Tips on choosing the right flour

flour

If you aren't already a dedicated baker, you may only have one or two types of flour in your pantry. When you do decide to dip your toe into the waters of breads, cakes, and pastries, the numbers of different flours can be overwhelming, and using the wrong flour can lead to lackluster results. To help you avoid baking disaster, Becky Krystal at The Washington Post provides a handy guide on how to choose the right flour for your baking needs

Her guide is a very basic one, focusing on the differences between all-purpose flour (aka plain flour) and other varieties such as bread flour (aka strong flour), whole wheat (wholemeal) flour, cake flour and pastry flour. The main differences between the white flours are the amounts of protein found in each type. The strength of the protein is related to the amount of gluten produced when the flour is mixed with a liquid. More gluten leads to more chew, so you'll want to save the higher-protein flours for things like rustic breads and use the lower-protein flours for delicate items like cakes and pastries. 

Of course there are many other types of non-wheat flours (which have less or no gluten, depending on the type), and specialty flours like Italian 00 flour. Nigella Lawson provides a good explanation of the latter. The 00 flour "has a fairly high gluten (protein) level but the gluten in durum is not the same as that found in regular wheat in most western countries. So the gluten in durum does not strengthen as much when liquid is added or when the dough is kneaded and the resulting dough is not as tough." That's why Italian 00 flour makes good pasta, says Nigella. 

There are websites dedicated to non-traditional flours used in gluten-free baking, such as the indexed blog Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern. Other sites explore the interesting flavors, textures, and purported health benefits of flours made from ancient grains and other plants. For example, author Nadia Lim has a guide to using non-wheat flours on her blog.

For an in-depth analysis of the many alternative flours, you might want to try one of several cookbooks that dive into the details. Some of our favorites are Flavor Flours by Alice Medrich, The Homemade Flour Cookbook by Erin Alderson, and The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook by Elana Amsterdam. We're also eyeing the upcoming Flour: From Grains and Pulses to Nuts and Seeds by Christine McFadden, which will be released in May.

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