What’s the difference between types of flour?

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There are several types of flour on the market, and you may have wondered what cake flour is, or what’s the difference between bread flour and AP flour.  The difference between most flours is protein content.  Often, but not always, the higher protein content a flour has, the more potential gluten can be produced.  Lower protein flours tend to be better suited to soft applications, while higher protein flowers tend to be better for breads.

Here are the different wheat flours presented in order of protein content (least to most), followed by information on more unusual flour varieties & wheat alternative flours:

Weak Flours (Least Protein):
Cake Flour:  With a 7-8% protein content, cake flour will produce a soft & fluffy finished product.  It is most often used to make soft sponge cakes and biscuits.  Cake flour is most often sold in boxes in grocery stores.
Pastry Flour: a 8-9% protein content gives pastry flour slightly more chew and body than cake flour, making it ideal for soft pastries like croissants and danishes.  Pastry flour can be extremely difficult for consumers to find, so most home recipes use AP flour instead…but professional pastry chefs know that using real pastry flour will give you a better result.

Medium Flours:
All Purpose Flour: AP Flour is the basic flour most commonly used by home chefs.  Its protein content is generally between 9.5-11.5% so while it’s a little too robust for perfect pastry and cakes and a little too weak for most breads, it will do most jobs tolerably well and is easy to find.  Professional bakers occasionally use AP flour for applications where they want to bridge the gap between soft and hard flours (for example: sticky buns and cinnamon rolls) but usually they use a specialty flour instead.

Hard Flours aka Strong Flours (Most Protein):
Bread Flour:
Bread flour tends to have a protein content between 11 and 13%, allowing lots of gluten to be easily produced during the kneading process.  The higher gluten content gives the finished product a nice chewiness and a strong matrix to hold yeast bubbles (better rising).  Besides loaf bread, bread flour is also used in many flat breads and makes great pizza dough.  Depending on the brand, Bread Machine Flour can be simply bread flour by another name, or have an even higher protein content.
Durum Flour: Durum wheat produces a super high protein content flour (12-15%) that is preferred for making homemade pasta where a prounounced chewy texture is desired (some chefs use 100% durum for their pasta, some use a 50-50 durum/plain flour blend).  Semolina Flour is coarse ground durum flour.

Wheat Flour Variations:
Whole Wheat Flour:
Most flour is only milled from endosperm portion of the wheat berry, for a softer, longer lasting result.  Whole wheat flour is ground from whole wheat berries, including the endosperm, high-fiber bran, and fat-containing germ.  Including the bran gives the resulting flour a tougher texture, darker color, and more nutrients.  Because the germ’s fat can go rancid, whole wheat flour will spoil faster than plain wheat flour and should be kept in a cool, dry place.  The protein content of whole wheat flour can vary just as widely as other varieties, but is often between 11-14% making it a better choice for breads & pastas.
Unbleached Flour: Most flour has been bleached using chlorine and/or other chemicals to turn its natural yellow-brown color to white.  Unbleached flour has not, making it a good choice for people uneasy about having extra chemicals in their baked goods.
Self Rising Flour: Has baking powder added to it.  Because baking powder is already included as a rising agent, you should only use this flour in recipes that call for it (or be very careful converting)…otherwise you’ll likely end up with too many/too much rising agents and have a big mess on your hands.

Wheat-Alternative Flours:
Emmer Flour (aka Farro Flour)
: Emmer is an heirloom grain (heritage grain) that is a precursor to modern wheat.  It contains more  fiber and protein than conventional wheat, but less gluten.  While it can be used in bread making, it can be tricky to bake loaf bread with it (using it as a rye replacement in a rye bread recipe is a good place to start).  It is more commonly used in flat breads (it makes fabulous pizza crust), biscotti, and pasta. 

As a high root volume grain, it has been shown to draw higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidents out of the soil than conventional wheat.  Some people with wheat allergies tolerate it better, but it is still not recommended for gluten-intolerant people.

Spelt Flour: Spelt (another heirloom grain that is commonly labeled as Farro) is another high root volume grain (more antioxidants, minerals and vitamins), that also appears to be better tolerated by people with wheat allergies (possibly due to differently formed gliadin proteins), but is not recommended for people who are gluten intolerant.  In particular, it is much higher in zinc (believed to be very important to a strong immune system) than conventional wheat.  Spelt also offers a more even release of energy over time (as measured on the glycemic index) than wheat.

Spelt can be used in bread making as a wheat substitute.  We recommend using 25% less water than the wheat bread recipe calls for, and keeping mixing (kneading) times under 4 minutes.  Because of its different gluten/gliadin structure, after the four minute mark spelt doughs can loose their rising structure.

We also sell organic whole emmer berries and organic whole spelt berries for bakers looking to grind their own flour from scratch.  Because both of these grains are harder than wheat (Emmer particularly so), expect a finer grind consistency in your resulting flour.

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