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When it comes to baking and cooking, I often find myself having to look up abstract methods of replacing one ingredient with another, and figuring out ways to substitute things depending on what the local store has in stock that day. More often or not, we are happy to do this with flour because people often overlook flour as a key component – perhaps because it isn’t an essential ingredient when it comes to flavour? Flour is, however, an extremely versatile ingredient and more often than not it is an absolute necessity when it comes to texture and shape of the final product. Shop shelves are full of variety, and although this can be a good thing, it also makes it hard to know which flour is best for what recipe, as they all serve their own individual purpose. Today I am going to explain what and where our flour comes from, and then go on to explore the most common variations of flour and the differences and similarities they all have.
Table of Contents
What is flour and where does it come from?
Firstly, in order to get to grips with the different flour types, it is important to understand what flour is, where flour comes from and how these differences can impact the final product. Flour can come from various nuts, grains, beans and roots, and for gluten free recipes you will often see calls for flours produced from almonds or oats – a process of blending these products. However, today I am going to solely focus on wheat flour, as this is the start point and process that our most common flours go through.
The flours we often require – plain flour, white flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour (you get the jist) – stem from the wheat berry of the wheat plant. This is made of three parts:
- Bran – the hard, outer layer. This part is like the protective layer, and when broken down it creates hard (tiny) shards in the flour known as fibre! It is integral to whole grain products and popular in products such as our every-day breakfast cereals.
- Germ – the reproductive part. The germ is the ‘embryo’ of the wheat berry and germinates to grow into the plant. As the main body of the plant, the germ contains a lot of polyunsaturated fat, and is also integral to whole wheat flour – meaning whole wheat flour can turn quite sour over time if it is not stored correctly, which is a result of the germ going off. Flours often eliminate the germ to avoid this from happening. Alongside the bran, this is required in whole wheat flours, and combined together creates more of a brown colour than the white we see in many everyday flours.
Endosperm – the core within the seeds. This makes up the main body of the wheat berry and contains nutrition in the form of starch. This allows the endosperm to be an effective component when used on an individual basis. The endosperm is used in all types of wheat flour, whereas the bran and germ are only used in whole wheat flours. The endosperm is made up of two types of protein – glutenin and gliadin – and when water is added to the flour, this protein develops into gluten.
The protein levels of each flour type is ultimately the factor that differentiates them all. When kneading dough, the carbon dioxide reacts with the gluten, and the more this happens, the sturdier the dough becomes – the higher the protein, the stronger the flour. This means that the protein content of the flour is really important.
So, to summarise the basics of wheat flour, they stem from the wheat berry. The plant is made up of three parts. Only whole wheat flour uses all three parts. The endosperm is the key component for protein, and protein creates the gluten, which creates the performance and texture of the flour. Various protein levels create various consistencies and so every flour is milled to a specific protein content. Now let’s look at how the various protein levels work within each flour type.
Whole Wheat Flour: 14% protein
As mentioned, whole wheat flour is the only flour type to use the entire berry. As a result, it contains a lot of fibre from the bran, and also the protein from the endosperm, creating a darker, stronger, and overall more nutritious flour. The fibre from the bran creates a denser final product, as the weight doesn’t allow it to rise as much. This means it is ideal for things like whole wheat sandwich bread or breakfast muffins, as it really packs a wheaty flavour. This doesn’t mean it cannot be used in cakes, but you are likely to have a heavier product and the strong flavour may shine through (which could be a good or bad thing depending on what you are making).
White Whole Wheat Flour: 13%
Similar to regular whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour uses the bran, germ and the endosperm. Typically, whole wheat flour is milled from a red wheat berry, whereas white whole wheat flour comes from a hard white wheat berry. The milling process is exactly the same as that of the whole wheat flour, resulting in similar nutritional benefits regarding fibre and protein – although the protein levels are slightly lower. The slight reduction in protein does give the flour a lighter feel, and the use of the white berry also results in a lighter colour and a sweeter taste. This is why often people find whiter breads to be sweeter, and more popular among kids. Although this can be done artificially, making your own white whole wheat bread can be a healthy alternative to get kids to eat bread when they don’t want to go near wholegrain or brown bread.
Whole wheat flour can be swapped for white whole wheat flour, but will create a sweeter taste in the recipes. The reverse will also work but may cause your white whole wheat recipes to lack in a rising agent if swapped out for regular whole wheat. Further to this, white whole wheat flour can also be used in place of all-purpose flour on most occasions. This is because white whole wheat flour is a convenient stepping stone between whole wheat and all-purpose flour – keeping the wholesomeness of whole wheat but providing a texture and versatility similar to all-purpose.
All-Purpose Flour: 11.7% protein
Firstly, people often ask, ‘what is the difference between all-purpose flour and plain flour?’ And the answer is simple: there is no difference. The US tends to say ‘all-purpose’, and the UK tends to call it ‘plain flour’. So, now that the ‘all-purpose flour vs plain flour’ debate is settled, let’s get into the nitty gritty of understanding why the lower protein content in all-purpose flour makes it different from whole wheat. All-purpose flour is a combination of your softer and harder wheat, which still contains a good amount of gluten compared to some, but not enough to prevent a good rise, making all-purpose flour the most versatile of them all, hence the name. This means all-purpose can be used across the board, from biscuits to pancakes, from chocolate cake to focaccia. So, when looking at all-purpose flour vs wheat flour, we can see that they may be able to substitute each other in most cases without any other changes to be made, but for a rich, wheaty flavour you would want to use wheat flour, and for a more versatile, lighter product, you would opt for the all-purpose option.
Bread Flour: 12.7% protein
The clue is in the name, but with a slightly lower protein content than wheat flour, but slightly higher than all-purpose, bread flour is the perfect component for your homemade bread recipes. Unlike whole wheat, bread flour doesn’t use the bran, similar to all-purpose, which allows for an excellent rise. Using this with any of your yeast baking will result in the perfect rise. The slightly higher protein content also results in a higher gluten presence and therefore a firmer consistency, ideal for yummy, carb-heavy snacks like bagels and pizza bases. Bread flour can be replaced by all-purpose flour, but for best results, you can turn your all-purpose flour into bread flour by removing 1.5 teaspoons (4g) flour from every 1 cup flour, and replacing it with 1.5 teaspoons of vital wheat gluten.
Baker’s Flour: 12-12.7% protein
Baker’s flour is almost identical to bread flour, and quite often they mean exactly the same thing in recipes. Baker’s flour may come with a slightly lower protein content, meaning it can be better to use in biscuit recipes, but overall, when looking at baker’s flour vs bread flour there is no difference at all and are both ideal for making bread and yeast-based foods. As baker’s flour can be a slightly lower protein percentage to bread flour, it can easily be substituted with plain flour, like for like, and vice versa. Similarly, the same can be done with bread flour – simply replace baker’s with bread flour 1:1.
Self-Rising Flour: 8.5% protein
Also commonly known as ‘self-raising’ flour in the UK, self rising flour is similar to all-purpose flour, but only uses a soft wheat flour as opposed to a hard one, and is then combined with baking powder and, in the US, has salt added too. The softer wheat flour gives the lower protein content. The baking powder acts as a rising agent and creates a fluffier product than simply using all-purpose flour. Often cakes and cupcakes call for plain flour, but also require baking powder – this creates the same outcome. Self-rising flour is ideal for muffins and banana bread. The combination brings down the protein into gluten content, which allows for a lighter rise, and whilst self-rising flour could be used for breads and loaves, it is more commonly used for lighter options. You can make your own by adding 2 teaspoons of baking powder to every 1 cup (150g) of all-purpose flour. Just as white whole wheat flour works as a middle-ground for whole wheat and all purpose, baker’s flour does the same between all-purpose flour and bread flour.
Cake Flour: 9% protein
Finally, we have cake flour, also known as baking flour. Cake flour is very similar to self-rising flour, but with no added ingredients. The low protein level comes from how finely milled it is. Cake flour protein can drop to as low as 6-8% but is typically around the 9% mark. This finely milled process means that cake flour is perfect for your tender-baked recipes. The lack of gluten means that cake flour creates soft, fluffy and evenly textured products, ideal for spongier, airy recipes like cupcakes and Victoria sponge cake, but also perfect for your intricate pastries. To make your own cake flour, you can add 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 14 tablespoons of all-purpose flour, and ensure to sift a lot to evenly mix (for 1 cups worth).
Understanding Your Flours – A Piece of Cake
So, in summation, it seems that almost all of the most commonly used flours can be substituted for one or the other. All-purpose can just about cover you for any recipe, but if you really want to hit the nail on the head with flavour and texture, then the correct flour really could be the cherry on top of the perfect recipe. It all comes down to the protein, and thus gluten, and with a basic understanding of how protein percentages impact the density and rising of your product, you can’t go too far wrong.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Is bakers flour the same as plain flour?
Bakers flour is not the same as plain flour. Bakers flour acts more like bread flour. Plain flour, or all-purpose flour, has a slightly lower protein content, and therefore does not have the firmness you get when using baker’s flour or bread flour. Baker’s flour is lower in protein than bread flour, however, and therefore, if need be, baker’s flour can be substituted 1:1 with plain flour, but the consistency and form may differ.
What is baker’s flour?
Baker’s flour is a wheat flour often used for making bread. It has a slightly lower protein content than bread flour, but slightly higher than all-purpose flour. It can be used for baking cakes and pastries, but it is most suitable for making a light bread due to its gluten levels, as this allows for a good, firm rise without being too dense.
What can I use instead of baker’s flour?
You can use all-purpose flour or bread flour on a like for like basis in place of baker’s flour.
How do you turn plain flour into baker’s flour?
Baker’s flour and plain flour are very similar and so a direct substitute is fine. Alternatively, you can change your plain flour into bread flour by removing 1.5 teaspoons (4g) flour from every 1 cup flour, and replacing it with 1.5 teaspoons of vital wheat gluten. If your recipe calls for baker’s flour then the above method would work perfectly.