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What Is Cake Flour, All-Purpose Flour, Self-Rising Flour, and Bread Flour?

Author:

John D Lee is a chef and restauranteur living and working in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He's always loved to cook.

What kind of flour should you use?

What kind of flour should you use?

Which Type of Flour Is Right for Your Particular Baking Needs?

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that cake flour is good for cake, and bread flour is good for . . . wait for it . . . bread! But why? And why do some all-purpose flours seem to make great bread, and others make disappointing loaves? And what the heck is self-raising flour anyway?

The primary differences between different types of flour are:

  • The amount of wheat germ and bran that are milled with the flour.
  • The type of wheat used for the flour.
  • The relative protein content of the wheat.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is the strands of amino acid proteins that bind together in a bread dough after adding water. The higher the protein content, the more gluten can develop.

Mechanical mixing (kneading) creates longer and stronger chains of gluten. The reason that you spend so much time kneading when making bread dough is to create lots of these strong gluten chains, and if you under knead, your bread will generally fail to rise well.

These chains of gluten are important for bread, as they are what allow the dough to capture the created gasses during the cooking and leavening processes, and expand from dense to light. High gluten is not considered an asset when making pastries, pie crusts, or biscuits as the gluten can make these doughs tough and chewy.

Northern and Southern All-Purpose Flour

There is a difference between all-purpose flour from the southern climates, and that from more northern climates. Wheat grown in northern climates contain higher amounts of gluten. This can explain why an all-purpose flour bought in Wisconsin makes great bread, and an all-purpose flour bought in Alabama doesn't.

Whole-wheat flour is high in protein, but the protein from the germ and bran doesn't turn into gluten very well. As such, whole-wheat loaves of bread tend to be heavier, but more flavorful than white-flour loaves of bread. On the other hand, rye bread contains very little gluten, and as such rye bread is very dense.

So, if you are making bread, use a northern all-purpose, or bread flour, and if making pastry, use a southern all-purpose, cake or pastry flour. Always look for flour labeled unbleached, as it tastes better, and store whole-wheat flour in the fridge or freezer.

Whole-Wheat Flour

Whole-wheat flour is simply wheat that has been milled into flour with some, or all, of the germ and bran still attached.

Additionally, different varieties of wheat contain different amounts of protein. The more protein in the flour, the higher the amount of gluten it contains.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is a low gluten flour that has also been chemically altered slightly for better use in cake baking.

Self-Rising Flour

Self-rising flour is generally all-purpose flour that has had baking powder mixed in and does not require any additional baking powder to be added when making biscuits, pancakes, or muffins.

Protein Content by Percentage

The protein content of these types of flours are approximately:

  • Cake flour: 7–8% protein
  • Southern all-purpose flour: 7.5–9.5% protein
  • Northern all-purpose flour: 11–12% protein
  • Bread flour: 12–13% protein

What Flour Should You Use?

Don’t worry too much about it all though, as most of the time, using whatever flour you have on hand will work out just fine, and you should never not bake that apple pie just because you only have bread flour on hand. Bake those cookies, make that bread, and enjoy the aroma of home baking—it's always appreciated.

Comments

Heidi Theron on December 05, 2017:

I really enjoyed reading your article. It was detailed enough for me to sound clever when sharing the lesson with my friends, and straight forward enough for me to actually understand it myself.

I only have bread flour on my nut I'm desperate to bake cookies, so I shall go ahead as you have encouraged you readers to do :-)

Angela Gillon on October 31, 2017:

I’m out of all purpose flour. So can I substitute with cake flour?.

Teresa on March 12, 2016:

Is there any difference between South African and Canadian flour. A lot of my recipes that worked in SA don't work here. Any suggestions?

RY on June 05, 2014:

Can I use unbleached white whole wheat flour in a recipe that calls for unbleached flour?

Ezra on June 06, 2012:

What do you recommend for a pie crust that is gluten free?? THanks

Liz Cumbria England on May 19, 2012:

Hi just made a traditional banana bread using bread flour even though it states use plain .... it has worked and a good and flavour(Telegraph Cook Book 1984) texture added less sugar as we have a diabetic family member. Sometimes I make muffins could I use bread flour for this? Thanks.

Rickrodri on March 12, 2012:

John D, Thanks for all the great info! Here's yet another question for you. If all purpose flour already has baking powder in it and the recipe calls for 1 tsp more baking powder, and I would like to use cake flour for my cupcake recipe instead, in addition to the 1 tsp, how much more baking powder would I have to add to the cake flour? Thank you.

mrsgroom on February 22, 2012:

I need to make cinnamon rolls and only have bread flour do you think they will turn out ok? From what I have read seems like it will be ok. I do have a little all purpose flour I can mix in , but I dont have to mix.

Thanks for all the information.

Melissa on February 04, 2012:

I make all of our bread in my bread machine. Our food co-op carries organic all purpose and organic pastry flour but no bread flour so I've been using pastry flour. Should I use all-purpose or continue using the pastry flour and add gluten. If so, how much gluten should I add? Thanks!

Ekk on January 20, 2012:

very good and useful knowledge, thank you!

mark on January 16, 2012:

I am trying to clone KFC breading to get that light color with the thickness that it has can anyone help thanks..

Anthony on January 12, 2012:

I like to bake but had no idea about different floures. I wanted to know what type of flour should I use for pizza dough.

kim on January 05, 2012:

Can or should I use bread flour in my biscuits? I've always used AP flour in everything except for home made bread. I'm just wondering if I could improve my biscu.

tam on December 28, 2011:

i want to make a pund cake but its requiring cake flour, can i use all purpose flour instead?

Regine on December 19, 2011:

Just a comment regarding using all purpose and cake flour in cakes. I hate the strange after taste of cake flour. I have always and successfully use 3/4 cup all purpose flour plus 2 tbsp of cornstarch for every cup of cake flour. Try it. It leads superb results!

ml on December 12, 2011:

Cake flour or all purpose flour for red velvet cake which is better

NancyG on December 12, 2011:

I have a recipe for butter cookies that calls for bread flour - can I use all-purpose flour?

will on December 03, 2011:

can you use self raising flor instead of strong white bread flour?

Cindy on November 29, 2011:

I am making 4 banana breads, which willrequire 5 1/4 cups of all purpose flour. I only have 3 cups, but have cake and pastry flour. Can I mix the two flours. thanks in advance for advice

Stephon on November 17, 2011:

This is very good for kids who are in science fair.Fluffy pancakes are the best

Keola on October 11, 2011:

I have an odd question:

I have whole wheat flour, and some vital wheat gluten flour. I want to make banana bread.

If I have been understanding everything right, I can add 1 tblsp. of vital wheat gluten to the 2 cups of whole wheat flour I am using in the bread and that should make it lighter/fluffier and less heavy/dense?? Great useful hub, thanks so much!

Barbara on September 27, 2011:

Okay, I have a bread making machine and have been using bread flour for the machine to make my dough as well as other breads. I live in MN. So are you telling me I have been buying higher priced Bread Flour when I do not need to be??

Masuzyo on September 20, 2011:

So can self raising flour be used in cake making? i have a cake recipe that calls for the addition of bicarbonate of soda and i only have self raising flour in the house,and yogurt on hand to compliment the soda?....

HEATHER COETZER on September 15, 2011:

MAYBE COMMENTS ABOVE ME HAVE ANSWERED THE QUESTION TO THE USE AND BENEFITS OF CORN FLOWER IN COOKIES AND BISCUITS BUT THERE TOO MANY FOR ME TO READ THROUGH SO ILL SAY WHY I INSIST ON ADDING 1 1/2 TBS CORN FLOWER TO MY BISCUIT MIXTURE..... IT MAKES THEM DIVINELY "CRUNCHIER" TRY IT!!!!

Habibeh Alikhan on September 05, 2011:

cake flour for cakes has been disappointing, because these cakes seem too smooth in texture, I prefer all purpose flour. An old book that I still have is "The Desert Lover's Cookbook" by Marlene Sorosky.

All her cakes have turned out great and she only uses all purpose flour in her recipes. Whereas the cake recipes that I got off the Internet including from "Joy of Baking" Martha Stewart, or any other website those that use cake flour have been very disappointing

kenny chang on September 01, 2011:

hi john,

what are the different between cake.bread and pastry flour by seeing and touching them?

John D Lee (author) on August 31, 2011:

Kenny - flour grown and sold in the south tends to have lower gluten content than northern milled flours - hence southern cooking has evolved around things like biscuits, which work very well with lower gluten flours. This is why you need different amounts of water in recipes using northern or southern flours

kiki berg on August 31, 2011:

can any one tell me if one can buy unrefined wholegrains from the flower mills?

arham 4rm khewra pakistan on August 28, 2011:

can any one tell me that can we not use all purpose flour instead of cake flour?according to the recipe cake flour has to add but i have no cake flour cant i use all purpose flour in stead of cake flour ? please guide me

angel on August 24, 2011:

can i use bread flour to make pie crust or do i need to go to the store and buy all purpose flour?

Sam on August 22, 2011:

I have recipes that call for cake flour which is not available in the uk. Does anyone know what can I substitute it for?

AW on April 12, 2011:

I live in China where we only have high gluten and low gluten flour available. Which flour is best to make cookies? (sugar, peanut butter, chocolate chip, etc)

cheri on March 07, 2011:

thanks for this great and informative article!=)

eclecticeducation on February 21, 2011:

Thank you for this info!

Roxie on February 18, 2011:

Regarding the question about cornstarch and all purpose flour as a substitution for cake flour... It's is said that all purpose flour is equivelant to slightly less volume of flour than cake flour, app. 1 Tbsp. less per cup. So, some say add cornstarch in that amount (1 T to the all purpose flour to equal 1 cup total volume.) This is said to more closely resemble the density and other properties of cake flour. Can't vouch for it myself, I have yet to try it but will post back on my results!!

Kenny on February 10, 2011:

I just moved from the south to the northwest to start college. I found that alterations needed to be made to my mom's bread recipe for it to taste like she makes it. I have to add more water, and more yeast. I also get better bread by mixing 1 cup bread flour, and 1/2 cup all-purpose flour; everything has to be warm, and even the order the various ingredients are added. I'm happy to figure these things out, but why? Why would it make a difference from the warm, humid south, to the frigid northwest? Probably a stupid question, but I'm really curious...

Wendy on January 27, 2011:

I am amazed at the information provided here on your site, and even nore impressive is the amount of years you've been helping others so I firstly want to say thank you.

I'm making these wheat rolls

http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/soft_whole_wheat...

and used all purpose for the major portion of it, except for the 1/2 cup for kneading in. While the recipe says it will be sticky.... its very sticky. Is it possible to still have soft dinner rolls without using cake flour? I've noticed using wheat flour tends to make my loaves dry and I always use vital wheat gluten.

Im in a very experimental stage right now.

elle libby on January 24, 2011:

i have a recipe for monkey bread...one calls for bread flour and the other all purpose...which would be better?

DiItYourSelfer on January 18, 2011:

I live in South Africa. We only have 2 kinds of white flour here (other than Self-raising): Bread Flour and Cake Flour. I want to make American Biscuit Mix but the recipe calls for 8 cups of All-purpose Flour. Would it work if I used 5 cups (plus 1 tablespoon) of White Flour and 3 cups of Bread Flour?

eatlikenoone from Saline, MI on January 09, 2011:

Thanks for sharing with people the difference in flour types. It's so important to use that right flour for what you are trying to do. I just got some cake flour today to use in my fried fish batter. I want less protein, so less gluten and more crisp fish.

John D Lee (author) on December 28, 2010:

Furnace fighter - I'm not familiar with the brand, but i suspect that if you used any type of bread flour as a replacement, you'd do fine.

Mathis, corn starch would certainly lower the gluten content, but it might also change the taste somewhat. I'd try using cake flour.

mathis patterson on December 20, 2010:

what can you put in regular flour to turn it into soft flour i was told corn starch

Furnace Fighter on December 18, 2010:

What is the difference between bread flour and Best For Bread Flour Hodgson Mill. Have a bunch of recipes that call for Best for Bread flour, they have stopped selling this stuff, and the one place that does, wants a stiff price for a small bag. Read somewhere more gluten added and a small amount of rye flour?

Furnace Fighter on December 18, 2010:

What is the difference between bread flour and Best For Bread Flour Hodgson Mill. Have a bunch of recipes that call for Best for Bread flour, they have stopped selling this stuff, and the one place that does, wants a stiff price for a small bag. Read somewhere more gluten added and a small amount of rye flour?

Carol H. on December 14, 2010:

My daughter told me, she made two batches of cookies this weekend. She sent her husband to the store to buy some new flour. My daughter never looked at flour in its package. She just used the new flour in her cookie recipes. She said the cookies were wonderful all even in size and nice & chewy. Here she made her cookies with bread flour. She said her family loved her cookies.

Frieda on November 18, 2010:

Came across this site while looking for pastry flour ~ lots of good information! Perhaps I could help answer a couple of the more recent questions:

@N. Anderson ~ I have found that adding Vital Wheat Gluten (1 T. per 3 c. flour) has increased the shelf life of my bread by a few days. Others swear by crushing vitamin C tablets and adding it to their breads, which I haven't tried. The bread around here gets eaten up quickly!

@Bredy girl ~ milk is used as a tenderizer in breads. An example is using milk in dinner rolls, creating a more tender, lighter crumb texture.

@Mademarion ~ All purpose flour comes from a blend of ground soft wheat and hard wheat. The ratio varies from region to region. If you sift your freshly ground hard/soft white wheat through a fine sieve, you will remove the bran which makes bread dough dense.

mademarion on November 07, 2010:

I have a grain grinder and make my own whole wheat flour, is there any way I can make all-purpose flour?

tracy on November 06, 2010:

I was wondering what is the difference between southern pastry and plain pastry?

bredy girl on October 18, 2010:

why do the french put milk in there bread?

N. Anderson on October 16, 2010:

My husband works with a guy whose girlfriend bakes cinnamon rolls and bread. She has experimented for years, and finally found a way to keep her fresh baked rolls and bread fresh as just baked, for days. She refuses to share her secret with anyone. Those of us who bake bread and rolls would love to know how this can be done. Does anyone have a clue what the secret to baking rolls and bread that stay fresh for days might be?

John D Lee (author) on October 14, 2010:

Abby - corn flour has no gluten, so it won't react the same way in many recipes as any kind of wheat flour.

komal on October 13, 2010:

h i john i like your hub .....it's really very informative for me... thanks john.

abby on October 11, 2010:

in a recipe, can u substitute corn flour with all purpose flour?

John D Lee (author) on October 11, 2010:

Caitlin, you can use bread flour, but use just a little bit less than you would all purpose. Because of the extra gluten, the cookies made with bread flour might be a little bit tougher.

v_kahleranderson from San Jose, California on October 04, 2010:

I came across your hub by accident, and I am very glad I did. You offer a load of wonderful information here.

Caitlin Tanaka on September 29, 2010:

can i use bread plain flour to bake cookies?

John D Lee (author) on September 23, 2010:

Hi Sammy, you could definitely get away with all purpose as a sub for the pastry. Not sure if other grain brans would substitute as well for the wheat bran...

Sammy on September 22, 2010:

Recipe calls for wheat pastry flour and wheat bran for the carrot cake. Can I substitute with any other flour?

Thanks.

John D Lee (author) on September 12, 2010:

Hi Sam,

The kind of flour that's best kind of depends on what you plan on baking.

Sam Rao on August 03, 2010:

Hey John, iv been eating whole wheat for a while but recently learned that the high gluten content of that isn't very beneficial. So, im thinking of switching to "Organic Pastry Flour" , thats a good choice right?

John D Lee (author) on July 30, 2010:

Hi Brad,

More kneading will improve things up to a point (it's hard to overknead if doing it by hand) but the cake flour just lacks the gluten you'll need to get a robust rise.

Brad on July 30, 2010:

Hi John,

great info I have cake flour and want to bake bread, can i knead the dough longer for a better bread

thank you.

John D Lee (author) on July 25, 2010:

Roxana, yes, you can add mix very high gluten flours with lower gluten flours to get a stronger 'bread' flour.

John D Lee (author) on July 25, 2010:

Hi Aimee,

flour that is opened and left for a long time in storage can attract insects. They are very small, but still...not what you want! If you are keeping flour for a while, just be sure to store it in something airtight or in the freezer and you will be fine!

Roxana on July 18, 2010:

Hi John!

Thank you for the very interesting article! I have a question: I live in Canada where we use "all-purpose" flour for most bread/cake recipes and they turn out great, but a friend of mine who lives in Slokavia and bakes goods from various European recipes needs "Manitoba flour" for an Italian panettone recipe that calls for this particular kind of flour. Up until now, I've never heard of "Manitoba flour", so I did some research and I understand that, for the Italians, "Manitoba flour" is flour with a higher gluten content (maybe like the "all purpose" that is found in Canada, therefore the name "Manitoba flour"?). Is it correct? And if so, can my friend obtain a high-gluten content flour simply by mixing very small amounts of "gluten flour" (which is also available here, in Canada) with the flour that is available to her in Slovakia?

Thank you!

aimee on June 18, 2010:

In answer to a previous post, you mentioned storing flour in the freezer to kill any bugs and/or eggs. Is that a common problem with flour and does that go for all types of flour? Those are certainly not the kind of eggs I want in my baked goods! ;)

Steve on May 11, 2010:

Can I turn soft red wheat into bread flour by adding gluten?

simran on May 03, 2010:

In India we do not get self raising flour can you please suggest how can i substitute it with normal plain all purpose flour or a refined kind of cake flour

John D Lee (author) on March 15, 2010:

All purpose flour will work fine, the waffles may just have a slight bit more chew to them than those made with cake flour.

ardsahalm on March 13, 2010:

a waffle recipe calls for cake flour, but if i use all purpose flour will it make a difference?

John D Lee (author) on March 02, 2010:

Hi Laurence,

Yes that would work out - although most all purpose flours will also work OK for bread.

Laurence on February 26, 2010:

I want to make bread but where I live they don't have bread flour. Can I use all purpose flour and add some Vital gluten so as to get the result of the bread flour?

John D Lee (author) on February 17, 2010:

John, Of the three you mention, plain flour sounds like your best bet.

JOHN on February 17, 2010:

I live in an area where all purpose flour is not available. What is best alternative for making pita? We can get cake flour,plain flour and self raising flour.

John D Lee (author) on February 09, 2010:

Hi Kathryn,

I am sorry to be of little help, but grinding wheat is beyond my area of expertise!

Kathryn on February 04, 2010:

So glad I found your site you have excellent advice! I grind my own wheat. I use a hard red and a soft white. I usually buy my wheat berries from Wheat Montana. My question is can I grind my own bread flour? I have different settings from pastry to regular. Any thoughts?

John D Lee (author) on February 02, 2010:

HI Avatart,

Whole wheat and rye breads tend to be denser - adding vital wheat gluten to the dough will increase the strength of the gluten in the dough and will promote a better rise and a lighter bread.

I am less of an expert on using whole wheat flour in pastries, but since many pastries benefit from lower gluten (pie crusts, for example) adding wheat gluten to such doughs may have a negative effect.

Best of luck!

John

avatart on February 02, 2010:

Hi John, I am new to baking. I am trying to make tasty treats that are more healthful for my family. I am wondering if adding wheat gluten to 100 % whole wheat flour will give me better results when baking whole wheat breads and pastries. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.

ezy on December 26, 2009:

Thanks John for the info. I'm from Labuan Island, Malaysia and we don't have many choices of flour here. So, it's really helpful to know the substitute for certain flour. Love your hub.

C on November 18, 2009:

Thanks for so much insightful information. I will be on my way to my baking exploration. :)

John D Lee (author) on October 29, 2009:

Hi CayC,

Go ahead and use the all purpose flour for your cookies instead of the cake flour - you'll be fine!

CayC on October 29, 2009:

Hello, I was wondering... I am wanting to make some Shrewsbury Drops (a type of cookie) and it calls for 1 1/4 cups of cake flour, but I unfortunately do not have any cake flour. I have stocked up on white (unbleached) all purpose flour though and was wondering how much of it to use, or if I even can use it in these cookies? Any info would help. I am just learning how to make homemade cookies (newlywed) and would love any help anyone could offer!

Thanks! CayC

John D Lee (author) on October 24, 2009:

Hi Cherrille,

Bread flour can mold, especially if exposed to moisture, but in general the shelf life of refined white flours is long. You should be alright, although you should definitely discard if you see any evidence of mold. The flour may well taste a bit stale, however.

Cherrille McLean on October 24, 2009:

I have a bag of bread flour that was packed two years ago but not old in my house, bought just maybe two months ago. I am wondering what constitutes "old" before you have to worry about mold?

John D Lee (author) on October 24, 2009:

Hi rmcrayne,

Thanks for the compliment, and you are very welcome to link to this hub!

rmcrayne from San Antonio Texas on October 21, 2009:

You write really well. Glad I stumbled on you here. I'd like to link this hub to one of my cake recipe hubs. Would that be okay?

lebohang phetla on October 14, 2009:

i think cake flour can be used also to bake bread

John D Lee (author) on September 17, 2009:

Hi Nancey,

All purpose is a flour that performs up to its name - it will work fine for most tasks and I am sure it will make lovely cakes. You will be fine.

Next time, if possible, you might want to seek out unbleached flour though. It's a small point, but you don't really need whiter than white flour and you don't need bleaching agents in your flour either!

Nancy Spivey on September 16, 2009:

My husband brought me home a 25 lb bag of Enriched and Bleached All-Purpose H&R Flour for me to make cakes with. Will this work and is there any advice for making sure it turns out great.

John D Lee (author) on September 11, 2009:

If the recipe doesn't indicate cake flour - I'd probably go with all purpose.

Joan Jackson on September 11, 2009:

I found a recipe for a butter pound cake, but it didn't say what kind of flour. It just said 2 c. of flour. Do you know if i can use cake or all purpose flour?

John D Lee (author) on September 06, 2009:

Hi Davis,

Good luck with your flour mix - let us know how it turns out for you!

Davis Freeberg on September 04, 2009:

Great article, it was very informative. I had no idea that gluten could be so interesting. I especially liked how you ended it on an encouraging note. I wasn't going to bake my cake until I read that. Now I am going to try half all-purpose and use bread flour for the rest. We'll see how it turns out.

grace on July 27, 2009:

Why cake flour and bread flour are mixed in some recipes like brownies? thanks

John D Lee (author) on July 17, 2009:

Hi Kathryn,

try cake flour, it should give you a more spongy texture

Kathryn on July 16, 2009:

I have a great banana bread recipe and am looking for a spongy texture vs bread-like. I used an all purpose flour and got the bread like texture. Any thoughts?

Thanks

celticpride01 on June 29, 2009:

Excellent article but, I have a slightly different problem then knowing the difference between them. I noticed a number of people suggested reading the bag.

What if you no longer have the bags? I put my different types of flours (self-rising,all purpose,bread,bread machine) in unmarked containers! Long story but it goes without saying it was not intentional.

Now i have four containers of flour and no idea which is which.

I read somewhere there's a way to tell the difference. I think it involved adding a specific amounts of water/ flour together and observing the reaction/results.

Sound familiar to anyone? Any other ideas?

All help greatly appreciated.

John D Lee (author) on June 13, 2009:

Hi Novi,

The what flour you bought very likely is all purpose flour - feel free to use it, it should be fine. Best of luck!

Novi on June 13, 2009:

Hi,

is it possible to substitute all purpose flour to wheat flour (says it's for cake and bread) when making brownies? i went to the market to day, and all purpose flour is out of stock, and i just bought the wheat flour one..>,< (the recipe use all purpose)..

thx!! ^^

Vivian on May 11, 2009:

I would like to make some really crunchy choc chip cookies that does not spread too much and makes it too thin. Does any one knows what's the best best type of flour to use (cake, all purpose or self raising) or the combination of the flours that can product this result? Thank you.