Baking Basics: What flour to use for baking?

Baking can be a high hurdle to jump over and the different flours available in the market don’t make it any easier. Here’s a simple guide to the kind of flours you should be using in your recipes!

Most cake and baking recipes call for plain or self-raising flour. Certain specialised ones call for wholemeal flour, which provides a different structure and texture to the baked goods. When I started baking, I only knew these 3 types of flour and never dared to experiment with other types. This was a mistake, considering how much of a difference this knowledge has made to my passion for baking (and eating baked goods). Here’s a list of the different flours used in the kitchen while baking, their features, benefits and what you can use them for.

Bleached vs Unbleached

The label ‘unbleached’ plain or self-raising flour is becoming more common in the market, compared to maybe 10 years ago. Consumers are more conscious of the products they buy and the effects these products have on their bodies.

Bleached flour is treated with chemicals such as benzoyl peroxide and chlorine gas to create a whiter, fine-grain flour. This also lends the flour a softer texture, making the resulting baked good soft and voluminous. Bleached flour is used for cakes, pastries and pies. However, bleached flour is stripped of almost all it’s nutritional value, and is really just another form of sugar. Something you might want to consider before purchasing.

Unbleached flour is technically not unbleached – it is bleached naturally with oxygen. This lightens the flour by a small margin, but does not compromise the nutrients in the flour. Unbleached flour can be used for the same pastries and cakes as bleached flour. Recipes generally do not specify bleached or unbleached, and you can easily substitute one for another when baking.

Plain Flour

This is literally all purpose flour. It can be used for anything from cakes to bread, pastries, pies and even as a gravy thickener. Most recipes use this type of flour, unless stated otherwise. It has a protein content of 10 to 12%, making it versatile for most baked products. The protein content in flour determines the structure it lends to baked goods – the higher the protein, the stronger the flour, the more sturdy (hard) your baked goods.

Self Raising Flour

Self raising flour is just like plain flour, with one very big difference. It has both baking powder and salt (in some cases) added to the mix. You could substitute self-raising flour for plain flour in most cake recipes, just make sure to not add the leavening agents (i.e. baking powder and/or baking soda)

Cake Flour

Cake flour is a lighter flour that is more finely milled than all purpose or white flour. While it does not have raising agents added like Self-Raising Flour does, it’s primary purpose is to be used for cakes. The bleached and fine-milled quality of cake flour also ensures a much smaller protein content than plain flour, which means your cakes will be lighter, fluffier and paler in colour. I almost always use cake flour when I make cakes, unless otherwise stated.

Wholemeal Flour

Wholemeal or wholewheat flour is easily the most nutritious of the lot. Unlike white flour, wholemeal flour is made using the bran, endosperm and germ of a grain. This makes the wholemeal flour fibrous and lends it a light brown colour. It also has a grainy texture which can be clearly distinguished in a cake.

If you don’t intend to use wholemeal flour for breads or heavier baked items, then it’s best to only use it when the recipe calls for it. Wholemeal flour has a more earthy flavour profile that could affect cakes negatively. Alternatively, you can use a combination of both wholemeal and white flour. However, make sure you’re combining it with a flour that doesn’t have raising agents added to it.

Here’s a Carrot Cake recipe that can be made with wholemeal flour!

Hong Kong Flour

Hong Kong flour is similar to cake flour, in that it is highly bleached. However, it contains a slightly higher protein content (8% to 10%) as compared to cake flour (6% to 8%). This makes Hong Kong Flour ideal for Chinese pastries, including dim sum and steamed baos. However, if you’re in a pickle, you could use HK flour as a substitute for cake flour in your cakes. Bear in mind that some HK flour brands include salt in the formula, so do read the packaging carefully.

Top Flour

Top flour is interchangeable with Ultra-fine flour that you can find in some supermarkets. This flour is milled to an even finer extent than cake flour, making it ideal for creating really light cakes. These include chiffon cakes, swiss-rolls and crepes. However, its protein content does not differ vastly from cake flour.

Bread Flour

Bread flour has the highest protein content of them all, perfect for making, well, breads. The gluten in bread flour (10% to 12%) gives bread dough an elastic texture when worked on. This then meets with the heat in the oven to produce bread with a much-desired chewy interior. I am not much of a bread-maker, hence I won’t be able to say much about this flour beyond what it can be used for.

These are the basic flours you might come across in the supermarket. While I experiment with the different flours when I bake, my advice to the beginner baker is to use self raising flour and plain flour. These two flours are the foundation of most baked goods, and less fussy to work with compared to the other flour types. Once you feel confident enough working with these flours, you can move on and try your hand at something with a more complex flavour and/or chemical composition.

Happy baking, cravers!

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