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

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.

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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.

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