Flour 101



If you love baking for afternoon tea then this article is for you.  Flour comes in a variety of types and can be incredibly confusing to the novice.  This article gives you a run down on how to identify the correct flour for your tea time baking project.  Personally, I use alot of pastry and cake flour when creating afternoon tea treats.  This article explains the advantages and disadvantages in an easy to follow manner.

Recently, I went into a well known food supplier in my region.  Unfortunately I was unable to locate pastry flour.  When I asked the representative if I could order pastry flour they replied “All flour is the same.”   I have posted this article to re-affirm that all flour is NOT the same.  There is a difference and every baker should know the truth 🙂



Kinds of flour

Flour 101

By Steven M Sullivan

So your recipe calls for flour. Pretty simple, grab the bag of King Arthur and go at it. Or is it? There are more kinds of flour than you can shake a stick at (even in this insomnia-curing article I’ve hardly scratched the surface.) Flour can be ground from almost any kind of cereal grain, seeds, or roots. It comes in different grind sizes, different contents, and has many different properties. So what’s a cook to do? Learning a bit about flour will do wonders for the stuff you bake. It’s also just good to know what’s going into your food and why.

Today we’ll stick to wheat flour, and save the rest for another day. Wheat flour makes up the majority of the flour that’s purchased today. It’s what makes All Purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cake flour, bread flour, and pastry flour to name a few. The majority of what follows pertains mostly to wheat flour. They differ in what parts of the kernel (or berry) are used or retained in production.

Parts of the Kernel (or Berry if you like)

Bran – Bran makes up about 14.5% of the weight of the actual kernel. Whole wheat flour includes the bran portion of the kernel. It is also available on its own (think bran muffins or flakes.) The bran contains a little bit of protein, large quantities of the three major B vitamins, trace minerals and dietary fiber (the insoluble sort.)

Endosperm – Somewhere around 83% of the kernel weight is the endosperm. This is the part of the kernel where white flour (your general All Purpose stuff) comes from. The endosperm contains the largest portion of protein, carbohydrates, and iron, as well as a comparatively small amount of the major B-vitamins. It is also a source of soluble fiber.

Germ – The germ comprises about 2.5% of the kernel weight. This is the “wheat germ” that is available in stores – generally in much smaller amounts than flour. The germ is the embryo or sprouting section of the seed. The reason this is separated out during milling is the fat content (it’s also why it needs to be refrigerated.) The germ has a high fat content – somewhere on the order of 10%. That fat, if left in flour, would seriously reduce the shelf life in stores (it goes rancid fairly quickly, in turn making your flour smell and taste funny.) The germ contains relatively small amounts of high quality protein and a greater share of those B Vitamins and trace minerals. Wheat germ is included in whole wheat flour.

Flour, in the United States at least, is broken into a few different types, or classes. They all have different properties and qualities that make them good for some things and not so great for others. Those differences come from different types of wheat grown in different areas of the country. It makes sense, different climates and soils grow different wheat. Flours also differ country to country; it’s really slightly varied everywhere you go.

Wheat Types (in the United States)

Hard Red Spring – Contains the highest percentage of protein, on the order of 13-14%. Its great milling and baking characteristics mean it makes up most bread and high-gluten content flours. Most of this wheat comes through the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.

Hard Red Winter – This high-protein wheat, somewhere between 10-12%, is used for bread, hard baked goods, and is added to pastry flour for making great pie crusts. Some unbleached All Purpose flours are entirely made of this grain. The majority of this wheat stems from Kansas and surrounding areas and trades through the Kansas City Board of Trade.

Soft Red Winter – A high-yield, low-protein flour (8 to 10% protein) used mainly for cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, flat breads. Cake flour, pastry flour, and a select number of self-rising flours are produced using Soft Red Winter. The Chicago Board of Trade handles most of the trading in this wheat.

Hard White Wheat (Winter or Spring) – This is the newest segment of wheat grown in the US. It’s medium-protein wheat (11 to 14%), and is closely related to Red wheat; thus its use in yeast breads, brewing, hard rolls, tortillas, and oriental noodles.

Soft White Wheat – A very low-protein wheat (8 to 10%), but with a high yield, it is grown in temperate moist areas. Used similarly to Soft Red Winter. Pastry flour, for example, is sometimes made from soft white winter wheat. Produces flour for baking cakes, crackers, cookies, pastries, quick breads, muffins and snack foods.


How’s it made?

Almost all flour today is milled in giant plants using rotary or impact mills. The days of stone grinding are largely over (there are a few on the market – but it’s a small niche.) Milling is the process of using stone or metal wheels to grind the grain. In whole wheat flour you essentially stop there. Every part of the grain is included. Whole wheat grains are washed to remove any foreign matter, then crushed into a fine powder. Toss it into a bag, and you have whole wheat flour. Sounds pretty easy because it is.

Enriched flour, on the other hand (what you usually get if you’re buying cake, All-Purpose, typically anything other than whole wheat flour), is a hugely involved process. Largely simplified, there are about 6 steps. The grains are:

Tempered with water to make it easier to separate the different parts
Rolled over to break the pieces down (the actual milling process)
Purified and sifted to separate the different parts
Bleached (sometimes) to reduce pH, whiten the flour, and change its baking characteristics
Enriched, to put back some of the nutrients that are lost throughout the process.
So why remove all this stuff anyway? As briefly addressed before, the wheat germ is removed because it contains fat, a lot of fat, around 10%. These fats and oils will eventually go rancid, and that shortens shelf life. So out it comes. That’s why wheat germ should be stored in the fridge. The bran portion is removed because it markedly interferes with the gluten formation in bread. Bran has fairly sharp edges, and it interferes with the formation of gas bubbles and pockets when yeast is fermenting. That’s why bran muffins and breads tend to be denser, rougher, and heavier.


What about all those different types of enriched flour – All Purpose, cake, bread, pastry, on and on…

Enriched Flour Types

All Purpose Flour, AP Flour (Italian ‘0’, German ‘550’, and French ’55’) – One cup of AP flour = 4.5 oz. (128 g) Average protein and gluten content. All Purpose flour is exactly that. It’s flour that can be used to make just about anything, from yeast breads to cookies, to pastries. It’s a good “jack of all trades, master of few” sort of flour. It’ll do just about anything, but it’s not really best for most things. Breads will not be as chewy, and cakes won’t be as tender using AP flour. It is made from hard wheat, or a combination of soft and hard wheat and is available bleached and unbleached. It differs from brand to brand. Of the major brands here’s an idea how they break down.

Name brand All Purpose flours:

King Arthur: 11.7 % protein

Hodgson Mill: 11.5-11.9 % protein

Gold Medal: 10.5 % protein

Pillsbury: 10.5 % protein

Bread Flour – One cup of bread flour = 4.8 oz. (136 g) Bread flour is high in protein and gluten content, generally produced from Hard Red Spring wheat. Gluten is key to good bread development. When water is added to bread flour and kneaded, gluten forms. That gluten encapsulates the gas pockets that form when yeast ferments. As bread bakes and those pockets expand, they take the gluten along with it, which is what gives a loaf of bread its nice shape.

Pastry Flour (also Italian ’00’, German ‘405’, and French ’45’) – One cup of pastry flour = 4.25 oz. (120 g) Pastry flower is a medium-protein flour and relatively low in gluten. It is comparable to cake flour, but contains less starch. It is milled from soft, low-gluten wheat. If you need pastry flour and find that you can’t get to the store, or don’t care that much, mixing two parts AP flour with one part cornstarch makes a decent approximation.

Cake Flour – One cup of cake flour = 3.9 oz. (111 g) Cake flour has the lowest protein and gluten content. It is generally bleached with chlorine, which, in addition to adjusting some of its properties, leaves the flour slightly acidic. Items made with cake flour tend to be a bit crumbly, because of the low protein content. Recipes calling for cake flour will not be happy with the substitution of AP flour. Cake flour should always be sifted into a recipe.

Bread Machine Flour – Generally high protein flours, however there is some deviation between manufacturers – enough that you should research the ingredients a bit to see what’s there. Some brands add malt powder, lecithin, and/or ascorbic acid to the mix to help its rising properties and enhance its reaction with yeast.

Self-Rising Flour – Self-rising flour is really just AP flour with baking powder and salt already added. You can make your own quite easily by adding 1 teaspoon baking powder and teaspoon of salt to every cup of flour. Easy as that. Used mainly in pancakes, biscuits, muffins, and quick breads.

Semolina Flour – 13% or more protein content. It’s made from durum, the hardest wheat grown; used to make pasta almost exclusively.


Flour Processes

What about all the other things you see written on bags – different processes and sub-types of flour? Glad you asked…

Enriching/Enriched/Fortified Flour – In the process of milling flour, a lot of the nutrients and vitamins are removed. Enriching (done to almost all flour on the market) is a process to reintroduce some of the lost nutrients. In general there are 22 nutrients and vitamins removed by the milling process. Enriching is therefore the process governed by the FDA which adds some of those nutrients back in. To be considered enriched, the process must add 2.9 milligrams of thiamin, 1.8 milligrams of riboflavin, 24 milligrams of niacin, 0.7 milligrams of folic acid (all B vitamins), and 20 milligrams of iron. Calcium may also be added, at a minimum of 960 milligrams per pound. This process started during World War II when food rationing was introduced, and was seen as a method of returning basic vitamins to people who were on a restricted diet. It’s much the same idea as iodized salt.

Bleaching – Bleaching is exactly like it sounds, though the process is a bit different than in your laundry. Chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide is introduced to the flour and the flour oxidizes. This makes the flour white, as one might imagine, but also “matures” the flour (generally aiding gluten formation), making it more adaptable to cake and cookie recipes. All of the bleaching agents react out of the flour – so there’s no need to be worried about anything weird being left behind.

Unbleached – Unbleached flour is actually bleached, sort of. It is exposed to air in an aging process, which does indeed oxidize the flour. It is not white, but generally off-white in appearance. It does not differ nutritionally from bleached flower.

Self-rising – Again, self-rising flour is just AP flour with an added 1 teaspoons baking powder and teaspoon salt added to each cup.

Bromated – Bromated flour includes a maturing agent. Like other maturing agents, the goal is to produce more gluten. Bromate is usually used; however phosphates, ascorbic acid, and malted barley may be substituted. It is this cook’s opinion that you should steer clear of bromated flours that use bromate as the reactive agent. Much of the modern world has banned its sale, as bromate is believed to be a carcinogenic agent. It is, however, still available in parts of the United States.


Whole Wheat Flour

This kind of excitement also exists in the whole wheat flour arena. Imagine that.

Traditional Whole Wheat or Wholemeal Flour – High protein content and above average gluten content. This is the stuff you think of when you think whole wheat. It makes a heavy, dense baked product.

Light, White Whole Wheat, or Unbleached Whole Wheat – High protein content and above average gluten content, made from hard white spring or winter wheat. This can usually replace almost any enriched white flour in most recipes, adjusting a bit for moisture content. It rises fairly well, and is what most “whole wheat” breads are made from.

Whole Wheat Pastry Flour – Low protein and gluten content. Mostly used for pastries, cakes, pie dough, cookies, and the like.

Graham Flour – Higher protein contents, around average gluten. This type of flour is what makes Graham crackers. It’s basically enriched flour, like AP flour, with the parts that were removed, added back after processing. The two parts are ground separately, the bran and germ are ground coarsely, and when added back in, give the flour its distinctive texture. Not widely available outside the United States.

Whole Wheat Semolina Flour – Made from durum wheat. This is commonly used to make whole wheat pastas.

Bolted Flour, also Reduced Bran Flour – This is whole wheat flour which has been bolted (or sifted) to remove as much as 80% of the bran.


Flour Storage

Flour is generally pretty easy to store. If you’re worried about weevils, freezing your flour for 48 hours in an airtight container before popping it on the shelf will kill anything alive inside that bag. Generally that’s only a concern if you’re storing flour for longer periods. For any sort of enriched flour, storage up to 8 months is fine on the shelf, up to a year if you freeze it. For whole wheat flour, 4 months on the shelf is a good rule (it contains fats that can go rancid if left there longer.) Whole wheat flour is good for about 8 months if stored in an airtight container in the freezer. If you decide to store in the fridge or freezer, make sure you have an absolutely airtight container. Flour can act like baking soda, attracting scents from the fridge or freezer that you won’t like in your baked goods.

Well that’s at least a start, hopefully getting us all a little better on point with what flour you should use, can use, and can’t use…maybe even why. If nothing else, if you haven’t nodded off into your coffee by the end of this, you’ve a better appreciation for what goes into that scone you eat every morning.



http://TopsyTasty.com is a site dedicated to exploring the world through culinary adventure. Author Steve Sullivan dives into family recipes, cherished cookbooks, and the communal wisdom of the internet to discover new and tantalizing sensations for the pallet. An accomplished cook in his own right, Steve has cooked for friends and family for years, as well as working in the restaurant industry. Coauthor Andrew Blume contributes in the kitchen, and has attended the Culinary Arts program at Johnson & Wales University. Together they seek to make recipes fun and accessible without any compromise to quality, flavor, or integrity. Everyone can afford the ingredients and develop the skills to make delicious food at home. All it takes is some time and interest in the craft.


Tea Party Girl Asks:  What type of flour do you use and when?