Brain Food 101: The Different Types of Flour

Orange Cake

Recently, I’ve felt like I need to revisit my earliest blog posts. The first few recipes, the first few Brain Food 101 posts: they have good content, but the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. So here we go: the types of wheat flour, revisited.

Gluten is made up of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin. When combined with liquid, gluten forms a strong network of protein strands that traps air bubbles and creates an elastic support structure for baked goods. Doughs and batters with more gluten proteins absorb more liquid, forming a stronger gluten network. Different types of wheat flours have different levels of gluten, so you’ll want to choose wisely in your baking adventures.

Bread Flour:

Bread flour has a high gluten content, typically between 12-14%. The extra gluten helps trap air in the bread dough, making the final loaf light, springy and chewy. Bread flour is best for yeast breads, as you’d expect, but is also a good choice when making pastries that have lots of layers of fat and air, like cream puffs.

Don’t use bread flour for lighter pastries or cakes, though; it will absorb too much moisture and leave the final product tough and dry.

Cake and Pastry Flour:

Cake and pastry flour have the lowest protein content, and are usually only around 8 or 9% gluten. Cake flour is different largely because it is bleached to make it whiter in color and to help thicken the batter a bit. Both are best for more delicate pastries and cakes, like angel food cake.

If you choose to use cake or pastry flour for cookies, your cookies will likely spread more than they would if you used all-purpose four. Because there is less gluten, it will absorb less moisture than all-purpose flour would, leading to the spread. To counteract this, use a little less liquid in your cookie dough.

Do not use these flours for bread dough, though. Because they have less protein, they won’t trap as much air, and your bread will be dense and tough.

Fudgy Brownies 2

All-Purpose Flour:

All-purpose flour lies right in the middle of the gluten range, with somewhere between 9 and 11% protein. Use it for cakes, cookies and other baked goods that don’t need to be too delicate.

Whole Wheat Flour:

When wheat is processed into white flour, the germ and bran layers of the wheat are removed.  Whole wheat flour is less refined and still has these layers, which provide a lot of nutrients. But while whole wheat flour is more nutritious, the germ and bran also interfere with the formation of the gluten network, making whole wheat baked goods a bit denser. Baked goods made with whole wheat flours will have a darker color and a more complex flavor.

What would you like to see covered in my Brain Food 101 series next?


  1. says

    The geek in me loves reading about different types of flour! This post is very well written, Julie. I’ve had a bag of King Arthur bread flour hanging out in my pantry for over a month now – I guess I’d better get to baking bread soon!

  2. Kat says

    Lately I keep seeing wheat pastry flour. What is it? Is it expensive? Anymore information would be helpful. Thanks!!


    Btw I don’t mind if you post my question. I do believe it could be benefit others.


    • Julie says

      Whole wheat pastry flour is a less-processed version of pastry flour, because it still has the bran and germ layers intact. You can often replace it with regular pastry flour, or if you are really in a pinch, with a little less all-purpose flour (less because all-purpose flour has more protein = will absorb more liquid = give you a drier dough/batter if you use the same amount).

      I’m not sure of the price off-hand, because I often buy it in bulk. But I believe Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur Flour both make whole wheat pastry flour, if you want to try it!