The funniest thing happened this week: I received over a dozen emails in the course of a few days (and many before that) asking me about cake flour–what it really is, if there are any substitutions, what flour I use, and more. So, even though I have a pretty delectable cake waiting to be
eaten photographed, I thought now would be a good time to shed some light on flour in general, or at least some of the more common baking flours that you will come across on my blog. Since flour is likely the most commonly used ingredient in baking and flour mishaps (too much, using the wrong type, etc) are more common than one could even imagine, the topic is too important to neglect. I won’t be getting highly scientific, but I would love to share what I know in hopes to answer some of the more frequently asked flour questions I receive. Since there is a lot to this topic, this post will likely be the first of many parts, but, for now, let’s get to it and talk flour:
What the heck is flour?
Simply put, flour is a powder made from finely grounded and sifted meal of different grains, nuts and more, with the most common being wheat. Flour is an important ingredient in baking, as it provides the structure and volume we need for successful baked goods; absorbs the liquid ingredients we add to a recipe; and adds flavour, nutrients and some colour to our baked goods. There are several dozen types of flour out there, but the most widely used is wheat flour.
What are the most commonly used flours in baking?
When reading different baking recipes, you will most often come across these types of flour (they are also the variations you will typically find here on my blog):
- All-Purpose Flour
- Cake Flour or Cake & Pastry Flour
- Bread Flour
- Self-Rising Flour
What are the main differences between these types of flour?
Different flours contain varying quantities of protein and gluten (typically, the more protein the flour has, the more gluten it has), which aide in giving baked goods elasticity and volume. So, the higher the protein content, the harder the flour (and ideal for breads and such), and the lower the protein content, the softer the flour (best for certain cakes and cookies).
When talking flour, we refer to the protein content in percentage, with cake flour having the lowest % of protein, bread flour having the highest % of protein (from the types mentioned above), and all-purpose sitting in between. This is because, typically we want more elasticity, or “chewiness” in things like bread and rolls and the least in our cakes and pastries, as we want those to be tender and more delicate. All-purpose flour (as the name suggests) is suitable for a broader range of baked goods such as some breads, cookies, bars, some cakes, etc. with protein levels that are in between cake and bread flour. Just to confuse us all, you’ll notice that Canadian flour protein is higher than in American flour, yet our flour still bakes up light and fluffy baked goods. I hope to solve that mystery at some point, but for now, here’s what I know about each type:
- A soft wheat flour also referred to (in Canada) as Cake & Pastry Flour (there is also “Pastry Flour”, which is different)
- Not as readily available (such as in the UK, Australia)
- Protein content usually between 6.5-8% in the U.S. and 8-10% in Canada
- It is typically bleached to heighten baking performance and to lighten its natural ivory tone, which helps create a desirable white cake or biscuit
- Ideal for high-ratio cake recipes (where there is more sugar and liquid than flour in a recipe)–the chlorinated cake flour helps absorb the additional liquid ingredients that would, without the chlorination, be too much for such a low protein flour to absorb, but that are necessary for a moist and tender cake using so much sugar
- Gives baked goods a tender crumble and minimal stretch
- Also referred to as “flour” or “plain flour”
- Most often a blend of both hard and soft wheat flours (in Canada about 80% hard, 20% soft)
- Protein content usually between 9-12% in the U.S. and 13.3% in Canada
- Most commonly used and readily available flour for baking
- Available in bleached and unbleached form (and are interchangeable, however bleached will have slightly lower protein %)
- Ideal for many cakes, cookies, muffins, biscuits and more (with such high protein content in Canadian all-purpose flour it’s even suitable for bread)
- Also referred to as “strong” flour
- Made from hard wheat
- Used for baked goods that require strong gluten formation and good rise
- Protein content typically 11-12.7% in the U.S. and 12.5-14+% in Canada
- Available in white, whole wheat, organic, specific for bread machine baking and more
- Available in bleached and unbleached form
- Ideal for breads of all kinds, pizza and more
- Also referred to as “self-raising flour”
- Two types: self-rising flour and self-rising cake flour
- Cake or all-purpose flour that has baking powder and salt added and premixed for baker’s convenience
- Not as readily available (many countries don’t have access to this)
- Self-rising cake flour typically made up of 1 cup cake flour + 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder + 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Self-rising flour typically made up of 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Ideal for muffins, scones and more, but I tend to avoid using it whenever possible–it’s hard to find and I like to control the salt and baking powder in recipes
Ooh, flour protein content? How fun! How can I determine the protein content of the flour I buy?
The easiest way to do this is to refer to the nutritional label on the bag of flour, or on the flour company’s website. Take the protein in grams and divide it into the serving size on the label, and you have your flour’s protein content in %. You’ll see below that the protein on this Robin Hood All-Purpose Flour is listed as 4 grams per 30 gram serving. 4 / 30 = 13.3%, but it is said that companies are able to round up on their labels, so it’s likely that the more accurate protein % is slightly less.
But I don’t want to stock up on 4 types of flour–are they interchangeable in a recipe?
I definitely don’t recommend switching up the flour type that is called for in a recipe, as you will likely be disappointed with the result (think tough cake or crumbly cookies). The only substitution I would feel comfortable making would be using all-purpose flour in place of bread flour, if necessary, but not vice-versa. See, all-purpose flour (particulary Canadian high protein all-purpose flour that has even more protein than some American bread flour) has enough protein to work just fine in some bread-type recipes, but the results may not be as ideal as if you used the called-for bread flour. However, if you used bread flour (which, again, has the most protein) in place of all-purpose flour for, say, a cookie recipe, then you may end up with a very unpleasing and chewy cookie. The good news, though, is that there are a few ways you can make some flour substitutions in a pinch:
- To make your own cake flour — for every needed cup of cake flour, measure 1 cup of bleached all-purpose flour and remove 2 tablespoons from that cup (some bakers prefer to replace those 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour with 2 tablespoons cornstarch, but I choose not to), so 1 cup bleached all-purpose flour minus 2 tablespoons = 1 cup of cake flour
- To make your own self-rising cake flour (as mentioned above) – mix together 1 cup cake flour + 1 1/2 teaspoon + baking powder + 1/2 teaspoon salt for every cup needed (source: here)
- To make your own self-rising flour — mix together 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/2 teaspoon salt for every cup needed (source: here)
What is the best way to measure flour needed for a recipe?
Well, you probably know what I’m going to say, right? Measuring by weight is by far my first choice, and I think weighing flour is possibly the most important of all ingredients. It’s not always possible, though, if you’re following a recipe that is only written by volume (although you can always convert to weight), or if you don’t have a digital scale. So when weighing your flour isn’t an option, I recommend the “spoon-and-sweep” method of measuring (below). Because flour naturally compacts in the bag or canister, it is so important that you don’t just scoop it up from its compact form and measure it that way–a recipe made with even a hint too much flour can be tough or even fail.
Spoon-and-sweep method: Start by aerating the flour in your canister or bag by moving a knife around and loosening it up a bit. Then, using a spoon or scoop, place spoonfuls of flour into your measuring cup, until it’s overfull, then level it using your finger or the back of a knife. *Never give in to the urge to pack it in or tap it down. For a photo-look at this method, my talented friend, Annalise, has covered this on her blog in the past (here).
Do I really need to sift my flour?
When I weigh flour for a recipe (which is 99.9% of the time), I don’t sift my all-purpose flour (unless the recipe says specifically to sift), but I do sift my cake flour. This is mostly because the soft texture of cake flour tends to clump up. I do, though, always aerate my flour, regardless of type, by whisking for a few moments (usually with other dry ingredients) before incorporating it into any wet ingredients (either with a fork or whisk). Since I am a big fan of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s (baker supreme and author of The Cake Bible, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes and more) reverse creaming method (starting with the dry ingredients in the mixer), I simply run the dry ingredients in the mixer for about 20-30 seconds before I add any of the other ingredients.
As Rose explains, if a recipe calls for “1 cup cake flour, sifted” then you would measure your cup of cake flour, and then you would sift it. If a recipe calls for “1 cup of sifted cake flour,” then you would set your cup (cup for dry measure) on your counter and sift the cake flour into your measuring cup until it mounds over, then level it off with knife.
How much does flour weigh?
Every type of flour has a different structure and, therefore different weight. The truth is, you will likely find many different numbers out there if you google search flour weights, but here is what I go by, after measuring and weighing each type on my scale. Note that my cup weights (before sifting) are after using the above spoon-and-sweep method for filling my cup. *Note: When I dipped the measuring cup straight into the compacted flour, leveled it off and weighed it, I ended up with about 15% more flour than I when used the proper spoon-and-sweep method, so imagine how that can affect your baked goods, and not for the better (dry cake, anyone?).
*Note: I use a US cup of 237 mL
1 cup = 125 grams (4.5 ounces)
1 cup sifted = 115 grams (4 ounces)
1 cup = 115 grams (4 ounces)
1 cup sifted = 100 grams (3.5 ounces)
1 cup = 130 grams (4.5 ounces)
1 cup sifted = 121 grams (4.25 ounces)
What is the best way to store flour?
All of the flours listed should keep well tightly closed in a cool, dry place (such as a pantry) for, ideally, no more than 6-8 months. If kept in the refrigerator, you can extend the shelf life to 12 months. You can even store flour in an airtight container in the freezer for 12+ months, however, due to the baking powder in self-rising flour, I would likely try to use that before 6-8 months, to ensure that the baking powder doesn’t lose its leavening power (again, another reason to avoid self-rising flour–just sayin’).
Fascinating Flour Tidbits:
- The word “flour” is originally a variant of the word “flower,” with both words stemming from the French word “fleur” (source).
- Flour dust extended in the air is explosive (there have been many flour mill explosions, including the infamous Washburn “A” Mill explosion of 1878).
- Wheat grown by western Canadian farmers is prized throughout the world and bought by more than 70 countries. In fact, the Canadian Prairies are known as the breadbasket of the world (source).
- Wheat grown on the Canadian Prairies is used to make doughnuts in Japan, pasta in Italy, bread in Mexico and noodles in China (source)
- Canadian flours have higher protein content, across the board, than those in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean all of our baked goods are tougher than American baked goods, actually it seems it’s quite the opposite–since Canadian flour is known to be of superior quality, even our all-purpose flour still makes everything from tender cakes to the perfect pizza crust or loaves–now that is all-purpose!
- Canada takes its grains pretty seriously: the Canadian Grain Commission is a federal government agency that regulates all aspects of grain quality (and much more), which I suppose explains the high standards we keep and premium flour we produce in Canada (so, we may not have Biscoff Spread or Cookie Crisp Cereal here in Canada, but, hey, we’ve got pretty awesome flour).
Well, that wraps up my riveting tale of flour, and I hope this info helps you in some way and answers some (or all) of your flour questions.
I’ll be back very soon with another post (pinkie swear)!