Flour is really a pretty generic term, even though we most commonly use it to mean white wheat flour. At it’s most basic, flour is a powder, finely ground from roots or grains. It can be made from many things. Native Americans made flour from acorns!
My mom only had one kind of flour, and she bought 20 lbs at a time and put it in a big bin. Now days it can be confusing when you stand in a well stocked baking aisle looking at all the choices. Or visit a natural food store. No more do most kitchens or stores only have the plain white flour we all grew up with.
So, first, some terminology so we are all on the same wavelength.
White flour (wheat flour) can be bleached or unbleached. Bleached means just what it sounds like – it has been further processed to make is shelf stable faster. Unfortunately chemical bleaching can damage the proteins, although it makes a finer and softer flour, and therefore a brighter white bread and higher rise of the dough.
White flour has the outside of the grain, the wheat germ and bran, removed. only the third part of the wheat seed, the endosperm, or the middle main component, remains.
Gluten free flours are made from a grain or seed other than wheat.
Soft wheat and Hard wheat are terms used to describe the gluten content of the wheat. Soft means it has a lower gluten level, and this will make a finer, softer bread or other baked product.. Hard wheat has a higher gluten content, and higher gluten results in a more pliable, flexible loaf of bread – gluten of course helps bread rise and keep it’s shape.
A wheat berry is the total wheat seed heat, with all three parts of the wheat intact.
Gluten free flours are made from products other than wheat, and therefore do not have the gluten as a component.
Kinds of wheat flour
All purpose flour
The basic white flour that is bleached or unbleached. I prefer unbleached. It is used in many baked goods, and can often be used in place of bread flour when making yeast bread.
Storage: Keep it at room temperature in an airtight container for 6- 8 months. It can be frozen, which will actually kill off any weevils or weevils eggs that may be in it, and keep int he freezer for a good year.
Whole wheat flour
Whole wheat flour has the endosperm, but also the wheat germ and bran (so all three parts of the wheat seed, or what is called a wheat berry). It can be white whole wheat flour (made from white spring wheat) or 100% whole wheat flour,, made from red hard wheat. This wheat has a light brown color, and is coarser than all purpose flour. It will absorb more liquid, in my experience, and when substituting for AP flour, I add more water or milk or eggs or whatever. Bread made exclusively from WW flour will not rise well, as it will be a heavy dense dough once WW flour is used for over 50% of the flour a recipe calls for.
Storage: Whole wheat flour can turn rancid when left at room temperature too long, and will keep much longer in the freezer, about 6 months. Rancid flour will have a sour smell, and happens within 2 months. So unless you bake frequently and use up a supply quickly, keep it in the freezer.
Pastry flour is a soft wheat flour, with a lower gluten level than AP Flour, and a high starch content. It bakes things up light and flaky – think pie crust.
Storage: it can be kept at room temperature for several months.
Cake flour has the least amount of gluten of all, and it is most often used in baking where you want a fine crumb and tender product. Like cakes, cookies, biscuits and the like.
Storage: Keep in an air tight container in the pantry for 7-8 months
Substitute – if a recipe calls for cake flour, and there is none in the kitchen, substitute 2 tbsp of cornstarch and enough flour to make 1 cup.
Bread flour has a high gluten level, much more than plain all purpose flour, and is used, as in it’s name, for yeast bread baking. Bread flour is what gives the crusty chewy outside to a rustic round loaf of bread. Gluten is developed when the yeast bread dough is mixed and kneaded.
Although harder to find, it can be whole wheat, white whole wheat and bleached or unbleached. Bread flour is a refined flour, like the AP flour.
Storage: in an air-tight container in the pantry. It will last several months.
Self Rising Flour
Self rising flour has baking powder and salt already added to it, so the recipe may not call for any other leavening agent. Do not substitute it for any other flour. If you need to make your own use 1 cup of AP flour, 1/2 tsp salt and 1.5 tsp of baking powder. – whisk together.
Storage: because the baking powder in this flour breaks down over time, it will stop being “self rising” after a few months. Keep in an airtight container.
Semolina is made from high gluten durum wheat, often used in pasta and dessert. It lends the light yellow color often associated with pasta. It can also be used in pizza dough, and bread, and gives a sweet background note. Semolina is used in many cultures for both savory food ( almost like grits) as well as sweets. It also helps produce a nice crust, and is often spread in a pan under pizza or bread dough.
Storage: store in a pantry out of the light and away form heat for up to a year.
All of the above flours are based on wheat. Let’s move on to:
gluten free flours
I have begun using spelt flour quite a bit. it can be substituted 1 to 1 for white flour. Made from the ancient grain spelt, it is mild, but slightly nutty, and while a precursor to wheat, it does not seem to cause digestive problems in those with gluten sensitivity.
Storage: same as white flour.
Made from rye grain, it is a whole wheat product made with the germ, bran and endosperm. It gives some tangy flavor to baked goods, and is denser and more gummy than wheat flour. I’ve read that products made with rye will stay fresh longer – not a problem in my house. Since it is a heavy flour, it is often used 50-50 with white flour in rye bread, otherwise dough may not rise well.
Storage: refrigerate or freezer, as it can go rancid, in an airtight container.
Barley is low in gluten, and has a nutty malty flavor. Since it has bran, lots of moisture or letting dough rest for several hours helps soften it. Again, it is hard to use as a substitute for AP flour, but can be added.
Storage: in the pantry in an airtight container
Oat flour is light and fluffy compared to other flours. It adds a somewhat sweet taste, and is low in gluten. it makes a wonderful bread when used in combination with white flour.
Storage: airtight in either the pantry or freezer. When I buy in bulk, I keep extra in the freezer.
nut flours – almond, walnut, cashew, coconut
All nut flours are finely ground nuts after the oil has been pressed out. A quick substitute can be made by whirring up nuts in your food processor until very fine, but before it turns into butter.
Nut flours can be used in pastries, cookies, cakes, desserts and crusts, and mixed with white flour for baked goods. Obviously they add a nutty flavor, and no gluten. Nut flours are more mealy, more like corn meal than flour.
Storage: the oil in nuts can go rancid, so buy in small amounts and store in the fridge or freezer in an airtight container.
Not related to wheat, buckwheat is actually more of a cousin to rhubarb, most often used for pancakes and pasta. It has a strong flavor, that is “nutty” or “grassy” and so is usually mixed with other flours and not used just on it’s own.
Corn Meal or Corn flour
made from the whole kernel of corn, corn meal is larger and has texture, and when ground even further can become flour. Corn meal is often mixed with white four (think cornbread), or used as masa to make tortillas exclusively from corn.
If one delves into other ancient grains things like teff, quinoa, and amaranth flours will come to light. Chickpea flour is becoming more common.
And on top of all this, companies like King Arthur Flour will have all kinds of blends available: ancient grains flour, whole grain flour blend, rye blends. Sprouted wheat flour. The possibilities of blends are endless.
00 Flour is referred to as Italian flour, as it is quite fine, and used for pasta. It will make a very soft, smooth dough. and is bright white. Italians grade four by how white it is, 00 being the brightest, down to 04 which is more coarse and more like a whole grain flour.
Other kinds of flours are used internationally, made from whatever is available in country – cassava flour in Nigeria, Chapati flour in India, Dal flour, also in India, or kamut flour in Egypt for example.
things we don’t realize are flour
Potato starch or potato flour
Made slightly differently, both are made form potatoes, and are therefore gluten free. Potato starch is used as a thickening agent, whereas potato flour is mixed with wheat flour for bread, or used alone for gluten free products.
Arrowroot is also gluten free, and made from ground roots. It has no real taste itself, and is also used as a thickening agent, where it turns clear (compared to wheat flour which will turn things cloudy). It is good to use in pies.
so what do you need in your kitchen? It depends.
How often do you bake? do you like to make bread, of various types?
Here’s my advice: if you bake a lot, buy the flours you used the most in bulk. It ends up being cheaper per cup or pound or kilo. if you want to try something new, buy a small bag to see it you like working with it and how it tastes.
- I buy white flour and spelt flour in 25 pound bags.
- Since I put whole wheat flours, both white and regular whole wheat, in the freezer I limit them to 5 or 10 pound bags.
- I keep both potato starch and arrowroot powder in my pantry
- I keep a 2 pound bag of cornmeal in the pantry and one in the freezer to prevent it from going rancid
- any other flours I try, like rye, eikorn and fava flour (I don’t remember why I bought it, but now I need to find some recipe to use it!) in the freezer to prevent spoilage, since they are not something I use a lot of.
- I have some whole wheat berries I bought to grind fresh for cracked wheat bread, and I keep those packages in the refrigerator.
What do you use the most?