From Scratch: Flour Primer

November 22, 2012

A Variety of Flours
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

Quick, what do you think of when we say "flour?" Probably the all-purpose version, right? Well, it turns out flour can be made of almost anything ground finely -- most commonly grains, nuts, and legumes.

All of these flour varieties can be used in baking, but if you only pull out that bag of flour to make dessert and bread, you’re missing out on everything that flour has to offer. It will thicken your pie filling, gravy, or roux. It will help your pancakes and tortillas maintain their circular figures. It will bind your fritters and meatballs so they hold their shape while they bake or fry. It will keep your homemade tortellini and wonton wrappers from spilling their filling and ensure those drop dumplings in your mom’s chicken and dumpling stew don't disintegrate into the rest of the brew. The real question, it turns out, is: What is it that flour can't do?

Types of Wheat Flours

  • Hard wheat flour contains more protein, thus making gluten levels higher. It is grown primarily in the Northwestern U.S. and Western Canada.
  • Soft wheat has less protein and is produced mostly in the Southern U.S.
  • The wheat berry is made up of the bran, the endosperm, and the germ.
    Bran: The outer shell, the bran contains a lot of fiber and the bulk of the nutrients. It is removed during milling to keep the sharp edges from interfering with gluten development. It is sometimes added back in after milling.
    - Germ: High in protein and B vitamins, the germ is what would grow into the plant. Removed during milling because its high fat content causes flour to quickly become rancid. Available for purchase on its own, wheat germ should be stored in the refrigerator.
    - Endosperm: The biggest part of a wheat berry, the endosperm is comprised primarily of starches and proteins. Most "white" baking flours are made up entirely of the endosperm, having had the germ and bran removed.
  • Gluten forms when protein comes in contact with water and heat, and is the substance that contributes most greatly to the structure of baked goods. Because wheat flours contain varying amounts of protein, the ability to bind changes from one flour to another.
  • Bleached and unbleached flours are typically interchangeable, unless your recipe calls specifically for one or the other. Bleaching adds chlorine and ascorbic acid to help flour age. The longer it ages, the stronger the gluten.

All-Purpose Flour (AP Flour)

  • The most common and versatile type of baking flour, all purpose flour is made from a combination of hard and soft wheat flour. Because of its moderate amount of protein (10 to 12%), it’s suitable for everything from cakes to breads.
  • Self-rising flour is AP flour mixed with some baking powder and salt. Beware that it will lose potency if you store it for long periods of time. For recipes that call for it, you can make this easy substitute: measure 1.5 tsp baking powder + .5 teaspoon salt into a 1 cup measure, and then fill the rest with AP flour.

Cake Flour

  • Cake flour has a finer texture and lighter color than AP flour because it's made of very finely milled soft winter wheat that has a relatively low amount of protein -- only 6 to 8%. 
  • Most cake flours are chlorinated, which helps break down the strength of gluten, leading to a softer, more delicate texture. It also aids in distributing fats more evenly throughout a batter.

Pastry Flour

  • This flour, made out of unchlorinated soft wheat (8 to 10% protein), makes pastry crusts perfectly tender. 

Bread Flour

  • Because of the high protein content (12 to 15%) and resulting high gluten levels, this flour helps bread rise. It also helps the bread to hold its shape and structure during and after baking. 

Whole Wheat Flour

  • Whole wheat glour is made from the whole kernel of wheat, so it's higher in fiber than white flour. Because of its low gluten content, it needs to be mixed with AP or bread flour when you use it for bread making. Otherwise, your loaf will be very dense.
  • This flour is best stored in the refrigerator because natural oils from the germ cause it to spoil more quickly than other flours.

00 Flour

  • In Italy, flour is classified by how finely ground it is: either 1, 0, or 00 -- 00 being the most finely ground.
  • This does not necessarily mean it is lower in protein. 00 flour comes in different forms with various degrees of protein. In the U.S., its fine texture is often employed in pizza doughs and pasta recipes.

Other Common Flours

Nut Flours and Meals

  • Nut flour and nut meal are both types of finely ground nuts. Meal is typically more coarse, and the result of grinding down the entire nut. Nut flours are more finely textured and are often ground after the oil from the nut has been removed, making them drier.
  • No nut flours or meals contain gluten, so they won’t help baked goods rise.
  • Nut meal can be either blanced (meaning the skins have been removed) or unblanched, while nut flour is typically always blanched.
  • Both nut meals and nut flours go rancid quickly, so be sure to store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer, or use them soon after purchase.
  • For more information on nut flours, check out our Tree Nut Primer.

Barley Flour

  • A nutty flour made from grinding whole barley grains that will result in a very tender baked good. 

Buckwheat Flour

  • This gray gluten-free flour forms those popular Japanese soba noodles. 

Semolina Flour

  • Great for pasta making, this flour is made from durum wheat, the hardest type of wheat. 

Rice flour

  • Made from finely milled rice, either white or brown, rice flour appears very often in gluten-free crackers or rice noodles.
  • Ever eaten mochi? The chewy, filled Japanese dessert is constructed with a rice flour dough.

Spelt Flour

  • A popular alternative to wheat flour in baking, this flour has a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and is highly nutritious. 
  • Unlike wheat flour, the gluten in spelt flour is sensitive, and spelt-based doughs and batters should be mixed with a particularly gentle hand. 

Teff flour

  • Milled from a tiny, ancient Ethiopian grain, this gluten-free flour has a high concentration of calcium, iron, and fiber. 
  • Although it's higher in protein than wheat, it's very small -- 150 teff grains are equal in size to one kernel of wheat.

Coconut Flour

  • A high-fiber, gluten-free, low-carb flour made from ground coconut meal, coconut flour is very dry and will absorb more moisture than AP flour. 

Corn Flour (or Meal)

  • Another gluten-free flour, this time made from ground yellow corn, corn flour is the base of corn tortillas and tamales.
  • Corn meal is available in a wide range of textures, from finely ground (perfect for cornbread) to coarsely ground (ideal for grits and polenta).

Oat Flour

  • Although it's not gluten-free, oat flour has very little gluten. Made from hulled ground oats, it makes a great thickener for gravy or binder for meatballs.

Potato Flour

  • Made from potatoes that are cookied, dried, and then ground, this flour has a very apparent potato flavor. Although it's gluten free, it does have a high starch content.

Tapioca

  • Made from cassava root, also known as tapioca starch, this grain-free, gluten-free white flour works well as a thickener for gravy, soups, and pie fillings. 

Legume Flours

  • Legume flours come from a variety of common sources such as soy beans, chickpeas, ground lentils, and mung beans.
  • Very popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, these flours are gluten free and work well in crackers, flat breads, and other recipes requiring a more crumbly or brittle texture.

Gluten-Free Flour Mix

  • Some brands market gluten-free flour blends made up of a carefully proportioned mix of several gluten-free grains and legumes.
  • These blends are a popular substitution for AP flour for anyone with a sensitivity to gluten. Refer to the package instructions for substitution guidelines.

Measuring Flour Grape, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake
Scraping extra flour from a measuring cup with a knife ensures accuracy; Grape, Almond, and Olive Oil Cake. Photos by Sarah Shatz (left) and James Ransom. 

Flour Storage

  • Flour absorbs moisture over time, so store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
  • You can refrigerate and freeze any flours, just remember to let it come to room temperature before using. You should also be sure that your flour is in a sealed container; otherwise, it will absorb the odors and flavors of other foods around it.
  • Most companies recommend a maximum shelf life of 6 to 8 months for all flours.
  • If your flour has gone bad, it will smell “off” or slightly change in color. You should also keep an eye out for flour bugs, little brown or black bugs that look like moth larvae. Needless to say, if you find bugs, throw it out. (To help prevent those bugs, freeze newly purchased flours for 24 hours.) 
  • Many non-wheat flours (and whole wheat flour, as well) do better stored in refrigerated conditions because they contain more oils that can go rancid.

Flour Substitutions

  • Be careful swapping flours, even within the wheat family. Different flours have different protein levels, and protein, when combined with water and heat, is what forms the gluten that keeps everything bound together.
  • A good rule of thumb is to start with a 1/4 substitution. If the recipe calls for 2 cups of AP flour, try replacing up to 1/2 cup with a whole-wheat or non-wheat flour.
  • If your recipe calls for whole-wheat flour in the first place, you can replace up to 1/4 of the amount with a non-wheat flour with confidence, thanks to it's low gluten content.
  • Practice makes perfect! Start slowly with substitutions and try a few different iterations until you find the right blend for your recipe.

Flour Measurement

  • Flour gets compacted during bagging and shipping, so spoon flour from the bag into your measuring cup to avoid over measuring, which will throw off your recipe's proportions.
  • Level off your flour with a knife to get an exact measure. Never pack flour down in the measuring cup.
  • Don’t be tricked into buying pre-sifted flour -- its journey to the store shelves will render any previous sifting null and void. If your recipe calls for “1 cup of flour, sifted,” measure the flour first, and then sift it. If it reads, “1 cup of sifted flour,” sift it, and then measure.
  • For more flour measuring tips, check out Kitchen Basics: Measuring Dried Ingredients.

Heavenly Oatmeal-Molasses Rolls galette
Photos by Sarah Shatz

Recipes

Pie Crust
Gluten-Free Pie Crust
Parmigiano Asiago Herb Pull Apart Bread
Vegan Buckwheat Pancakes
Sweet Banana Corn Fritters
Vegetarian Mushroom Thyme Gravy [Food52]
Heavenly Oatmeal-Molasses Rolls [Food52] (pictured above, left)
Butternut Squash and Roasted Garlic Galette [Food52] (pictured above, right)

Do you have a diverse flour stash? What newly discovered flours are you currently enjoying? Share your cooking tips and techniques in the comments section below.

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Roasting Large Cuts of Meat.

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