Choosing a flour for your favorite recipe can be confusing. Different types of baking flour, such as cake flour, pastry flour, bread flour and self-rising flour, each have distinct qualities that can vary performance in the kitchen. Protein and gluten content, added agents and differences in processing all contribute to deciding which flour is needed to achieve success in your baking.
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Flour is composed of carbohydrates, protein and fat. The protein content of flour, which matters most to bakers, is divided into two types -- hard and soft -- and can vary in quantity from 5 to 15 percent. Hard wheat is higher in protein and gluten content, making it a stronger flour and best for yeast-risen products. Less protein means a softer flour, which results in more tender goods including pie crusts, cookies, cakes and cookies.
Plain, or all-purpose flour, is your best all-round choice for baking. It has an average protein content of between 8 and 11 percent, being a blend of hard and soft wheat. Available as bleached or unbleached, plain flour is a versatile ingredient for most products. Unbleached flour, which is bleached naturally, is best suited for yeast breads, pastry, popovers and Yorkshire puddings. Bleached flour, which is chemically treated, is best for pie crusts, breads and quick breads, cookies and pancakes. Breads made using plain flour may be flatter and softer than those made with bread flour but the differences are only slight.
Cake flour has the lowest protein content of baking flours -- 8 to 10 percent. Cake flour is fine-textured with a high starch content and utilizes a unique bleaching process to increase the flour's ability to absorb water and sugar, which helps your baked goods hold their rise and be less likely to collapse. Cake flour is best suited for cakes, quick breads, cookies and muffins. Cakes made with cake flour are more tender and delicate that those made with plain flour.
Bread flour is a white flour, sometimes conditioned with ascorbic acid to help increase the volume and produce better textured bread. Bread flour has a higher protein and gluten content than plain flour, from 12 to 14 percent, making it best for yeast products.
Self-rising flour is a low protein flour with added baking powder and salt. It is a soft flour best used for biscuits, cookies and quick breads but never for yeast bread. You can substitute plain flour for self-rising flour by adding 1 ½ tsp. baking powder and ½ tsp. salt per cup.
Pastry flour is a soft wheat flour with a protein content of 9 to 10 percent. It is a good choice for making biscuits, cookies and pie crusts for a tender but crumbly pastry. Do not use this flour for yeast breads. You can substitute pastry flour by using a two to one ratio of plain flour to cake flour or combining one part cornstarch to two parts plain flour.
Flours have a limited shelf life and must be stored covered in a cool, dry location for no more than six months. After that time period, the oils in the flour can oxidize and go rancid. Freezing flour for two days before it is stored will deter weevils already present in the flour and prevent insect eggs from hatching. Or put a bay leaf in the flour to help repel insects. Packed in an airtight, moisture-proof container, flour can be stored for several years in the freezer at 0 degrees F.