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Today's question: Can you tell me about these different kinds of flour I see on the grocery shelf?
The kind of flour you choose can significantly change the result of what you're baking. Or, it may produce only subtle nuances--it all depends on what you're making. Here's a quick breakdown to help you decide what you need.
Get all the flour-y details after the jump.
All-purpose flour is the combination of grinding soft and hard wheat, which makes this the most popular and versatile flour. When in doubt, this is always a good option. On the market shelf you'll find both unbleached and bleached all-purpose flour. Unbleached flour is naturally bleached over time, while bleached flour is processed chemically. Why the bleaching? First of all, if it wasn't bleached it would be more of a yellow color, which can look dirty and unappetizing. Hence, the bleaching process. Because the demand for flour is so great in our society, companies need to get it processed quickly, which leads us into the reason why there is chemically bleached flour.
Here's what it comes down to: There is less protein in bleached flour than unbleached flour. Protein is good for yeast breads, so if you want to make bread, or anything that will "rise" unbleached flour is your best option. However, if you're making quick breads or cookies bleached flour will work great.
If you happen to see all-purpose enriched flour on the shelf, that is means the company is replacing the nutrients into the flour that was lost during the processing of it. This is a good option for those who are looking to add more vitamin B, iron, or other nutrients into their diet.
Whole wheat flour means the whole grain was ground. Whole wheat will not only add more fiber, but texture as well to your product. However, if you're making bread, using all whole wheat flour can make your bread dense. Most often this is why you'll find white flour added to bread recipes; this will create more protein to help your bread rise. In many recipes, whole wheat flour is used as readily as all-purpose flour--especially in baked goods, pasta, tortillas and pizza crust.
Bread flour is a great resource for making yeast breads. It already has more protein to help get the optimal rise out of your bread and make it chewier.
Graham flour is needed if you are interested in making graham crackers. This type of flour was created by Rev. Sylvester Graham who believed bran was a wholesome product and did not advocate processed flours. How this differs from whole wheat flour is that each part of the grain is ground separately (the endosperm is ground more finely) and then mixed back together. Basically, you are left with white flour mixed with wheat bran and wheat germ. When used in other recipes, this flour will add more texture.
Gluten-free flour has become quite popular; these days there seems to be flour made out of every grain. The most common are buckwheat, rye, and cornmeal. These can easily replace regular wheat based flour, but making them work can be tricky because they lack the gluten that is often needed. Gluten free flours are used widely--use them in pancakes, tamales, cookies, cakes, you name it there's more than likely a recipe.
Cake flour is ideal, well, for cakes and some cookie recipes. Its starch content is high and it has a very low protein content allowing the flour to evenly distribute fat when sugar is added. The lower protein keeps your baked goods from getting tough. This makes wonderful cakes resist the urge to collapse!
Pastry flour has a little more protein content than cake flour, which adds more body and depth. Another thing to keep in mind is that cake and pastry flour are ground more finely than all-purpose, so your end product will end up being lighter and more crumbly.
When working with a specific recipe I recommend using the flour that is suggested. That said, trying something new is always a fun (if tricky) task, so if you're up for the challenge--take it!