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Flour Power: Sifting Through A Maze of Options

The great flour experiment. Credit: Courtesy of King Arthur Flour

The great flour experiment. Credit: Courtesy of King Arthur Flour

Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. But should you use bleached or unbleached? Has it occurred to you to experiment with the myriad options, including pastry flour, bread flour, self-rising flour, whole wheat and gluten-free?

Know your flours

Unbleached cake flour is good for cakes, biscuits and muffins. This blend of unbleached flour and cornstarch that replicates cake flour’s performance without bleaching.

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Unbleached all-purpose flour is good for cakes, breads, pies, cookies, quickbreads, and muffins. This is the best all-around flour with enough protein for good structure, but not so much that baked goods are tough or chewy.

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Unbleached bread flour is good for breads, pretzels, combined with whole grain or non-gluten flours. This flour’s high protein level gives more support to non-gluten flours like rye and it also helps the structure of whole grain breads. It makes excellent pizza crust and artisan loaves, which have a high water content.

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Premium whole wheat flour is good anywhere you’d use white flour, with recipe adjustments. Ground from the entire wheat berry, whole wheat flour contains bran, germ, and endosperm. The oil in the germ can go rancid. To delay this, store it in an  airtight container in the freezer.

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Unbleached white whole wheat flour is good anywhere you'd use white flour, with recipe adjustments. This flour is nutritionally identical to traditional whole wheat, though the bran is lighter in color and has a milder, sweeter flavor.

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Self-rising flour is good for biscuits, quickbreads and cakes. This is a low-protein flour that has baking powder and salt added to it already.

Or have you sent your husband or wife or partner or friend to the grocery store for flour and been stunned at what they bring home? With the wardrobe of flour options, how are they to know which one to purchase?

All flours begin as wheat. The wheat berry has four parts, bran, germ, endosperm and cotyledon. White flour is created by sifting out the bran, germ and cotyledon. Whole-wheat flour is made from the entire grain. To complicate things further, there is white whole-wheat flour that is made from a hard white wheat as opposed to regular whole-wheat flour that is made from hard red wheat. They are both milled  the same way. And one begins to understand why it is difficult to decide which flour to use.

Understanding gluten content

When baking, it is important to understand the differences in all the flour options. The bottom line is it is all about the gluten content. Gluten is a protein in wheat that when hydrated creates the structure of your dough, be it cake, bread, pizza, etc. The higher the gluten content the tougher or chewier your end result.

All-purpose flour was developed to have a gluten content that works for most household baked goods without having to make adjustments.  If you use a high-protein (high-gluten) flour such as whole wheat, you will need to add more moisture or let your dough rest a little longer so it behaves more like all-purpose flour.

Even though you might be tempted to replace your all-purpose flour with white whole-wheat flour it is not a perfect substitution. The white whole-wheat flour has more gluten protein and will result in tougher dough if you do not add more moisture or allow it to rest for a longer period of time.

A flour experiment

Susan Reid, editor of “The Baking Sheet” at King Arthur Flour is a  food scientist and a flour aficionado. She did a test to show how different flours act by making the exact same recipe with a range of flours. She used a random store brand, bread flour, all-purpose flour, unbleached cake flour, white whole wheat flour, whole wheat flour, self-rising four and gluten-free flour.

Her thesis was that all flours are not created equal. One could taste and see the differences. The unbleached cake flour was the softest whereas the whole-wheat was the toughest, and the gluten-free clearly had a different structure than the wheat-based flour specimens.

So how do you select the right flour for your baking needs? Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. Should you deviate from using all-purpose flour just know you may need to adjust the moisture content to obtain your desired texture.

If you are making an artisanal sourdough bread, perhaps whole wheat or white whole wheat would be your choice. But if you want to make bagels with lots of structure then a higher gluten flour would be your best choice. The key is to know you have options and to choose the best flour for the baked good that you are making.

flour transformed into bread

Bread. Credit: Amy Oliver

Remember, despite all the negative press that gluten has been getting these days, it is the most important ingredient in baked goods because it provides their structure. And herein lies the difficulty with gluten-free baking and why it is so hard to find  great gluten-free bread or cookies that have the structure of the wheat-based flours. Gluten does have a role in baking and if you are not gluten intolerant, then experimenting with the different flours can be fun and liberating.

Try making two batches the following scone recipe from King Arthur Flour.  Make one with whole wheat flour and one with white whole wheat flour. And let us know your observations.

Whole-Wheat Raisin Scones


For the scones:

2 cups (8 ounces) King Arthur 100% white whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons (⅞ ounce) sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (4 ounces, 1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter

¾ cup (6 ounces) buttermilk

1 egg yolk (save the white for topping the scones)

½ cup dried fruit (optional)

For the topping:

1 egg white

Sparkling white sugar


1. Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender.

3. Whisk together the buttermilk, orange juice, and egg yolk and stir into the dry mixture until a dough forms.

4. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and gently and quickly knead in the optional dried fruit.

5. Pat the dough into a flat disk about 7 inches across and cut it into wedges.

6. Transfer the disk to a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. For crispier scones, separate the wedges; for softer, higher rising scones, leave them in the circle.

7. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg white and sprinkle with sparkling white sugar. Bake them in a preheated 375 F oven for 25 to 27 minutes, inspecting at midpoint to admire and turn.

8. Remove the scones from the oven when they’re light, golden brown and cool them on a wire rack.

Top photo: The great flour experiment. Credit: Courtesy of King Arthur Flour

Zester Daily contributor Carole Murko is the creator, host and executive producer of the weekly radio program "Heirloom Meals," a storytelling show she created to share treasured family recipes, stories and tips on NPR affiliate Robinhood Radio, WHDD, 91.9 FM, in Sharon, Conn. She developed and was host of a 16-video series featuring diabetes-friendly heirloom recipes for Liberty Medical, and she writes for Edible Berkshires. Before founding "Heirloom Meals," she had successful careers on Wall Street and in interior design and decoration.

  • suzanne 6·18·13

    how about a gluten free bread recipe? Thanks!
    I am making the “Bitman NY Times no knead bread recipe” with King Arthur Flour, but would like a GF version as well.

  • barbara 6·18·13

    Very informative article, Carol. Thank you!

  • Wendy 6·18·13

    Oh, I wish you had posted a picture of the Flour Experiment she mentioned. It would be so interesting to see the different flour versions labeled.

  • Nisa 7·22·13

    This sounds like a tasty recipe, but step 3 in the directions calls for orange juice, while it is not listed in the ingredient list. ??? Please clarify. Thanks!

  • Carole Murko 7·22·13

    Wow – thank you for catching that! I have a call into King Arthur Flour as its their recipe and I will report back with the clarification as soon as I get it!! Hope you have a great day! And Thank you again. Carole

  • Carole Murko 7·23·13

    From PJ Hammel at King Arthur Flour: “Success! Tracked it down to our education center. We removed the OJ from the ingredients, but not from the directions; so the 6 ounces buttermilk stays as is, and the reader should just ignore the OJ reference. Thanks for your patience!”
    Many Thanks again for the catch!
    Let me know how the scones come out!!

  • Mary Ann Konovitz 8·18·14

    I’m wondering about what differences there might be when using heirloom flours from organic farms. I made some dumplings for my stew the other day with a white variety i had just bought and they came out far different than they have when using a basic store-bought all purpose unbleached white flour. Any suggestions or help for best results with it?!

  • Marty 9·2·14

    What about heritage wheats? We are testing several and they all behave very differently which is why we do a lot of testing before putting them into our product line. Heritage flours don’t follow a lot of the “rules” of modern wheat flour. As an example, generally hard wheat is used for yeast baking and soft for non-yeast but the ones we sell can be used very successfully for either. Some of our wheat is rather low in protein but behaves like a much higher protein. Additionally, most people with gluten intolerance can eat heritage varieties.

  • Marty 9·2·14

    Mary Ann Konovitz – what differences did you find when using your heirloom wheat flour? I don’t find that I have to adjust most recipes but you might. If you tell me what the problem was I might be able to help you.