A thorough guide to popular wheat flours found in grocery stores: what they are, how they differ, and how to choose the proper one for whatever you’re preparing, all in a single place.
Because I’m a seasoned baker, I’m not afraid to browse the baking section of the store. It is easy for me to identify the flour and brands that I need and prefer. As a result of a lack of my go-to flours, such as all-purpose and bread flour, I’ve been left wondering what I can bake with the remaining flours, such as whole-wheat, self-rising, and instant. A lot of others feel the same way.
This is the perfect time to learn more about flour and the different types you’ll find in the grocery store. The same cannot be said for wheat flour. Flour’s unique properties include its protein content, how finely crushed it is, and the wheat it’s milled from, all of which influence how it behaves in a batter or dough once it’s formed. I’m going to explain the distinctions between the two types of flour and show you, the home baker, when to use each.
What Is Wheat?
It’s helpful to know a little bit about the grain they’re manufactured from before going into the similarities and differences between different wheat flours. Humans have learned to cultivate, harvest, process, and transform wheat into bread, noodles, fried doughs, and so much more during the past 10,000 years. Wheat is a species of grass plant that produces ears of grains—rows upon rows of seeds coated in papery husks (the chaff).
Wheat grains must be dehusked in the same way as corn before they can be eaten (or at least digestible). When the wheat plants turn a golden colour, akin to straw, they are termed mature. Gathering the stalks into sheaves or bundles is done at this point. To separate the grain from the chaff, the dried stalks are first threshed to release the grains before being winnowed (some less common varieties of wheat, like spelt, emer, and einkorn, have an inedible hull that also needs to be separated from the grain and removed). A wheat berry, farro, or spelt grain bowl is a good example of a whole grain product that can be consumed as is or processed further.
One of the first things you’ll notice about these whole grains is that they have a black outer coating. B vitamins, a lot of fibre and protein are all found in the bran, which is the outer layer of the grain that serves as a protective barrier. When the bran is peeled away, the endosperm, which makes up over 85 per cent of the kernel, is revealed. Starch and protein make up the bulk of it, and the germ, or embryo, concealed within, uses it as its primary source of nourishment. Essential fatty acids, protein, minerals, and vitamins B and E are found in the germ, which makes up only 2.5 per cent of the kernel. The germ can sprout, or germinate, and begin a new cycle of life if the necessary conditions are met.
When you grind wheat (whether bran-on for whole wheat flour or bran-off for white flour) into a powdery product known as—you got it!—flour, that’s what we’ll be talking about.
How Wheat Becomes Flour
The two most common ways of milling wheat into flour are stone milling and roller milling, even though evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were beating seeds into flour at least 32,000 years ago using a primitive procedure similar to pounding components in a mortar and pestle.
A “runner” stone at the top of an early stone mill was moved against a “bedstone” at the bottom by hand or animal force. Using this grinding motion, whole grains were broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, but there was a big drawback. In spite of the advancements in stone-mill technology, they still required the constant supervision of a miller to ensure that the stones didn’t overheat due to friction. Flour’s shelf life is drastically shortened when heated above 170°F, since the fat in the wheat germ oxidises and rancidifies, causing vitamin and mineral loss.
The flour made from stone-milled whole grain is more golden in colour than white, and it has the grain’s entire nutritional profile, including the fibre and minerals found in the bran and germ. Whole grain flour that has not been refined also has a higher risk of spoiling. In order to whiten or purify flour and delay the development of rancidity, millers began utilising a procedure called bolting, in which they sift bran out of the flour.
Even though small-scale modern and mechanised stone mills are still being used to create whole grain flours today, commercial operations instead rely on the more modern technology of roller milling.
It was in Hungary in 1865 that roller mills were invented, and they were introduced to the United States in the 1880s. Today, they are driven by electricity and function by moving wheat grains through pairs of rollers—a procedure that mitigates the high temperatures associated with stone milling (while grains may reach 95°F briefly, that temperature does not threaten to destroy any nutrients).
Using corrugated rollers to break up the kernel into smaller pieces, which are subsequently sifted and sorted to separate the endosperm from the bran and germ, this initial pass is known as a “break.” The endosperm is then sent through a series of smooth rollers to grind it to a finer consistency. There are multiple stages of grinding, filtering, and breaking in this process, which the industry refers to as “streams.”
Four edible streams are produced by roller milling. Flour from the first two streams, known as “patent” flour, is made up of endosperm and does not contain any germ or bran. All-purpose, bread, pastry, self-raising, and cake flours can be made from patent flours from different wheat kinds and sold separately or blended with other flours, which can last up to eight months stored at room temperature, up to one year if refrigerated and up to two years if frozen. Because removing the bran and germ reduces the grain’s nutritional value, iron and B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and folic acid) have been added to flour in the United States since the 1940s to make up for the nutrients lost.
The “clear” flour produced by the final two mills is of inferior quality and is made up of the endosperm’s outer layer. It contains more protein-rich bran and germ than white flour and is a light grey in hue (not exactly living up to the name “clear”). Whole grain and rye bread (which contributes to the strength and can be camouflaged because of their drab colour) typically contain clear flour, which is also used to make important wheat gluten.
Improving and Bleaching Flours
According to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking at Amazon, freshly milled wheat has a yellowish colour and “produces weak gluten, a slack dough, and a dense loaf.” In addition to smaller, independent flour mills like Maine Grains and Bluebird Grain Farms, bigger players such as Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour use natural ageing methods to produce their products. Doughs created with flour that has been naturally aged have better flexibility because the glutenin proteins in the flour have been able to form longer chains, resulting in a darker colour (if you want to nerd out on gluten, our exploration of how gluten works is a great place to start). It takes several weeks of air-aging to produce “unbleached” flour.
Commercial flour mills, notably Gold Medal, Pillsbury, and White Lily, have been using maturing and bleaching agents to speed up the ageing process since the turn of the twentieth century in an effort to improve production. The earliest application of potassium bromate, a maturation agent, was to oxidise the glutenin proteins and improve the dough’s flexibility. Potassium bromate has been outlawed as a food ingredient in many countries due to health concerns. In the 1980s, mills began substituting ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or azodicarbonamide for bromate, which produces the same results, despite the fact that it is not forbidden in the United States. Benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas are used by mills to imitate the whitening process. Since benzoyl peroxide has no influence on bread, all-purpose, cake, and pastry flours’ pH or their starch and protein behaviour, it is employed in these flours because its effect is solely aesthetic. Cake flour is the only source of chlorine gas. Chlorination increases the baking qualities of soft wheat flour by reducing its pH, resulting in a sweeter flavour, a finer crumb, and an even more airy end product.
When reading the ingredient list on a bag of flour, you might notice the presence of enzymes and malted barley flour. Enhancing the browning and shelf life of baked goods and bread by adding enzymes (proteins that can speed up chemical reactions or cause reactions to occur that might not otherwise occur) is a common practice. Malted barley flour (sprouted barley kernels ground into flour) may also be added; it includes amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starches into sugars, which promotes yeast fermentation.
Classifying Wheat: Hardness, Color, and Season
Wheat cultivars grown in the United States are classified into six major groups. Common wheat, or bread wheat, is a species that includes hard red winter, soft red winter, hard red spring, and white wheat, which make up 95% of the world’s wheat crop. The final type of wheat is durum, which accounts for practically all of the remaining 5%. (Species like einkorn, emmer, spelled, and Khorasan wheat are grown in very limited quantities). Knowing how hardness, color, and harvest time affect flour yields might help you choose which wheat is ideal for a particular recipe.
Hard Wheat Versus Soft Wheat
The most important criterion in choosing wheat is its “hardness,” or protein content. We’ve already discussed this in our guide to gluten. When it comes to gluten development, hard wheat has a far higher protein level (11%-15%) than soft wheat (5%-9%). If you need a robust gluten network and an open, chewy crumb in your baked goods, hard wheat is the ideal option. Soft wheat is often used for more delicate pastries and cakes. As long as the resulting product has a tight and soft crumb, its low gluten strength is ideal for chemically leavened items like muffins, biscuits and cookies. With your fingertips, you can tell the difference between hard wheat flour and soft wheat flour: the former has a granular texture, while the latter has a powdery one.
Red Wheat Versus White Wheat
As far as I can see, there is no difference between red and white in terms of hue. The tannins in red wheat give it a more intense flavour and a reddish hue. Lighter color and gentler flavor characterize white wheat, as opposed to red, which contains tannins to varying degrees (white wine has lower levels than red). Because hardness is more significant than colour, the colour of the wheat can have an impact on the final taste and look of the final product. While the distinction between red and white wheat is still relevant in refined flours, whole grain flours, which still contain the bran, are far more relevant.
Spring Wheat Versus Winter Wheat
The wheat’s name refers to the season in which the crop is sown, which influences its composition. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer, whereas winter wheat is sown in the fall and harvested the following spring or summer. Since the protein content of winter wheat (10–12%) is low, it’s commonly used in all-purpose flour blends with soft wheat. The protein percentage of Gold Medal’s Blue Label all-purpose flour is 10.5 percent, thanks to the inclusion of both hard red winter and soft white wheat. Spring wheat has a higher protein content (12-14%), thus it is commonly crushed into bread flour or combined with winter wheat to create an all-purpose flour. With a protein concentration of 11.7 per cent and high gluten content, King Arthur’s all-purpose flour is nearly as high as certain bread flours.
Why Protein Matters
When selecting flour for a recipe, it’s essential to take protein content into account.* Protein content in bread flour ranges from 12 to 14 per cent, while that in all-purpose, pastry, and cake flour range from 9 to 12 per cent.
It’s not uncommon for flour labelling to be vague when it comes to the actual protein content or wheat variety. To find this, you’ll have to go directly to the producer’s website and search for it there.
A flour’s gluten potential can be determined by its protein content. When wheat flour is mixed with water, gluten is formed, which gives baked goods and breads their structure and texture. When it comes to making bread dough, the more protein it has, the more gluten it can potentially form.** High-protein flour does not necessarily mean better than low-protein flour; rather, different flours are better suited for various uses. If you’re looking to cut back on gluten in your diet, Serious Eats stresses the importance of picking the correct flour.
The exception to this is the protein level of whole wheat flour, which ranges from 11% to 15%. Dough volume is reduced by the presence of fibrous, hard bran particles in the dough, even though it has a high protein content. The denseness of 100 per cent whole wheat bread is due to this reason.
While high-protein flours work well in crusty bread, they can be disastrous in delicate biscuits. Low-protein flours don’t have enough protein to make chewy bagels, therefore they’re better suited for cakes that are light and airy.
Common Types of Wheat Flour
The bread and durum wheat flours that are readily available in the United States are the focus of this guide. If you’re a novice baker, it’s best to use the exact type of flour specified in the recipe. It can be fun and educational to experiment with different flours but know that a recipe may not work as expected if you deviate from its instructions.
Other varieties of wheat, such as einkorn, emmer, spelt, and Khorasan, was deliberately omitted from this guide due to the difficulty of obtaining them in a supermarket or from a miller. In the United States, Grinder Finder is a great resource for finding these more unusual flours.
Whole Wheat Flour
There is only 6% of flour produced in the US that is whole wheat. It has a protein level of between 11 and 15 per cent. Many retail brands of whole wheat flour have been through a steel roller milling process that separates the grain into its three edible parts, mills them, and then blends them back together again to approach the original ratio found in the wheat kernel. Because of the germ and bran, it is deeper in colour, has a stronger flavour, and is prone to rancidity because of its shorter shelf life. Adding it to recipes like carrot cake, gingerbread and handmade crackers is a great way to bring out its rich taste and rougher texture. A lighter wheat taste and less dense crumb can be achieved by combining it with all-purpose or bread flours. One of the most popular brands in the country is King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour.
Whole wheat flour with a coarser grind is called Graham flour after Dr Sylvester Graham, a significant pioneer in the early nineteenth-century health food movement. It lends itself well to graham crackers and pie crust because of its nutty and sweet flavour. If you have either whole wheat or graham flour on hand, feel free to swap them out in your recipes.
White whole wheat flour is also available. It’s white, but it’s also whole wheat, right? Hard white wheat is used to make white whole wheat flour, which has a protein concentration of roughly 13%. It is as nutritious as whole wheat flour since it contains all of the edible elements of the full kernel. It has a milder flavour and lighter colour than whole wheat or graham flour, making it an excellent substitution. It is possible to get white whole wheat flour from commercial millers like Heckers & Ceresota Flour and King Arthur Flour.
If you want to avoid rancidity, whole grain flours should be stored in the freezer for at least six months in an airtight container to keep out moisture and air.
Highest protein level: 12 to 14 per cent of the protein content of bread flour, which is milled from hard red spring, hard red winter or a blend of both hard kinds of wheat. Because of its high protein composition, it has a lot of gluten power. Strong, elastic dough is formed when water is added to the flour and a gluten network is formed, resulting in open, light bread with a chewy texture when the dough is kneaded and formed into rolls. Keep a supply of King Arthur Bread Flour on hand if you want to make bread, dinner rolls, or bagels. In a pinch, we’ve found that combining essential wheat gluten with all-purpose flour works just fine in place of bread flour.
Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum), often known as macaroni wheat or semolina, is a member of the wheat family but is distinct from bread wheat. It’s a hard wheat with a protein content of around 13% that’s descended from emmer. As a result, its gluten is more extensible and inelastic than the gluten that may be developed from bread wheat. For bread, this isn’t the best, but for pasta, it’s amazing. Carotenoids, or pigments, are responsible for the wheat’s golden colour, which is caused by high quantities of carotenoids.
It is possible to buy durum wheat flour in a range of coarseness. Desserts like couscous-type pasta, and sometimes to keep the dough from sticking to surfaces, are frequent uses for coarsely crushed semolina (pizza peels and sheets of fresh pasta are often dusted with semolina for this reason). Gnocchi in the Roman style is made using medium ground semolina flour, as is pasta dough for shapes like orecchiette. Although “semolina rimacinata,” or finely ground semolina flour, can be used to make pasta, it is most commonly employed in bread and focaccia doughs in baking.
00 (Doppio zero) Flour
Pizza, flatbreads, focaccia, and pasta made with Italian “doppio zero” (double zero) flour are among the most popular foods in the world. For Italian flours, the grading system is as follows: 00, 0, 1, and 2, with the numbers indicating how much bran and germ have been removed during the grinding process.) For those who like coarser flour, Type 2 can be found at the other end. A type 00 grind is the finest, with a powdery texture and very little of the bran or germ remaining.)
The special blend of wheat utilised in Type 00 causes the protein level to range between 11.5 and 13 per cent. There are a variety of 00 flours made by Italian miller Mulino Caputo available in the United States, each with a specific formulation for a specific use. Fresh pasta and gnocchi, cakes and pastries, lengthy fermentation doughs, and pizza all demand different types of their 00 flour. Most commonly found in the United States, however, are the blue-and-red-striped Pizzeria Flour and the red-and-white-striped The Chef’s Flour.
When cooking a typical Neapolitan pizza, both ingredients are a must-have. If you want to make the recipe work with something other than 00 flour (which has a protein concentration of 8.5%), you can use bread flour, all-purpose flour, or even King Arthur’s Italian-style flour, but the results will be less than ideal.
As the most versatile variety of wheat flour, all-purpose flour has a protein concentration of between 9 and 12 per cent.
But this does not imply that all-purpose flours can be used interchangeably or in any recipe. Depending on the brand and type of wheat used, the protein concentration is different for each product. They have a protein concentration of 11.4-11.7 per cent, making them closer to bread flour than King Arthur and Hecker’s all-purpose flours. These flours are excellent for producing bread and pizza, but their high gluten potential makes them less suitable for delicate pastry doughs and batters.
It’s ideal for cookies, pancakes, and pie dough, but it can also produce an acceptable loaf of bread when made with a combination of hard and soft wheat, like the kind found in Gold Medal and Pillsbury all-purpose flours. Unlike other all-purpose flours, White Lily contains a higher percentage of protein, making it more suitable for use in baked goods such as pastries and biscuits. The combination of protein and starch found in the Blue Label from Gold Medal is the most adaptable for a wide range of dishes, which is why we recommend stocking it as a standard all-purpose flour.
When it comes to quick flour, Wondra is a household name. Wondra is a low-protein flour that’s been precooked, dried, and ground into a fine powder using a technique called gelatinization, first introduced in the 1960s by Gold Medal Flour. You can use this to make instant, lump-free gravy, as a coating for fried meat and fish, or even vegetables because it makes for a delicate and crispy crust; but that is just the beginning of its versatility. Since Wondra does not need time to hydrate, Julia Child advocated using it in crepe batter in The Way to Cook at Amazon. Rose Levy Beranbaum uses Wondra in her Baking Bible because it produces a soft crumb in sponge and angel food cakes.
Pastry flour falls somewhere in the middle of all-purpose and cake flour, made from soft red winter or soft white wheat. In baked goods and pastries requiring structure, flakiness, and tenderness, including cookies, danishes, and tart shells, this protein’s 8 to 9 per cent protein content is just appropriate. Home bakers can utilise the pastry flours produced by Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour, which are generally used by professional bakers. It’s a good idea to check out the recipe databases from Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour if you’re new to pastry flour and want to get started baking with it.
Self-rising flour debuted in the United States from England in 1849, but the White Lily brand in Tennessee made it a household name in the South in 1883. This may be why biscuits became a Southern staple because biscuits are made using self-rising flour manufactured from low-protein wheat, which is commonly available in the South. Because baking powder and salt are pre-mixed into the flour, it is distinct from all-purpose flour. The baking powder in this flour degrades with time, so use it within six months of purchase to get the most out of it.
The endosperm of soft wheat is processed to produce cake flour. When compared to other wheat flours, it has the lowest protein content (7-8 per cent) and the highest carbohydrate content (50-60 per cent). Soft wheat flour can be purchased in both unbleached and bleached form, but note that bleaching soft wheat flour improves its baking qualities by weakening gluten and increasing its acidity. Unbleached alternatives to cake flour tend to produce cakes that are dry and crumbly, but cakes made with bleached flour are moist and light because they can hold more sugar and butter. Only the angel food, pumpkin spice, strawberry, and blackberry cakes call for bleached cake flour.
Chlorinated cake flour products Swan Down and Softasilk are our favourites. Cake flour can be substituted with all-purpose flour and cornstarch, but the results may not be as good. A dense and heavy angel food cake can be made by adding cornstarch to the batter and letting it soak up the liquid.