What is the difference between types of flours?

What are the different kinds of flours?

It’s hard to know which types of flour to use in a recipe. Here is a guide to the most common types of flour and how to best use them for your baked goods.


kinds of flour

Have you ever gone to the store and looked at all the different types of flour and been totally intimidated by your options? (Seriously, who the hell needs 10 kinds of flour?)  Have you looked at a recipe and it called for bread flour but you only had all-purpose flour and wondered if you could make the swap?  Have  you ever been curious if you actually need cake flour?

I brought you flours

It’s super tricky to figure it all out when you’re first getting started.  Below, I’ve put together a guide of the most common different types of flours and how you should use them.

Cake Flour:

Flour used for cake.  Has the lowest protein content to produce delicate cake or in some cases brownies. Typically, cake flour is bleached to create pristine white and light cake. It contains 6-7% protein.  (Remember, low protein=less gluten=more delicate/less tough).

I have only ever been able to buy cake flour in a box (about 2 pounds) but unless you make cake all the time, this much should suffice.  The most common brands I find in the grocery store are Swan’s Down and Softasilk.

Caramel chocolate chip cookies with sea salt

All-Purpose Flour:

Like the name suggests, this is the flour used for almost everything in your kitchen.  It’s the flour that you use in cookies, brownies, and even some cakes.  Nearly every person I know has a bag of AP flour floating around even if they don’t bake. 

You can find it bleached or unbleached. Bleached flour has been treated with benzoyl peroxide to whiten it and make it softer. 

All-purpose flour contains 9.5-11.5% protein.  If you use all purpose flour instead of cake flour in a recipe (that calls for cake flour), your end product will typically end up heavier and more dense from the increased protein.

Pastry Flour:

Pastry flour is milled from soft wheat, often soft red winter wheat. It contains less protein than all-purpose (AP) flour but more than cake flour, about 7.5-9.5% protein. Because it is low in protein, it has a low capacity to absorb water which makes it ideal for (duh) pastry.

Pro tip: if you don’t want to buy pastry flour, you can make an acceptable substitute by mixing cake flour and AP flour in a 1:1 ratio.  

Loaf of Whole Wheat Challah

Whole Wheat Flour:

Whole wheat flour is made by crushing the whole wheat berry (rather than just the endosperm like in all-purpose flour).  Because it contains more oils, whole wheat flour can go bad (rancid) faster.  If you don’t use it very much, store your whole wheat flour in the freezer.  

  • Red Whole Wheat Flour: made from red wheat, has a higher protein content that white whole wheat flour.  In the United States, red whole wheat flour is more prevalent.

  • White Whole Wheat Flour: made from hard white spring wheat.  Has a lower protein and gluten content than red whole wheat flour.  Because of it’s softer nature, it can be used more like all-purpose flour but with higher nutritional content.

When a recipe calls for all-purpose flour, I like to substitute out 1 cup of all-purpose flour and replace it with 1 cup whole wheat flour to increase the nutritional value.  

Substituting 100% whole wheat for all-purpose will result in a heavier, drier baked good due to the increased protein and water absorption of whole wheat flour.  I have success with substituting up to half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour like in these cookies and this bread.

Loaf of freshly baked French bread

Bread Flour

Has the greatest protein content at 11.5-13.5%.  Used to make bread because unlike cake, you want your bread dough to be more stretchy and elastic.    Like all-purpose flour, you can buy it bleached or unbleached.

Can you substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour?  

In many cases you can, however, for bread recipes where you don’t have much other enrichment and are looking for a lot of gluten development and rise out of your dough, bread flour is best.

Overall, each type of flour serves it’s own purpose (ha!).  That being said, with some careful thought, substitutions (or at least partial ones) can be made to suit your budget and your pantry.


Cooks Illustrated