Baking Flour Basics: Which is the best to use?

Baking Flour Basics: Which is the best to use?

Publish Date September 29, 2023 4 Minute Read
Author Kroger Health Team

The Wonderful World of Flour

Whether you’re a novice baker or someone who whips up a brioche or a torte every week, you’ve probably had one or two bad experiences with baking. Maybe the reason your muffins were a bit tough or your bread fell flat was because of the type of flour you used.

Chances are you have a bag of all-purpose flour in the pantry, thinking it covered all your flour needs. Options abound in the flour aisle, and it pays to know which flour is the best choice for your baking project. But when you stand in the baking aisle at the grocery store, the choices are overwhelming. Why are there so many varieties of flour, and what are they used for?

Getting to Know Wheat Flours

Our love of breads and baked goods made from wheat means that when we say “flour,” in popular usage, we generally mean wheat flour. There are many varieties of wheat and alternative flours to choose from, each of which is particularly suited to a different task in the kitchen.

It’s All About the Gluten

The reason that wheat flour is so good for baking is the gluten. Gluten is the elastic protein that’s formed when glutenin and gliadin mix with water. That springy protein forms a structure in a wet dough that traps the gases produced by yeast or chemical leavenings. This produces the bubbles and open crumb we love in breads, pizza crust, muffins and more. As the dough bakes, the structure hardens just enough to stay aloft. If you try to mix leavening with a flour that has no gluten (and lacks anything else to form a structure), the bubbles will rise to the top and pop, which leaves you with a dense, airless baked good.

Wheat flour is used in breads, which need a good amount of sturdy, chewy gluten. It’s also used to make cakes, where a softer, more melt-in the mouth texture is desired, as well as pastries, which should be flaky and crispy.

Do You Want Sturdy, Chewy Bread, or Tender, Flaky Pastry?

Once you decide on what you want to make, you can select the flour that works best. All-purpose flour is fine for most of your baking, but it can make a real difference if you buy a higher gluten bread flour for making bread, or a lower gluten pastry flour for pastries. Get to know the different flours for each baked item below.

Types of Flour

    All-purpose flour is right in the middle of the pack, and works just fine for most baking, if you handle the dough correctly. Kneading creates stronger gluten, while light handling, the addition of fat or chilling the dough keep gluten strands to a minimum.

    Bread flour has increased gluten, which gives bread, rolls and pizza dough an open crumb.

    This flour has just enough gluten to make it ideal for flaky and tender baked items like pie crusts and biscuits.

    Milled and bleached to lower gluten content, cake flour has more starch, which helps it absorb more liquid. This flour is recommended for use in cakes and scones.

    A soft flour that’s already leavened. Use for biscuits and quick breads.

    While white flours have had the bran and germ removed to make them lighter and more shelf stable, whole wheat flour is often stone-milled for a coarser texture. It’s a great flour to use when making bread. Some bakers like to add a little wheat gluten flour to strengthen the dough. Whole wheat pastry flour is lower in gluten and more finely ground, which makes it a good choice for pastries, cakes and quick breads.

How to Measure Flour for Best Results

Because flour settles and compresses in the bag, you need to fluff it a bit to get an accurate measurement. Hold your measuring cup over the flour and use a scoop to pick up some flour, then shake the scoop to sprinkle the flour into the cup. Don’t tap or pack the flour down. Use the straight side of a butter knife to level the top of the flour. Pro bakers use a scale to get precise measurements. If you bake often, it’s worth investing in a scale.

Does Flour Go Bad?

Flour has a shelf life, so it’s important to store it correctly to keep it fresh. White flours, whole grain and alternative flours should be handled differently. For white flours, the best plan is to put your just-purchased bag of flour into an airtight storage container. You can do this by keeping it in the bag or pouring it into a canister with a locking top. Do check the expiration date on your flour and mark it on the container. Then, store the container in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, white flour can last up to 24 months. Whole grain flours, nut flours and bean flours should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 6 months, or in a cool, dark cupboard for up to 3 months.

Ready, Set, Bake

Soft, melty cookies, light, tender cakes and warm, chewy breads are within reach now that you know which flour to use for each. The next time you crave cake, try using cake flour in a Angel Food Mini Cakes, or branch out with a Whole Wheat and Flax Banana Bread. Skip the gluten with these Carrot Cake Bread or Gluten-free Strawberry Waffles recipes. By intentionally selecting your flour option, storing and measuring flour correctly, you can be assured you’ll get the best results from your baked goods.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.