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May 20, 2006 | Episode 20

Rolling pin, flour, and dough
Whether baking brownies or bread, choose the right flour for the job.
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Flour 101

A guide to the basic flours you’ll see at the market


Bread Flour

The texture of anything you bake is largely determined by the type of flour you use. The reason is chemistry: Different flours have different protein levels. At the high end of the protein scale, you’ll find bread flour. “Bread flour has up to 14 percent protein,” says Susan Reid, editor of King Arthur Flour’s newsletter The Baking Sheet. And the more protein a flour has, the more gluten it will produce when you add liquid and heat. Since gluten is what gives baked goods their chewiness, the final product is stretchier and more substantial. As Reid points out, “Put a fork through a biscuit, not much resistance. But put a fork through a bagel, and it’s a whole different animal. A big part of what makes a difference in those textures is the protein.”
Best For: Baguettes, focaccia, and bagels

Cake Flour

Easily found in grocery stores, cake flour produces very tender baked goods thanks to its low protein level, anywhere from 6 to 8 percent. (Pastry flour has slightly more, is mostly used by professional chefs, and is not as readily available.) “The structure of a cake mostly comes from butter and sugar, which make little holes,” Reid explains. “And the cake flour’s job is to stabilize and hold everything together while it bakes.” The result: tender cakes and light, crumbly cookies. The same treats whipped up with all-purpose flour would come out sturdier and chewier.
Best For: Cakes that need a light crumb inside, pastry doughs, and tart shells

All-Purpose Flour

Whereas bread and cake flours represent the high and low ends of the protein spectrum, all-purpose flour lands squarely in the middle. “All-purpose has an amount of protein that works for almost everything,” says chef Tina Casaceli, director of pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute. “That makes it the great home flour.” Generally, all-purpose flours contain between 9 and 12 percent protein, an important variation to note, since this range can affect delicate recipes. If your famous yellow cake doesn’t seem to be coming together correctly, it might not be your fault; the varying protein levels in different brands of flours may be to blame. For instance, says Reid, “flours ground in the South are largely for biscuit baking, and biscuits need lower protein.” A southern company’s product may be what’s known as a “softer” flour, which has relatively little protein but will give a more tender texture to baked goods, so check the label: Some southern brands, like White Lily, proudly proclaim their origins.
Best For: Basic chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, and cakes

Whole-Grain Flour

“Whole-grain” flours include two parts of the grain kernel that get left out of plain old white varieties: the germ and the bran, which infuse whole-grain flours with more fiber and protein. As a aresult, they bake very differently. “Whole-grain breads have a reputation of being dense and heavy,” Reid says. The reason is that the pieces of bran in whole-grain flours effectively cut through the strings of gluten, resulting in less elasticity. To deal with this different structure, Reid recommends special preparations for whole-grain baked goods: knead them less and use slightly more water than with standard flour in order to soften up the bran.
Best For: Pastas, muffins, brownies, and quick breads

Spelt Flour

“Spelt is often used now because of all the allergies people have to wheat,” says Casaceli, who notes that the nutty-flavored whole grain is high in fiber and B-complex vitamins. Spelt isn’t always the best substitute, though. “It’s a little more difficult to process, so it doesn’t get as fine as most other flours,” she explains. As a result, spelt produces baked goods that are a little tougher than those made with standard wheat flours. What’s more, even though spelt has a high protein content, it is too fragile to make a decent loaf of bread. “You can make a good pancake batter,” says Reid, “but a spelt bread would have a hard time holding itself up.”
Best For: Pastas, pancakes, and flat breads like pizza crust

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