Cooking and Baking

Flour Power: What’s the Difference Between Cake Flour, Bread Flour, Pastry Flour, and All-Purpose Flour?

Esther Pransky November 16, 2020

add or remove this to/from your favorites

Cooking may be an art, but baking is a science.

Many of us learned the hard way that you need to be exact when you bake. The ratio of dry ingredients to liquid MATTERS. The proportions of leavening agents like baking powder or baking soda COUNT.

Even the flour you choose can visibly affect your final product. Flours all look the same, but they react differently when you bake.

Gluten is good

The main difference between flours is how much protein they have. While we think of flour as a carbohydrate, and rightly so, wheat contains protein, too.

But all wheat is not the same. Hard red winter wheat has more protein, while soft white wheat has less. Each type of wheat (or a combo) is milled to make flours with specific protein content.

Wheat protein is also called gluten. These days, gluten gets a bad rap, but we need gluten in baked goods to give them structure and texture.

When wheat protein is dry, it’s just a powder. But when we add water to the gluten, the molecules bond with each other. They form slinky-looking structures that can expand without breaking. These structures allow the dough to rise, stretch, and hold its shape.

Low-protein flours produce more delicate or flaky baked goods like cakes or pie crusts. Higher-protein flour produces chewier, stronger doughs like pizza or challah. By choosing flour based on its gluten content, we can get the best results from our baking.

Here are four types of flour listed from the lowest-protein content to the highest:

Cake Flour

With the lowest-protein content, cake flour produces the least gluten, leading to soft, moist, melt-in-your-mouth cakes.

Made from: soft wheat

Protein content: 5 – 8%

Best for:

– Sponge cakes

– Layer cakes

– Angel food cakes

– Pound cakes

Substitutions: For one cup of cake flour, measure one cup minus two tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Replace those two tablespoons with cornstarch.

Try it:

Sponge Apple Kugel

Marble Chocolate Chip Crumb Pound Cake

Angel Food Cake

Pastry Flour

Pastry flour’s gluten content is low enough to produce perfect flaky crusts, but high enough for tender, chewy cookies.

Made from: soft wheat

Protein content: 8 – 9%

Best for:

– Pie crusts

– Tarts

– Cookies

– Muffins

Substitutions: To make your own pastry flour, mix 1 and 1/3 cups of all-purpose flour with 2/3 cup cake flour.

Try it:

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Espresso Mousse Tart

Apple Streusel Muffins

All-Purpose Flour

Your go-to flour, all-purpose flour can be used successfully in any recipe. If a recipe calls for plain flour, it means all-purpose.

Made from: a mix of soft and hard wheat

Protein content: 10 – 12%

Best for:

– Pancakes

– Brownies

– Biscuits

– Pasta

But, really, all-purpose flour can be used for ANY dough, including cakes, cookies, pie crusts, and even breads and other yeast doughs.

Substitutions: Substitutions depend on what you’re making. You can sub bread flour for most recipes, but don’t over-mix, which will create more gluten. For cakes, cookies, or pie crusts, you can use pastry or cake flour, but don’t try them with bread or pizza dough.

Try it:

Easy Homemade Pasta

Cheese Scones

Blueberry Pancakes

Bread Flour

The high protein content in bread flour gives elasticity, structure, and a strong rise to yeast doughs.

Made from: hard wheat

Protein content: 12 – 14%

Best for:

– Challah

– Yeast breads

– Pizza dough

– Babkas

Substitutions: If you can’t find bread flour, Naomi Elberg, founder of TGIS Challah, recommends adding “bread improver” or “vital wheat gluten” to all-purpose flour to compensate for the lower gluten content. Follow the instructions on the package to know how much to add.

Try it:

Homemade Pizza with Toppings Extravaganza

Yeast Cake with Poppy, Chocolate, or Honey Filling

Apple Cinnamon Challah

More about gluten

There are other factors that can affect the gluten in your final product. For example, gluten increases from:

– Age of the flour

– How much you knead it

– Salt

That’s why, for example, if you knead all-purpose flour thoroughly, it will make an adequate bread or yeast dough. Or, if you leave out the salt from your challah, it won’t rise as well.

On the other hand, sugar and fat naturally decrease gluten formation, which is good news for your chocolate chip cookies.

Knowledge is (flour) power! Choose the right flour and see the results in the taste and texture of your baking.