What Is the Difference Between Baking Flour and Plain Flour?

All flours are not alike. There's all-purpose flour, bakers flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour, cake flour and even gluten-free flour. The trick is to figure out which is best for your recipe.

Baking flour and plain flour aren't exactly the same.
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All-purpose flour is how most manufacturers refer to plain flour. It is the go-to choice when you just want to buy one type of flour. King Arthur Flour says its all-purpose flour is versatile, strong enough for bread and gentle enough for scones and cakes. Baking flour has less protein and can be good for light, soft baked goods.

All-Purpose Flour

Flour is made by grinding grain into a powder. That gives it the consistency to use in breads, cakes, muffins and more. Some varieties, like coconut flour, don't even come from wheat. The two most common types used are all-purpose flour and bread flour, according to Bob's Red Mill.

All-purpose flour, often referred to as plain flour, is fairly high in protein. King Arthur All-Purpose Flour has a protein content of 11.7 percent, while Bob's Red Mill All-Purpose Flour has a protein content that ranges between 10 and 12 percent. That allows it to remain firm and hold its texture, while still providing good texture for cakes and cookies.

That protein content helps the flour form gluten when water is added, according to Bon Appetit. It's actually the gluten content that gives bread and other baked goods structure. Unbleached, all-purpose flour hasn't been chemically treated to whiten and soften it.

All-purpose wheat flours are more shelf-stable, according to Bon Appetit. The oils in the wheat germ can cause the flour to go rancid. All-purpose wheat flour doesn't have the nutrition of whole wheat flour, but it is predictable when used in baking. You can usually use it in place of any other flour, although it won't produce the same texture.

Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds

Baking With Baking Flour

Baking flours are usually named based on their targeted use, whether cake flour, self-rising flour or bread flour. Cake flour is used to bake cakes. This fluffy, tender flour has a low protein content, about 9 percent, according to Bon Appetit. King Arthur states that its cake flour yields a higher-rising, tender cake, with a fine, moist crumb.

Pastry flour has an even lower protein content than cake flour, about 8 percent, according to Bon Appetit. Used to make pie crusts, biscuits and scones, it is meant to provide a tender, crumbly, flaky texture. If tenderness is what you want, you can swap cake or pastry flour for all-purpose flour in the recipe. All-purpose flour is fine for pancakes, for example, but cake or pastry flour won't work well for a flatbread.

Bread flour has a protein content that exceeds even all-purpose flour, at over 12 percent protein. This is why it isn't the best choice for tender cakes, pie crusts and biscuits.

Read more: A Complete Guide to Complex Carbohydrates

Baking With Bread Flour

If you happen to have bread flour, which has even more protein than most all-purpose flours, it will have 12.7 percent protein, according to King Arthur Flour. This ingredient gives bread a firmer consistency and helps the loaf hold its shape. It can be used in recipes for rolls, where the protein content will help the rolls hold their shape.

Bread flour can be used in baking, but is best for baking breads, especially yeast breads, and rolls. It's suitable for cookies too, although they will be firmer and flatter.

It's not ideal for cakes or biscuits, however, according to Bon Appetit. Those work better using a softer flour with a lower protein content. You can use it in place of all-purpose flour, but expect whatever you make to be chewier than if made with all-purpose flour.

Bread flour can be used for quick breads, although it depends on the consistency you're seeking. If you want a firmer texture, bread flour will be best, but if you want a softer, more tender texture, you're better off using all-purpose flour, according to the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

Cake and Pastry Flour

Pastry flour, with a 7 to 8 percent protein content, and cake flour, with its 9 percent protein content, can be used interchangeably without altering too much flavor. That gluten that you want in breads and pizza dough to make them chewy isn't so desirable when you're making cake, cookies, biscuits or piecrust.

Cake flour's low protein content helps cake texture to be fluffy and tender. Pastry flour gives you that soft, tender, smooth consistency which helps makes biscuits light and airy, and gives pie crusts their flaky texture. Pastry flour is also ideal for cookies and crackers, according to Kansas State University Research and Extension.

For biscuits, you can also use self-rising flour, a low-protein flour made from a combination of flour, baking powder and salt. This provides a fluffy, flaky, light texture. If you use self-rising flour, however, remember not to add in baking powder.

If you're looking for the lighter texture of pastry or cake flour, and only have all-purpose flour on hand, Real Simple magazine has a suggestion: For every 1 cup of all-purpose flour, measure out that 1 cup, then remove 2 tablespoons of flour, and add in 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.

Wheat Content of Flour

Most all-purpose flours and baking flours are made of refined flour. This food ingredient is created through a process that removes some of the nutrients and fiber contained in whole wheat, according to the Mayo Clinic. Refined flour is typically enriched, with some nutrients added back in, but the nutrition content is less than that in whole wheat flour.

You can buy whole grain baking flours. Whole wheat bread flour, made from hard wheat, will make the bread more tender, according to King Arthur Flour. It still has the high protein content that gives yeast bread the ability to rise.

White whole wheat flour contains the same whole grains as whole wheat flour, yet it's made from white wheat, which lacks the bran color of red wheat. It has a milder flavor and softer texture than whole wheat flour made from red wheat.

Whole wheat pastry flour made from soft red wheat has less protein. You can use this for pastry and cakes, but the presence of bran makes baked goods made with whole wheat more dense than pastry and cakes made from enriched flour, according to Kansas State.

Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs

Nutritional Content of Various Flours

All-purpose flour is enriched with B vitamins and iron, according to the USDA's ChooseMyPlate. One-quarter cup of all-purpose flour contains 1 gram of fiber, 100 calories and 3 grams of protein. It also contains a small amount of potassium, less than 1 percent of the recommended daily value (RDV).

One-quarter cup of bread flour is similar to all-purpose flour in nutritional content. King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour has 1 gram of fiber and 4 grams of protein, giving it a slightly higher protein content than all-purpose flour. It provides 110 calories. It also boasts 6 percent of RDV of iron and 2 percent RDV of potassium.

If you prefer the extra fiber in whole wheat flour but like the taste of all-purpose flour, you could choose white whole wheat flour. King Arthur's White Whole Wheat Flour contains 3 grams of fiber, similar to the fiber content of regular whole wheat flour. One-quarter cup of whole wheat flour contains 102 calories and 3 grams of fiber, along with B vitamins, and slightly more potassium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.

A quarter-cup of pastry flour has 1 gram of fiber, 120 calories and minimal vitamin and mineral levels. Pastry flour isn't meant to offer a lot of nutrition. Instead, the goal is to provide a flour that is all about light, flaky texture. If you still want better fiber content, 1/3 cup of King Arthur Whole Wheat Pastry Flour does contain 3 grams of fiber.

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