to this question – I have a recipe that duplicates the flavor of a cake I like to a T, but – it is not quite what I want in density. After reading this, I’m thinking since it came from a pro bakery, it’s probably the difference in flour. I think I will use the same amount, but not sift all of it, or measure, measure, measure and see if the next one is the density I want. I don’t want heavy like a pound cake, but want a bit more density. I was also going to whip only 3 egg whites instead of 5, but I think I”ll start with the flour. The neighbors love the fact that I’m trying to duplicate a recipe, cause they get the “not quite what I want yet” cake!!
        Thanks for any help you can suggest to make the density of the cake more thick.

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