The Most Popular Types of Flour and When to Use Them
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Do you know the difference between different types of flour, and when to use them? In this guide we cover bread flour, all-purpose flour, cake flour and more.
As serious bakers will tell you, their craft is more science than anything. To get a perfectly tender cake, a satisfying loaf of bread or just a good old-fashioned chocolate chip cookie, you need the right flour. While a bag of the all-purpose stuff usually suffices, there are lots of flour options out there—each offering a little something special to your bakes.
Now, before you make your next grocery run, brush up on the different types of flours out there and maybe add a few more to your list.
Types of Flour, Explained
Flour is finely milled grains—most typically wheat. Flour helps give all your favorite bakes their chewy, satisfying texture. There are a few things to consider when purchasing flour:
- Grain: Again, most flour is made from wheat, though you can find flours made of other grains like spelt, rye or barley. You’ll see alternative flours made from nuts, coconut, rice and more. Generally, though, when you hear flour, it’s plain ol’ wheat.
- Protein content: The amount of protein varies in each type of flour. Breads with a low amount of protein don’t develop gluten as readily, which leads to more tender bakes. Flours with a higher protein content are more glutenous and provide a stronger structure for bakes like bread.
- Mill: Some flours are very finely ground, like cake flour, which give bakes lightness. Other flours are more coarsely milled and provide more texture.
Taste of Home
The most versatile of the wheat flours, all-purpose is easy to find and easy to use. The name says everything: All-purpose flour can be used in just about any recipe.
With a mid-range protein content of around 10%, this flour is reliable and adaptable, perfect for anything from our best pancakes to carrot cake; it’s also a dependable substitute for other types of flour. A safe bet, make sure to have a bag of AP flour in your pantry at all times
While most recipes call for all-purpose flour, you’ll definitely want to have other flours on hand. While the differences between them may seem small, they can really impact the quality of your bakes.
Self-rising flour is a blend of all-purpose flour, a leavening agent (baking powder, baking soda or a bit of both) and salt. You’ll see a lot of Southern recipes call for this ingredient, particularly biscuits. When recipes require self-rising flour, you’ll often find that less baking powder or salt is needed in the rest of the recipe.
You can buy packaged self-rising flour right at the store or make your own at home.
Cake Flour and Pastry Flour
For a light, fluffy dessert, turn to tender and delicate cake flour or pastry flour. These flours are finely milled and have a low protein content—around eight percent in cake flour and slightly lower for pastry flour—which is perfect for making light, tender cakes.
Cake flour vs. all-purpose flour: If a recipe calls for cake flour, you can sub in all-purpose if you’re in a pinch. Using cake flour will make a difference in the end product, though. And who doesn’t want lighter, airier cakes? Grab a box and use it in all these recipes with cake flour.
Bread flour has a higher protein content than its all-purpose cousin—about 12%. This extra protein creates more gluten when kneaded in bread doughs. This gluten gives bread the right structure and texture.
Bread flour vs. all-purpose flour: Like with cake flour, if you don’t have bread flour, all-purpose will work. However, if you’re serious about bread baking, you’ll want to grab a package so you can get the exact texture you’re searching for.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is made from milled red wheat and has about 14% protein. It also has more fiber than traditional, all-purpose flour. Use it in whole wheat recipes or substitute in some whole wheat for all-purpose flour in your favorite bakes. Be aware that whole wheat flour tends to make your bakes a bit more dense and dry, so only substitute about half of the flour called for in a recipe with whole wheat.
See white whole wheat flour in the grocery store? It’s whole wheat, too, but made with milled white wheat instead of red.
Semolina and Durum Flour
If you enjoy making your own pasta, semolina and durum flour may be familiar to you. These flours are both made from durum wheat and are high in gluten—perfect for making stretchy pasta dough. Semolina is a bit more coarsely ground and durum flour is finer—both are made from the same ingredients.
These flours are a bit more uncommon but are terrific to have on hand for serious pasta fanatics.
Sometimes called doppio zero, 00 flour is the finest milled flour you can find. Many Italian recipes call for this type of flour—especially those for Neopolitan-style pizza. The fine texture provides for soft bakes while the higher protein content (about 12%) makes for that chewy pizza crust we all crave.
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If you’re a fan of rye bread, there’s no substitution for rye flour. This grain provides great depth of flavors in bakes, so it’s a good ingredient to have on hand for experimentation. Since rye doesn’t form gluten as readily as traditional wheat flours, it’s best not to use all rye flour in a recipe, but subbing in some in your go-to biscuit, bread, muffin or sugar cookie recipe can yield delicious results.
Let’s get one thing straight before talking about this flour: Potato flour is different than potato starch. Potato flour is made from whole peeled potatoes that have been cooked, dried and then ground into a flour. Potato starch is the remnants from crushed potatoes that is dried into a powder. Potato flour has flavor while the starch is just starch for thickening.
Now that that’s sorted, let’s get into why potato flour is so terrific. This flour does a great job at absorbing liquid and holding onto moisture so you have really lush bakes. Used in bread, it makes the dough easy to handle and creates soft, wonderful bakes like with this swirled rye bread. You can also use potato flour to thicken soups and stews.
This nut flour is becoming more common in grocery stores thanks to a very particular bake: the French macaron. These delicate cookies rely on almond flour for a nutty flavor and delicate texture. Almond flour also has a place in other bakes like Passover cookies and olive oil cake.
Use almond flour in gluten-free baking or to add almond flavor without relying upon chopped nuts.
Gluten-Free Flour Blends
When you’re looking for an easy way to make your favorite bakes gluten-free, a gluten-free blend is the way to go. These flours combine several gluten-free options like rice flour and potato starch. Look for brands that you can use cup-for-cup like King Arthur Measure-for-Measure or Cup 4 Cup Gluten-Free Flour. You can also make your own GF flour mix.
More Gluten-Free Flours
There are lots of gluten-free flour options out there. Here are just a few to consider when experimenting in the kitchen:
- Amaranth flour
- Buckwheat flour
- Chickpea flour
- Coconut flour
- Hazelnut flour
- Millet flour
- Oat flour
- Quinoa flour
- Rice flour
- Sorghum flour
- Tapioca flour
How to Store Flour
Flour, like many baking staples, is best stored in an airtight container in the pantry or cupboard. If you don’t think that you’ll use your flour within a year, pop it into the freezer where you can extend the shelf life for an additional year. Again, make sure you store it in an airtight container or bag—the paper bag it comes in isn’t good for long-term storage.
From self-rising to all-purpose, there are plenty of options to choose from. Don’t be intimidated! Before starting a baking project, simply determine what texture you’re hoping to achieve. Light and fluffy or dense and chewy, understanding texture and gluten content is the best way to decide what type of flour you need.