Baking makes me happy. Baking from scratch is absolutely the most rewarding thing that I do in my kitchen. It takes little more effort to bake from scratch than it does to use a boxed mix, but there is no comparison when it comes to flavor—from scratch wins every time. I bake so often that I am often faced with a surplus of baked goods, leaving me no alternative but to share with anyone who will accept my offerings. Well, I guess there is another alternative, but it involves me inhaling baked goods as if they were oxygen, but I have enough jiggles from birthing four babies that I don’t care to add to the collection. Besides, no amount of sprinkle-coated-gluttony is as satisfying as the smiles that my gifted treats elicit from my friends and family. For as much as I love to cook by instinct (throw stuff together and hope for the best), doing so when baking would be disastrous. Baking requires much more precision. Becoming a good baker is as simple as using fresh, quality ingredients, and consistently measuring those ingredients. Perhaps the most important ingredient to a proper baked good is the choice of flour. Choosing flour seems like a simple task, but with so many different brands and types of flour on the market, a trip down the baking aisle can get overwhelming in a hurry. I’d like to take a little of the intimidation out of the flour selection process by explaining a little about wheat, the differences between common flours used in baking, and what substitutions can be made (if any). Bear in mind that I am focusing on wheat-based flours that I regularly use, and not gluten free or other whole grain flours. (Those will be the subject of a later Food Dork Fridays post.) Note: I use King Arthur Brand flours almost exclusively for all of my baking applications. I find that King Arthur products have the best flavor and yield the most consistent results. The kind folks at King Arthur have not compensated or encouraged me to make that statement. I just love their products.
~What’s the deal with wheat?~
Tens of thousands of varieties of wheat are in existence today, but all wheat is classified by a combination of primary characteristics: winter or spring, hard or soft, red or white. The characteristics of the wheat play a key role in how particular flours will behave. Commercially milled flours are classified by protein and gluten content, stemming from their various combinations of wheat characteristics:
- Gluten is the elastic protein that forms invisible sheets in dough that give a baked good structural support. Gluten strands trap carbon dioxide produced by the leavening agents in a recipe, causing the baked goods to rise. No Gluten = No Rise = Flat Baked Goods. The more gluten, the more support baked goods will have; the more support, the firmer the texture. The higher the protein content of the flour, the more gluten that will be able to develop in the baked goods, and the more stable the structure will be.
- Winter or spring simply refers to the time at which the wheat is grown.
- Hard wheat is high in protein, which means it produces more gluten that soft wheat.
- Soft wheat is higher in carbohydrates than hard wheat, therefore less gluten forming ability.
- Red wheat gets its name from the color of the wheat bran (a.k.a. the outer shell of the wheat kernel). Hard wheats are most often red, although hard white wheat is also available. White wheats have less pigment in the bran.
Milling and processing characteristics vary according to the producer of the flour, and will affect the flavor and behavior of the flours in baking. Other factors that contribute to taste and behavior of flours in baked goods are processing, bleaching, and enriching.
~Which flour to choose and what’s the difference?~
All-Purpose Flour: The workhorse of the home baker’s kitchen is typically made from a combination of hard red winter wheat, and soft red winter wheat that is stripped of the germ and bran, milled solely from the endosperm which gives it a lighter color and texture after processing. All-purpose flour has a medium protein content between 10 to 12 percent, depending on brand, and a creamy, powder-like texture. All-purpose flour is named such for its versatility in baking applications, and can be substituted for most any flour in a recipe.
It is important to note that not all all-purpose flours are created equal. Protein content can vary by a percent point or two, depending on the brand. That may not sound like much, but in the baking world, a percentage point can make a difference in the density of finished product. The protein content of the top 4 brands of all-purpose flour (in order of highest protein):
- King Arthur 11.7%
- Hodgeson Mill 11.0%
- Gold Medal 10.5%
- Pillsbury 10.5%
Substitutions: Up to half of the all-purpose flour can be substituted with white whole-wheat flour in a recipe with similar results. Storage: Store all-purpose flour in an airtight container in the pantry, and use it within 6 to 8 months. If you live in a humid climate or won’t use the flour within a few of months, store the airtight container in the freezer. When freezing flour, measure the amount of flour required for a recipe, and then allow it to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before mixing.
Whole-Wheat Flour: Made from grinding the entire wheat berry, whole-wheat flour is higher in nutrients and fiber than other flours. With its dense, grainy texture, whole-wheat flour has a stronger, nuttier flavor than other flours and results in a densely textured baked good. Whole-wheat flour has a medium-low protein content, so it is often mixed with other flours to temper the flavor and provide more structure to the finished product.
Whole-wheat flour comes in many forms:
- Graham flour is a coarsely ground whole-wheat, used for bread and crackers.
- Traditional (hard) whole-wheat flour is the standard grind, used primarily for bread.
- Whole-wheat pastry flour is an extra finely ground whole-wheat for lighter textured goods.
- White whole-wheat flour is soft whole wheat flour that is both lighter in color and texture than traditional whole-wheat. WWW can be substituted for up to half of the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe with good results. White whole-white is also a good “starter” flour for transitioning to whole grains in baking due to its mild flavor.
Substitutions: Up to half of the whole-wheat flour in a recipe can be substituted with all-purpose flour with good results. If you are substituting all-purpose flour for the entire amount of whole-wheat called for in a recipe, you may have to decrease the amount of chemical leaveners added, as white flour rises more than whole-wheat, so less leavening may be needed. Storage: Whole-wheat flour doesn’t store as well as all-purpose flour because it included the perishable germ of the wheat berry. Over time, the germ will turn rancid, so whole-wheat flour must be used quickly or frozen. Store whole-wheat flour in an airtight container in the pantry for no more than one month, or freeze it for longer storage.
Bread Flour: Used most often in bread and pizza dough recipes, bread flour is high in protein, and made exclusively from hard winter wheat. Bread flour may also be labeled “made for bread machines.” With 12 percent protein content, bread flour ensures strong gluten development, resulting in chewy texture and crisper crust than found with all-purpose flour. The increased gluten development also gives more structure to the finished product, making it more forgiving in yeasted applications. Bread flour feels heavier than all-purpose flour, and is almost gummy to the touch due to the high protein content.
Substitutions: All-purpose flour may be substituted for bread flour, but texture and “chew” will be compromised. Storage: Store bread flour in an airtight container in the pantry for up to 6 months. If you live in a humid climate or won’t use the flour in a couple of months, store the airtight container in the freezer.
Cake Flour: The lowest protein flour available, at about 6 to 8 percent. With the lightest color and texture of all flours, cake flour’s velvety texture yields lighter, fluffier baked goods with a more tender crumb as compared to any other flours.
Substitutions: Lower protein all-purpose flours can be substituted for cake flour with a only slight change in texture. Better yet, for each cup of cake flour called for in a recipe, measure a cup of all-purpose flour, remove 2 tablespoons of the flour, and exchange it with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift the flour and cornstarch together before using. Storage: Store cake flour in an airtight container in the pantry, and use it within 6 months. If you live in a humid climate or won’t use the flour within a few of months, store the airtight container in the freezer.
Pastry Flour: Finely ground soft wheat flour with a protein content somewhere in between all-purpose and cake flours. Pastry flour is best for cookies, cakes, brownies, biscuits, or pie crusts. I rarely use pastry flour, and opt instead for all-purpose, white whole wheat, or a combination of the two. Substitutions: A combination of ¾ cup of all-purpose flour + ¼ cup of cake flour can be sifted and substituted for 1 cup of pastry flour. In my experience, all-purpose flour can also be used in place of pastry flour with little change to the finished product. Storage: Store pastry flour in an airtight container in the pantry, and use it within 6 months. If you live in a humid climate or won’t use the flour within a few of months, store the airtight container in the freezer.
Self-Rising Flour: All-purpose flour with the chemical leavening agents already added. If you see a recipe calling for self rising flour, RUN! I do not recommend the use of self-rising flour because due to settling, humidity, and a myriad of other reasons, self-rising flour is incredibly inconsistent. Substitutions: For each cup of self-rising flour called for in a recipe, 1 cup of all-purpose flour + 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder + ¼ teaspoon of salt can be sifted together and substituted. Storage: If you must, store self-rising flour in an air-tight container as you would other flours.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes using these types of flour:
Whole Wheat English Muffin Bread is easy, abundant, and delicious. Baking up a batch is about as easy as falling off a log. Buttery Shortbread cookies cradling fresh blueberries. You can’t beat that with a stick. My favorite bread on the planet is Braided Cardamom Bread. Try it and it will quickly come to the top of your list, too.
My absolute favorite cake to bake and take to parties is Black Forest Cake. Rich chocolate cake with creamy white chocolate buttercream, tart cherry filling, encircled in Hershey’s Hugs–it’s a real show-stopper.
Multigrain Bread by Megan/Country Cleaver is by far the tastiest bread for a myriad of applications–toast, panini, sandwiches–the possiblities are endless.
Whole Wheat Maple Bacon Waffles put in a spring in your step to start the day.