You spent the last 16 months mastering a basic sourdough bread recipe—that’s amazing. Now, you’re ready to branch out with more advanced loaves. But one look at the baking aisle and your head is spinning from all the options. What’s the difference between pastry flour and cake flour? Do you need bread flour, or is all-purpose fine? What the heck is spelt?
With all the types of flour to choose from, baking projects can get a little overwhelming. Friend, you’ve come to the right place.
What is flour?
Flour is a catch-all term to describe anything—grains, seeds, nuts, beans, roots—that’s been ground into a powder. Here, we’re referring specifically to cereal flour, which is milled from the edible grains of cereal grasses (like wheat). Each grain is comprised of an endosperm (the inside tissue), germ (the embryo) and bran (the hard outer layers).
Bleached flour vs. unbleached flour: What’s the difference?
All flours are bleached, but unbleached flour is bleached naturally as it ages—exposure to oxygen causes it to whiten over time. It has a denser texture and duller color, and it provides more structure in baked goods. Bleached flour has been treated with bleaching agents (like benzoyl peroxide) to speed up the flour’s aging process. The result is a paler color and lighter, softer texture than unbleached flour. Baking with bleached flour will yield softer results, too, but overall, the two are interchangeable.
A note about gluten-free flours and nut meals
We didn’t include gluten-free flour blends, nut meals or rice flours in our list—while they’re all technically “flours” (aka anything that’s been ground up), they behave entirely differently than wheat flours do.
1. All-Purpose Flour
This type of flour is likely already a staple in your kitchen, thanks to its versatility. It’s milled from a combination of soft and hard wheat and has a protein content of approximately 10 to 12 percent, depending on the brand. Because of this moderate protein level, all-purpose (or “AP”) flour can yield chewy cookies and flaky pie crusts, but also works as a breading for cutlets and a thickener for sauces.
Use it for: Cookies, pie crusts, pancakes, muffins, brownies, quick breads—essentially, everything
2. Bread Flour
Think about sourdough bread—how does it get that satisfying chew? A lot of that texture comes from bread flour, which is the strongest of all the flours and has a protein content of 12 to 14 percent. The extra protein is essential for yeasted breads that need strong gluten to rise properly.
Use it for: Yeast breads, bagels, pretzels and pizza dough
3. Whole Wheat Flour
All flours are made from wheat kernels, which are separated into three components—the endosperm, germ and bran—during the milling process. For white flours, only the endosperm is milled, but with whole wheat flour, some of the germ and bran is added back in, which give it a nutty flavor and dense texture (plus fiber, minerals and vitamins). Whole wheat flour has a protein content around 14 percent, but it doesn’t form gluten as readily as white flour. That means if you want to bake with whole wheat, it’s best to swap for no more than 25 percent of the white flour. (Psst: Whole wheat flour also spoils quicker, so store it in the freezer.)
Use it for: Bread, pancakes, pasta and adding a nutty flavor to baked goods
Buy it: Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Flour
4. White Whole Wheat Flour
White whole wheat flour is milled just like regular whole wheat flour, but it starts with a hard wheat that’s paler, called hard white wheat. It has a similar protein content (about 14 percent), but a milder taste. Bonus: It has the same nutritional benefits as whole wheat flour but won’t affect the taste of your baked goods quite as much.
Use it for: Bread, muffins and cookies
5. Self-Rising Flour
Want to know a secret? Self-rising flour is just finely milled flour with added leavener—specifically, baking powder and salt. It’s milled from soft wheat and has a protein content of approximately 9 percent. Self-rising flour yields lofty, light baked goods, but it can’t be swapped as readily as other flours because the added ingredients can throw off other measurements in the recipe.
Use it for: Biscuits, pancakes, scones
Buy it: White Lily Self-Rising Flour
6. Cake Flour
For the most tender cakes, you’ll want to reach for low-protein cake flour. It generally has a protein content of 5 to 8 percent, so it has less ability to form gluten bonds (hence the soft, tender texture it yields). Another benefit? Cake flour can absorb more liquid and sugar than other flours, so it keeps your cakes moist for longer.
Use it for: All types of cakes—sponges, angel food cake, chiffon, layer cakes and muffins
Buy it: Swans Down Cake Flour
7. Pastry Flour
Somewhere between cake flour and all-purpose flour is pastry flour, which has a protein content around 9 percent. It can make extremely flaky, tender baked goods, which is why it’s often used for pastries, pie crusts and cake.
Use it for: Pastries, cakes, pie crust, muffins, biscuits
8. ‘00’ Flour
Double zero, or doppio zerio, flour is an Italian type of flour milled from hard durum wheat (instead of red wheat, like most flours) and with a protein content of 11 to 12 percent. Its name refers to the extremely fine texture of the flour. While the protein content is similar to AP flour, the gluten in double zero flour isn’t as elastic, so it’s less chewy. It’s pricy and harder to find in the U.S., but it’s great for homemade pasta and pizza dough if you can get your hands on a bag.
Use it for: Homemade pasta and pizza dough
9. Semolina Flour
Similar to double zero flour, semolina flour is milled from durum wheat. It’s high in gluten and has about 12 to 13 percent protein content, with a yellow color and nutty flavor. Even if you’ve never baked with it, you’ve probably eaten semolina flour in pasta and couscous. The gluten content is ideal for creating a dry, elastic dough that holds its shape when cooking.
Use it for: Pasta, Middle Eastern desserts, puddings
Buy it: Janie’s Mill Semolina Flour
10. Instant Flour (Wondra)
If you ask us, instant flour (which is sometimes referred to as Wondra, a popular brand name), is underrated. It’s a finely milled, low-protein flour that’s been pre-cooked and dried out. Because of this, it dissolves instantly and doesn’t clump when added to hot liquids, making it ideal for gravies and sauces. It also means you don’t have to cook out that raw flour taste beforehand, which streamlines your overall prep time. It’s not interchangeable for all-purpose in every recipe, but it can be used in pie crusts for a flakier bite, and it makes for a super-crispy breading when battering and frying veggies or fish.
Use it for: Gravy, pie crust, thin batters
11. Rye Flour
You can’t have rye bread—or Reubens—without rye flour, which is milled from rye kernels. Rye is closely related to wheat, but it has a lower gluten and protein content and more soluble fiber than wheat flour does. It has a fresh, nutty flavor and can add additional texture to baked goods. Rye flour has its own set of subcategories, like pumpernickel and white rye flour, which vary in intensity and texture.
Use it for: Bread, pie crust, cookies
Buy it: King Arthur Rye Flour Blend
12. Spelt Flour
What’s spelt? It’s just another type of wheat, and spelt flour is a type of whole wheat flour milled from the entire grain of spelt. But unlike regular whole wheat flour, spelt flour is lower in protein and behaves similarly to all-purpose flour (but with a lot more flavor). It tastes slightly acidic and tangy, almost like yogurt.
Use it for: Cakes, muffins, cookies, crumbles, crisps
Buy it: Janie’s Mill Spelt Flour