Kitchen Tips & Hacks: Flour Power

Helping you sift through bread flour, cake flour, self-rising flour and all-purpose flour!

In writing this blog, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to take a “hippy” approach with FLOUR POWER or go with my inner college professor, put on a lab coat, and call it FLOUR 101. (Occasionally, it’s fun to pull out my Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics from UW-Stout – Go Blue Devils) But, as we’re not in class, I’ll skip the scientific lecture. I’m guessing you just want to know if you have to use cake, pastry, bread, or self-rising flour, or is there a substitute. So, FLOUR POWER won out. Feel free to join me in humming Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In by The 5th Dimension. 

If you’re reading this, congratulations! You are taking your interest in baking to the next level when you are looking at recipes calling for specialty flours that aren’t in your pantry. The most common include bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour, and self-rising flour. (I’m just talking about white wheat or “soft wheat” flours today. If you’re into whole wheat and nut flours, that’s a discussion for another time.) A trip to the grocery store or a visit online can be a bit overwhelming when you see how many options there are for flour. Along with the ones I just mentioned, even our stand-by all-purpose comes Bleached and Unbleached.  

Most unsettling is the size of the bag you need to buy – usually, the smallest is a five-pound bag. Do you really want to buy a 5-pound bag when the recipe only calls for 1-4 cups? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have unlimited pantry space. Even if I did, which I don’t, I couldn’t store those flours there anyway because I don’t use them often enough. Flour that isn’t used regularly needs to go in the freezer to prevent bugs. Specifically, weevils.  YUCK!!!!!! My Freezer space is even more limited than pantry space, so filling it up with multiple bags of four isn’t an option.

Now that we’ve established that stocking 4 varieties of flour isn’t practical (or, as you will see, necessary), let’s sift through the uses and benefits of these different flours. The difference is the amount of protein which corresponds to how much gluten is formed when flour mixes with water. Gluten gives baked goods structure—the more gluten, the “stronger” the flour. Pizza dough is meant to be chewy, requiring a higher amount of gluten than an angel food cake or pancakes, intended to be fluffy. In soft wheat flour, the protein content ranges from 5% (cake flour) to 14% (bread flour). All-Purpose flour falls in the middle, and, true to its name, it can be used for almost everything. In a world where names and terms can be very misleading, you will be pleased to know that flour is very upfront. Cake flour is for cakes, and bread flour is for bread. (I love it!)

Bread flour is the strongest of all flours, providing the most structure. It makes for better volume (higher rise), a chewier crumb, and more browning on the crust. That said, all-purpose flour provides a very close substitute. If it’s only occasionally that you run into a recipe that calls for bread flour (like homemade pretzels), just use all-purpose. No one will know the difference.

Cake flour has the lowest protein content, which produces softer and more delicate baked goods. It also makes for a moister product. For the few times it’s needed, you can make your own by combining all-purpose flour with cornstarch. The formula is 1 cup all-purpose flour, removing 2 tablespoons, then adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and sifting it together twice. Pastry flour falls between cake flour and all-purpose. It will show up in pie crust recipes, as well as breadsticks and some cookies. In full disclosure, I’ve never encountered pastry flour in any recipes that I’ve explored.

Self-rising flour is flour with baking powder and salt added during milling. It is a Southern staple known for producing the lightest and fluffiest biscuits ever made. It is also ideal for muffins and pancakes. Because of the baking soda, self-rising flour has a shelf life of only 6 months after purchase. Use it or lose it! Better yet, make your own when the need arises. To make your own self-rising flour, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

As we’re discovering, all-purpose flour can handle most of your baking needs. When a recipe calls for flour, you can bet they mean all-purpose. If you have limited space, this is the flour you want in your pantry. It’s not only versatile, but it’s also usually the least expensive. All-purpose comes bleached or unbleached. It is easier to work with bleached flour. The chemicals that it is treated with help the flour absorb more liquid, and it rises better. Unbleached flour turns white naturally as it ages, without chemical additives. It produces slightly courser baked goods, but the difference is minimal. The two varieties are basically interchangeable. It comes down to personal preference.

In conclusion, specialty flours offer specific structural support best suited to the designated baked product. Using the specified flour, called for in a recipe, will yield the best results. This is a given. In a perfect world, with unlimited pantry space and endless time to devote to baking, owning a variety of flours makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for recreational bakers (like me), especially when it’s such a rarity that a recipe specifies something other than all-purpose. In my world, knowing that the end result will be practically the same is enough for me to stick with just one flour – good ole all-purpose. That’s how I roll!

PS. If you’ve got the Age of Aquarius stuck in your head, thanks to my clever introduction. Here are some fascinating facts: The Age of Aquarius is very long, lasting 2,160 years. It is determined by the Earth’s shift from one axis to another. This transition period from one age to another can last a long time. … All of this means that 2020 is the last year of the outgoing Age of Pisces, and 2021 is the first year of the Age of Aquarius.

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