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Using the right flour is the first step to getting the perfect "crumb" in your bakes. The crumb refers to the inside texture of bread or cakes, notably the pattern and size of the holes. Whether you're after a light airy "open crumb" for your sourdough bread or a denser, but tender "closed crumb" on your signature pound cake, the choice of flour can make a big difference.
The two main differences between flour types are the origin source (for most, wheat) and the protein content (which determines how much gluten can be developed). Flour can be made from many different sources (we focused on wheat in this post, which are not gluten free), from potatoes, rice and tapioca (all gluten-free) - to a variety of nut flours like almond, coconut, hazelnut and pistachios (also gluten free).
All-purpose flour is the old faithful of flours. It can be used in almost any application and boasts a mid-range protein content of 9.5 - 11.5%. It works great in cookies, muffins, pancakes, waffles and other quick breads like banana or pumpkin bread. In a pinch, all-purpose can be used in place of cake or bread flour in cakes and bread making if you don't have either of the other two - though the results won't be quite the same (cakes won't be as tender, breads not as chewy).
Bread flour has a higher protein content of 11.5 - 13.5% which enables it to develop more gluten during the bread making process allowing for a chewier bite. Protein also traps carbon dioxide released by yeast to create more rise and larger air pockets. Note: We've been quickly selling out of Cuisinart Bread makers every time we get them back in stock. As I write this we have the Cuisinart 2lb. Convection Bread Maker and the Cuisinart Compact Bread Maker back in stock. HURRY THEY SELL OUT FAST!
Cake flour has the lowest protein content of 6-7% which means less gluten can be developed during the mixing process - this results in the tender, crumbly texture that you see in cakes.
Gluten-free flour is a combination of wheat-free flours such as white and brown rice flours, potato starch, sorghum flour and tapioca flour. These flours are designed to be replaced 1:1 - meaning 1 cup of all-purpose can be replaced with 1 cup of the gluten-free flour.
Self-rising flour is a combination of all-purpose flour, salt, and leavening agents (such as baking powder). Traditional in the south, self-rising flour is often made with a lower-protein all-purpose flour that results in a more tender finished product. White Lily is a popular brand of such flour and is often used to make biscuits.
To make your own self-rising flour: for every 1 cup self-rising flour you need use 1 cup all-purpose flour + 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder + 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is made by mashing the whole grain of wheat, known as the wheat berry. This type of flour is higher in nutrients than all-purpose, and often makes for a heavier/denser finished product. Whole wheat flour is often mixed with all-purpose to lighten the texture and allow the product to rise better.
Why Sift Flour?
When a recipe calls for sifted flour, don't skip this step and don't think a quick whisk will do the trick either. Sifting flour breaks up clumps, aerates,and helps it mix better with other dry ingredients. It's also better for creating delicate batters, like genoise, angel food, or sponge. You can see the difference of the crumb in the example below.
Be careful to read the recipe carefully when it calls for sifted flour. For example, a recipe might call for 2 cups sifted flour or it might call for 2 cups flour, sifted. The former means that the flour should be measured after sifting, while the later means that it should be measured first and then sifted. The difference in volume between sifted and non-sifted flour is huge and can ruin all your hard work.
There are several styles of sifters to choose from. They all get the job done; it's really just a matter of personal preference. Some folks love the old-school stainless sifters like, Mrs. Anderson's 3-Cup Crank Sifter or the 5-Cup Squeeze Handle Sifter. Minimalists would prefer either the Tovolo 1-Cup Scoop and Sift, which measures a cup prior to sifting, or a nice quality all-purpose 4" sieve or 6" sieve, or this handy 3-Piece Sieve Set from Cuisinart.
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