Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flour — so much to know!

When you go to the baking isle in the grocery store, you are often met with a myriad of flour choices. Not only are there a number of different brands but there are also different types of flours. In this Cooking Tip, I will attempt to help you navigate these choices. For this Tip, I am only going to discuss white wheat flour, not whole grain varieties or gluten-free alternatives.

In the US, we name our flours based on the recommended usage such as bread flour, cake flour, pastry flour and all-purpose flour. The differences between these flours is the protein (predominantly gluten) content due to what wheat variety is used in the milling of the flour. Even among these usage categories, protein content can vary from brand to brand or even within different shipments of the same brand. One company that pledges to always have the same protein content no matter where or when you buy their flour is King Arthur Baking Company. King Arthur will also list the protein percentage on the package whereas most other brands will not do so. You can get an idea by looking at the amount of protein on the nutrition label but that is not as straightforward as you would think. The government requires the company to round the amount of protein and list that amount rather than the exact amount. So, any protein content between 3.5 and 4.4 grams would be listed as 4 grams of protein. However, a flour with 3.5 grams would have a protein percentage of 11.6% and 4.4 grams would be 14.6%. Although the government may think that is the same, in terms of baking, those two flours would act differently.

Cake & pastry flours have the lowest protein content (7-9%) and are milled to a fine consistency. They are what gives the tenderness to baked products. (See this Tip that explains why these flours may not be the best choice for bakers in high altitude.)

All-purpose (AP) flour has a protein content in the middle: 10-12%. If you only want one flour in your cupboard, this is the one to choose. Because it has a moderate protein content, you can use it for almost any purpose. You won’t necessarily get the same result as you would if using one of the other flours, but it will most likely be acceptable.

The type of flour with one of the highest protein contents (12-16%) is Bread flour. This is why when bread dough is kneaded, the gluten is developed leading to the structure and chewiness of artisan breads.

Other countries name their flours differently. I will only discuss Italy and France, two countries very well-known for excellent baking. Most European countries name their flours according to the amount of refinement. To explain this, let me review that there are 3 components to a kernel of wheat.

  • Bran – the fiber-rich outer layer.
  • Germ – the core of the seed that is high in fat.
  • Endosperm – the interior layer that is composed of carbohydrates and protein and is the largest percentage of the kernel.

Flour refinement consists of removing the bran and germ and leaving just the endosperm. There is a relationship between refinement and strength. The less refined the flour, the stronger it will be. However, the amount of protein (strength) also relates to the type of wheat used in making the flour and the season it is grown. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this Cooking Tip.

In Italy, the flours are named according to the level of refinement.

  • Type 00 – sometimes known as “double zero” flour, this type must contain at least 99.45% endosperm. It is recommended for pastry and pasta making.
  • Type 0 – protein content is between 10-12%, making it more versatile.
  • Type 1 – very similar to Type 0 but it does have a coarser grind. Both types 0 and 1 are used for everyday pastries, bread and pizza.
  • Type 2 – with a protein content of 10-13%, this is what we would call white whole wheat and would be used in more rustic products.

The French have their own labeling system. It is a numbering system where the larger number represents a higher amount of whole grain.

  • Type 45 – the “whitest” of flours, it is best for cakes, croissants, brioche and scones. It is similar to Italian 00 flour and US cake/pastry flour. Protein content is about 8.5-9.5%
  • Type 55 – great for bread, croissants and baguettes. It is the most versatile of French flours with a protein content of 10-12% and compared to Italian type 0 and US all-purpose flour.
  • Type 65 – similar to T55 but with a rougher feel, making it great for artisan breads. It is similar to Italian type 1 and bread flour with a protein content of 12-13.5%
  • Type 80 – in between white and whole grain, similar to Italian type 1 and US high-gluten flour.
  • Type 110 – great for bread baking and close to Italian type 2, white whole wheat flour.
  • Type 150 – whole grain flour, similar to Italian type 2 and whole grain flour. Protein content of 12-13.5%.

True artisan bread makers also pay attention to something called the W-value of different flours. It is related to the strength of the flours. A discussion is beyond the purpose of this Tip but here is a video that talks about it if you are interested.

Who knew there was so much to know about flour? Believe me, I only scratched the surface of the topic of flour. I only hope that not only will it help those of you who are novice bakers but also will stir interest if you are interested in trying French or Italian flours.