Q: Why are there so many types of flour and what are their different uses?
A: Different flours have varying levels of protein and fiber, which affect the final baked product. Flour contains gluten which is the protein that strengthens and binds dough in baking. Different types of wheat are milled into flour to meet various needs. Hard red wheat is best for yeast breads while soft wheat is best used in cakes, pastries or other baked goods including crackers or cereal. Durum wheat is the hardest wheat and is best used for pasta.
Enriched all-purpose flour is the most widely used of all flours. It comes from the finely ground part of the wheat kernel called the endosperm, which gets separated from the bran and germ during the milling process. It is made from a combination of hard and soft wheat, hence the term all-purpose. This type of flour can be used universally for a wide range of baked products – yeast breads, cakes, cookies and pastries. Enriched all-purpose flour has iron, and four B-vitamins (thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and folic acid) added in amounts equal to or exceeding what is present in whole wheat flour. Whole wheat flour is milled from the entire kernel of wheat. The presence of bran reduces gluten development, making products with wheat flour heavier and more dense. Graham or stone ground flours can be used interchangeably with whole wheat flour, the only difference is their coarseness. Bread flour is milled for baking use and features a higher gluten content, making it optimal for yeast breads. Self-rising flour is a type of all-purpose flour that has salt and a leavening agent added. One cup of self-rising flour contains 1 ½ tsp of baking powder and ½ tsp of salt. This can be substituted for all purpose flour by decreasing the salt and baking powder called for by the recipe. Self-rising flour is commonly used to make biscuits and quick breads, but is not recommended for yeast breads. Cake flour is a fine textured flour milled from soft wheat. It has a higher percentage of starch and a low protein content which keeps cakes and pastries tender and delicate. Pastry flour is a “middle of the road” between cake flour and all purpose flour. It has a slightly higher protein content and more starch than cake flour, making it ideal for cookies, crackers and other similar products. Gluten flour has a very high protein context and is usually milled from hard spring wheat. It is used primarily to mix in with other non-wheat or low protein wheat flours to produce a stronger dough structure.
Wheat alternative flours are also available. If dietary restriction, personal preference or other limitations steer you toward non-wheat flour it is important to note that another binding agent must be included in the recipe to compensate for the lack of wheat