Food & Nutrition

The Best Flours to Use For Cooking and Baking

Think beyond wheat. There's a world of flours to look for at your local supermarket.

How flour is made

 

Yes, flour is made from ground wheat. But it can also be made from ground chickpeas, almonds, chestnuts — even potatoes. And even all-purpose flour isn’t made from just one kind of wheat. Truth is, flour is one of the most versatile and diverse categories of ingredient.

Choosing the right flour for a recipe can make a world of difference. Here’s the rundown of the flours we can find in our neighborhood supermarket — as well as tips and secrets for buying and storing this multifaceted staple.

First, a definition: Flour is a powdery culinary ingredient made from ground grains, seeds or nuts.

Why is it ground? Milling improves a grain’s digestibility — and permits it to be morphed into baked goods and stew thickeners. You can’t make muffins from wheat berries alone, nor can you thicken a stew with them. But you sure can with all-purpose flour, made from ground wheat berries.

Grains were originally ground by hand in mortars with pestles or wooden sticks. Later, they were made under rotary grinding stones kept in motion by cows, oxen or horses. Today, factory mills grind grains with separators, washers, aspirators, scourers and even magnets.

In general, the grains are crushed under steel rollers. For most types of flour, the creamy endosperm is pulverized into dust and separated into various textures ("fine" and "coarse," for example). The bran and germ are most often removed and shipped elsewhere to be turned into animal feed. Whole-grain flours always include the bran and usually the germ in the ground mix.

Before we get to the many kinds of flour, here’s a rundown of the basics.

Nutritional info of ingredients in flour

Look for these key terms on the labels:
  • Enriched. Some of the vitamins and minerals lost with the bran and germ have been added back to the flour.
  • Bleached. Not with some laundry chemical, but usually with chlorine dioxide. Bleaching does turn the yellow carotenoid in wheat white, but its main purpose is to age the ground flour. Wheat cannot be ground and used willy-nilly. In our grandmother’s day, flour sat for one to two months to improve its quality. Today, that process is sped up with so-called “bleaching.”
  • Unbleached. Certain chemicals like chlorine dioxide have not been used. The flour either has been aged for a few weeks (the yellow carotenoid whitens with exposure to air) or has been aged with potassium bromate.
  • Refined. Not a whole-grain flour.
  • Whole-grain. The bran — and rarely, the germ — have been ground and added back to the refined flour.
  • Stone-ground. Grinding with stones is expensive and very slow. The wheat berries could have been cracked on a stone before being ground with steel rollers — or the flour could simply have been blown through a stone mill just before being packaged. Or the word can simply be used to mean a certain texture, although exactly what texture varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. If you’re interested in a coarser, more flavorful flour, look for the word “whole” added to “stone ground” — for example, stone-ground whole wheat or stone-ground whole corn.
Also keep these tips in mind:
  • Don’t buy open or split bags of flour. You’ll end up with a mess in your cart and in your pantry.
  • Long-stored flour picks up insects. Look for small moths and other bugs; you don’t want to bring those home. And while you’re at the store, consider buying sealable plastic containers for storage at home. An open bag on a pantry shelf is an invitation to moths and other little bugs and a sure call for a vacuum cleaner in the weeks ahead.
  • Sniff the packages, particularly of whole-grain flours. Because of complex fat structures, they can go rancid more quickly than refined flours.
  • To buy smaller amounts, especially of obscure flours or whole-grain flours that can go rancid, look for bulk bins. (If the lids of the bulk bins are dirty, if there’s flour all over the floor, or if there’s one scooper for multiple bins, find a better store.)

How to store flour at home

Follow these common-sense guidelines when you’re working with the flours you’ve bought:
  • Store flour in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place.
  • Don’t dump a new bag of flour into a container with the leavings of the last bag still at the bottom. Use up what’s in a container before refilling it.
  • When you wash the containers, dry them thoroughly before adding new flour. A good rule of thumb is to dry them with paper towels and then leave them open on the counter overnight to get rid of any bits of moisture that can ruin flour in a snap.
  • Keep a 1/2-cup measuring cup in each container to make your cooking quicker.
  • Refined flours can stay in the pantry for six months. For periods longer than that, they need to be stored in the fridge or even the freezer.
  • Whole-grain flours go rancid more quickly at room temperature. In general, store these in a cool, dark pantry for one month or in a sealed container in the fridge or freezer for up to one year.
  • The best way to measure flour is to weigh it on a kitchen scale. However, most of us are a little too busy to pull out the scales for zucchini bread! So dip the measuring cup into the container and level off the top with a flatware knife, making sure there are no air pockets down in the cup.
  • Some recipes call for “sifted flour.” Use a flour sifter or a fine-mesh sieve (not a colander).
  • Remember the logic: 1 cup flour, sifted is not 1 cup sifted flour. For the former, measure 1 cup of flour properly, then sift it onto a sheet of wax or parchment paper on your work surface — or directly into a work bowl. For the latter, sift flour onto wax or parchment paper, then pour it into the measuring cup until you have the desired leveled amount.

 

Types of flour

All purpose flour

All-Purpose Flour

This is blend of flours is made from both hard- and soft-wheat varietals. It’s designed to give you a balance of glutens that will lead to better baked goods in a wide range of recipes. The specific blends of all-purpose flours vary from manufacturer to manufacturer — and are closely guarded secrets. Try different brands to see which is best for you. All-purpose flour is sometimes called “refined flour” or “plain flour.” So-called “double-zero flour” is a very finely ground all-purpose flour, prized for making the best pizza crusts.

bread flour

Bread Flour

Ground from hard winter wheat, which has a higher gluten (and thus higher protein) content, this flour is used in bread-making because: 1) it builds a better structure to create a tender crumb, 2) it can absorb more liquid to keep breads firmer over time, 3) it can stand up to kneading without turning gummy. If a recipe calls for bread flour and you only have all-purpose flour on hand, add 1 additional tablespoon all-purpose flour for every cup of bread flour that’s called for.

cake flour on spoon

Cake Flour

This low-gluten (and thus low-protein) flour will yield tender, light-as-air baked goods every time. However, because of complex combinations in baking chemistry, only use cake flour in recipes that call for it. If a recipe asks for cake flour and you only have all-purpose flour on hand, use 7/8 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 tablespoons cornstarch for every cup of cake flour.

Whole wheat flour

Whole-Wheat Flour

Made from the ground endosperm, bran and germ of the wheat kernel, this is a hearty, nutty-tasting flour — and most often a proprietary blend of wheat varietals. The extra fiber in the bran acts as a moisture sponge and can turn baked goods tough — or cause them to dry out after a day. In general, use whole-wheat flour only in recipes that specifically call for it. Whole-wheat flour can go rancid quickly; store it in a sealed container in the freezer.

Whole wheat flour for pastries

Whole-Wheat Pastry Flour

This is very finely ground whole-wheat flour. It is usually made from low-protein, soft wheat — and so can be used as a great, whole-grain substitute for all-purpose flour in hearty, sturdy cakes and cookies. (Do not substitute whole-wheat pastry flour in lighter, more airy cakes like angel food cake or sponge cakes.)

Self rising flour

Self-Rising Flour

This American standard is all-purpose flour with baking powder and salt in the mix. In other words, it’s pre-leavened flour. Do not substitute self-rising flour for all-purpose flour in recipes. Some manufacturers also make self-rising cake flour.

Semolina flour

Semolina Flour

Sometimes sold as “pasta flour,” semolina flour is made from ground durum wheat, a particularly hard, dry wheat — which keeps noodles from turning gummy in the heat. While used in a variety of Italian recipes, semolina flour can also be substituted for cornmeal when you’re dusting pizza boards, cutting boards or rolling pins.

Spelt flour

Spelt Flour

Made from a specific, ancient, wheat varietal, spelt flour has a more savory taste than some wheat flours. Because it's not as sweet, it's a good choice for thickening stews and soups. It is not gluten-free, despite some claims to the contrary. However, some people with wheat allergies can tolerate spelt flour (although not those with celiac disease). Health-food stores often sell sprouted spelt flour with an herbaceous, earthy flavor, best for savory baking.

Rye flour

Rye Flour

This full-flavored flour from rye berries is used as the basis of many breads in Germany, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It's rather sweet in flavor — the sour notes we often associate with "rye" come from the sourdough base used for most of these breads. Rye flour is usually mixed with wheat flour in baking because rye flour lacks the basic glutens to create tender bread. The one bread made exclusively with rye flour is chewy pumpernickel.

Corn flour

Corn Flour

Made from dried corn, corn flour is a superfine, light flour. Use it in corn muffins or cornbread recipes instead of cornmeal for a smoother, less crumbly texture. When the corn is first treated with food-grade lime, the flour ground from it morphs into masa harina, the basis of tamales and tortillas. Corn flour should not be confused with cornmeal (a coarser grind), or with corn-muffin mix (a preleavened product) or with cornstarch (which is sometimes called "corn flour" in British English).

Chickpea flour

Chickpea Flour

With its smoky, musky flavor, this gluten-free flour, ground from dried chickpeas, is a favorite in Indian cooking — and in Italian cooking in the Ligurian region. It's best in savory dishes — and can be mixed with equal parts water for an egg substitute in many vegan recipes. It's sometimes called "gram flour," "garbanzo flour," or "besan."

Rice flour

Rice Flour

Made from ground rice, this is the basic flour used to make baked goods for those with gluten allergies. It's also the basis of many Asian sweets, used to create paper-thin, slightly sticky doughs, batters and crepes. Two specialty rice flours are often found in Asian markets: Glutinous rice flour is made from a highly sticky rice and prized for its gummy texture in steamed or boiled sweets; brown rice flour, from ground brown rice, is less sticky and used to make the edible rice-paper wrappers in many packaged Asian candies.

Almond flour

Almond Flour

Made from ground almonds, almond flour is the most common nut flour you can find at large supermarkets or health-food stores. Although it lacks the glutens to make it a good thickener for stews and soups, almond flour can be successfully used in cookies, cakes, quick breads and other baked goods. In fact, all nut flours are particularly delicious in sweet treats. However, because of the different structure they create in batters, use nut flours only in recipes specifically formulated for their chemical makeup.

Buckwheat Flour

Buckwheat Flour

Made from ground buckwheat, buckwheat flour is familiar to most of us as the basis for earthy, nutty-tasting whole-grain pancakes and waffles. It's also used to make soba noodles in Japan, blini in Russia, crepes in Brittany and a variety of savory and sweet dishes on certain religious holidays in India.