Friday, December 16, 2011

Baking 101- The Difference Between Flours

Shopping for flour can get confusing when you are bombarded with so many different choices. Most people just go with all-purpose flour or whole wheat. You see the bread flour and can assume its for baking bread, but why? What makes one flour better suited for one type of baking and not another. There is a lot to know. Here is some basic info about the different types of flour out there. Hopefully this will help you make the right choice in your quest for baking perfection.

Cake flour-
It contains 5 to 7 percent protein (considered low) which produces a very tender, fine crumb. This type of flour is important if you want a light angel food cake, sponge cake, chiffon or other foam cakes. Another upside is that it contains such little protein that its virtually impossible to over mix and over develop the gluten (which stiffens the cake).

Pastry flour- 
It contains 7 to 9 percent protein. This flour is great for making pie crusts. It is just enough protein to create gluten to hold the pie crust together but won't become still from over mixing. Apparently this type of four can be difficult to buy at a regular grocery store. If you want to try it, look for it at the bulk section of a natural foods store. You can also substitute this type of flour with unbleached all-purpose flour. 

Self-rising flour-
It contains 7 to 11 percent protein. This is considered low to medium protein flour that is similar to pastry and all-purpose flour. It also contains 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt per cup of flour. You should only use this flour in recipes that specifically calls for it. 

All-purpose flour-
It contains 7 to 12 percent protein. This is probably the most common type of flour that people buy. It can be used for just about every type of baking, although it is usually not the best choice for most recipes. The old saying "jack of all trades, master of none" is true for this flour. One of the big reasons this type of flour is not good for specific baking, such as pastries, is because it is not consistent.  The reason for this is that each brand of flour has its own blend that has varying protein levels. 

You should also stay away from bleached all-purpose flour. When it is bleached it takes away flavor and protein. According to Cindy Mushet, you should stick to national brands such as Gold Medal. Be sure you get unbleached.

Bread flour-
This contains a high level of protein, between 12 to 14 percent. It is great for making bread because the high level of protein helps produce enough gluten. Gluten helps the bread expand whilst still holding its shape (For more information check out my upcoming post on how gluten works). I also use bread flour in my chocolate chip cookie recipe because it produces a hardier cookie. If you are having trouble producing flat cookies you should try using this type of of flour instead. 

Wheat flour-
This type of flour also is high in protein. I could not find the specific percentage though. Since it is higher in protein it produces a good amount of gluten and can be in bread making. You can also use this type of flour in your other baking goods but be aware that it produces a denser product. 

I recently took a bread making class and was surprised to find out that the wheat flour sold next to the other flours at the grocery store are not as good for you as you would think. In order for the flour to stay fresh at room temperature for an extended period of time, the manufacturer must remove much of the "good for you" elements found in the wheat kernel. The only difference between the wheat flour and unbleached all-purpose flour at the store are the addition of 3 B vitamins. Wheat flour is much better for you but only if it has been freshly milled. You can find this flour at health food stores in the refrigerator section. 
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Storing flour-
All flour should be stored in an airtight container. It can be left at room temperature but Refrigerating or freezing can significantly extend the shelf life of all flours. White flours only have a shelf life of 9 months and whole wheat flour at the supermarket, only a couple months. It is important to keep fresh flour because it will dry out and cause your ratios to be off in your recipes. 

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