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Choosing the Right Flour for your Baking Needs

There are lots of secrets to good baking and including the best and freshest ingredients is certainly one of the keys to producing a good end result. Using the right flour is also essential, and with so many varieties available, it can be a bit confusing for the novice baker. Just a walk down the baking aisle of your supermarket can be daunting as you view at least a dozen different choices, sometimes more, depending on the store. Browse an online flour catalog and you’ll find dozens more.

Nevertheless, most of us can bake all the things we love with just a few of these flours and for the beginning baker, just one might be sufficient until he or she decides to try some more difficult recipes. But it’s good to understand why your recipe calls for a particular kind of flour and what it is about that flour that makes it the right one for the items you’re baking.

The Key: Gluten

We’ve all heard the word “gluten”. If fact, these days, it often has negative connotations. Everyone is selling gluten-free items for those people who have been told this mixture of proteins is bad for them or is causing allergies.

The fact is, however, that gluten is a necessary ingredient in the kind of bread we all know and love. Made of the proteins found in wheat flour, gluten gives bread and other baked goods strength and texture. Gluten develops in the dough when the proteins absorb water and are stretched while kneading. A high level of proteins is required for good bread while a low level is what is needed for cakes. So, when you are choosing flour for various baking projects, it’s a good idea to take a look and see how much protein is contained in the flour.

Flour that is labeled “bread flour” will have the highest percentage of protein – usually up to 12 to 14 percent. All-purpose flour, the kind you’ll probably use for most baking projects as you’re learning, usually contains about 8 to 10 percent. Cake flours have the lowest percentage of protein, generally about 5 or 6 percent.

White Flour

The predominant flour on your grocery store shelf will be white, unless you’re shopping at a health food market. On the bags of white flour, you’ll most likely find words such as “bread”, “all-purpose”, “cake”, “self-rising”, “bleached”, and “unbleached”. All of these flours are good for different things but some can be used for a variety of items and still produce acceptable results.

o Types – As was previously mentioned, bread flour works best for bread and cake flour for cakes, hence their names. All-purpose flour, however, sits somewhere between these two and – as its name indicates – can be used for almost any recipe but will not produce the same results as the specialized flours. Self-rising flour has a leavening agent and salt already built in. This is a tough flour to use because it’s difficult to predict the amount of salt contained within and you won’t know whether or not to add more. However, many people use it for buttermilk biscuits.

o Bleached and unbleached – Bleached flour has been treated with chlorine to make it a bright white color. Though the FDA says this is safe, many people dislike the idea of the use of chlorine and opt for the unbleached variety, which is an ivory color. Unbleached flour tastes the same but will affect the color of your baked goods, especially bread or white cakes. However, if color isn’t an issue, many expert bakers recommend unbleached flour.

Wheat Flour

Available in fine ground or course ground textures, whole wheat flour is often used in combination with white flour and less often by itself.  Wheat flour tends to be bitter and by combining it with white, the taste of the baked item becomes milder. Furthermore, wheat flour has a low gluten level, making it a tough item from which to fashion a bread that will have good strength and texture. A combination of wheat flour and white flour is commonly used in dark or “brown” breads, including wheat, rye, and pumpernickel.

Other Flours

You’ll most likely find a few other varieties of flour at your supermarket as well. These might include corn meal or corn flour, used for corn bread and muffins; rye flour, available in light, medium, and dark and used in rye and pumpernickel bread; buckwheat flour, most often used in pancakes; and potato flour, an item that will extend the life of bread or other baked goods by adding just a small amount, specifically because it attracts water and slows the staling process.