Wheat Flour

Copyright © 2000 Sarah Phillips Sarah Phillips, Inc. All rights reserved.
"The baking quality of flour is related to the quality and quantity of proteins and of the gluten that derives from them."
French baking professor, Raymond Calvel in his book, The Taste of Bread.

Flour is the product obtained by grinding wheat kernels or "berries." The kernel consists of three distinct parts: bran, the outer covering of the grain; germ, the embryo contained inside the kernel; and endosperm, the part of the kernel that makes white flour. During milling, the three parts are separated and recombined accordingly to achieve different types of flours.

There are six different classes of wheat: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, hard white, soft white and durum. The end products are determined by the wheat's characteristics, especially protein and gluten content. The harder the wheat, the higher the amount of protein in the flour. Soft, low protein wheats are used in cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers and Oriental noodles. Hard, high protein wheats are used in breads and quick breads. Durum is used in pasta and egg noodles. (Wheat Foods Council)

SARAH SAYS: An occasional humid day doesn't really make a big difference in the weight and baking qualities of flour. According to the King Arthur Flour Company, flour can gain up to 5 percent of its weight in water when held in its opened or unopened paper packing bag after several months in a very humid environment. At this level, they reported that humidity might affect baked goods, but it isn't significant. To avoid this problem, transfer flour to an airtight container as soon as you purchase it, and store in a cool, dry place if it is white flour. Keep whole grain flours tightly wrapped in the freezer. No need to thaw before using.


Different types of flour contain different amounts of protein. It varies considerably amongst brands and the geographic location where the wheat is grown. Soft wheat flour, sold primarily in the South and cake flour are much better for biscuits and pie crusts. Hard wheat flours, sold primarily in the North and Midwest, are better for breads.

Selection criteria for flour for a recipe is based primarily on the end result you are trying to achieve; you do not want to use a high protein bread flour to make a cake or it will change its texture to dense. Conversely, when baking bread and you use cake flour, is too soft and has little gluten-forming proteins. This will cause the bread to fall because it requires a stronger structure that can trap the gases created by yeast, allowing the bread to rise.

For our recipes, measure flour by weighing or by spooning into a dry measuring cup, filling and leveling it to its rim.

(Varies by Region)
Approximate Volume Needed to Absorb 1 Cup Water
 Vital Wheat Gluten  40 - 80%  Small amounts for better bread rising  
 Whole Wheat
(Hard red spring)
ex: King Arthur stone-ground whole wheat flour (14%)
 14% Best used 50/50% with bread or all-purpose 2 cups(packed) + 1 tablespoon
 Durham Wheat 
 13+%  Pasta  
 White Whole Wheat  13%   Best used 66/33% with bread or all-purpose  
 Bread Flour 
ex: King Arthur Special Bread Flour (12.7%); Gold Medal (12.3%)
12 - 13%  Bread baking  
 All-purpose, Unbleached
exs: King Arthur (11.7%); Hecker's (12%); Pillsbury and Gold Medal (~11%) 
 Nations Brands 11 - 12%   General baking  2 cups(packed) + 2 tablespoons
 All-purpose, Bleached
exs: Pillsbury and Gold Medal (~11%) 
 National Brands 11%  

(regional brands may be significantly lower); unbleached is slightly higher)

 General Baking  2 1/4 cups
 Pastry, All-Purpose Southern, Cake
ex: Wondra (9.8%); King Arthur Whole Wheat Pastry Flour (9.5%); King Arthur Pastry Flour (9.2%); White Lily Bleached All-Purpose Southern Flour (9%); King Arthur Bleached Cake Flour or Guinevere (8%); Swans Down or Softasilk Bleached Cake Flour (8%)
 8 - 10%  Depends on flour   

There are as many as 30 types of protein in wheat flour, but only two of those are important for our purposes: gliaden and glutenin. When they come in contact with moisture (water, milk, etc.) and are stirred, they produce gluten which gives elasticity, strength and shape to baking recipes.

Wheat flour contains starch. The word starch originates from a German word meaning 'stiff'. Other common kitchen starches are cornstarch, maize flour, tapioca, and semolina. When a starch is added and heated it swells'' and expands sucking in any available moisture in its surroundings thereby giving the product more stability.

Wheat starch begins to gelatinize (absorb water and set) between 140 and 158 degrees F, the exact temperature dependent is the specific starch. By definition, gelatinization is a phenomenon which takes place in the presence of heat and moisture.

ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR OR SIMPLY CALLED "FLOUR", "OCCIDENT FLOUR" OR "WHITE FLOUR":  All-purpose flour is one of the most commonly used, unless you have allergies or special needs, and is readily accessible flour in the United States. You can use either unbleached or bleached and you don't need to buy a fancy brand; flour from the grocery store is perfectly fine. (I always use unbleached all-purpose flour).

There are several basic types of all-purpose flour:

  • Enriched All-Purpose Flour has iron and B-vitamins added in amounts equal to or exceeding that of whole wheat flour.
  • Bleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour is treated with chlorine to mature the flour, condition the gluten and improve the baking quality. The chlorine evaporates and does not destroy the nutrients but does reduce the risk of spoilage or contamination.
  • Unbleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour (or Occident Flour) is bleached by oxygen in the air during an aging process and is off-white in color. Nutritionally, bleached and unbleached flour are the same.

Just make sure to pay attention to whether your all-purpose flour is bleached or not; bleached versions have slightly lower amounts of protein. The bran and germ have been removed, giving the flour an off-white color, called unbleached, which can be chemically bleached to white, called bleached.  
SARAH SAYS: Some commercially processed flours contain toxic chemicals that are used to whiten and oxidize them. I have found that these chemicals significantly affect the outcome of certain recipes and prefer to use a pure flour that does not contain any unnecessary additives. For this reason, I always use flour that is called: "unbleached and unbromated" from the grocery store. (Bromates are not listed in most states).

Bleached vs unbleached flour: one main difference between unbleached and bleached flour is the color; one is off-white and the other is pure white. Technically speaking, the carotenoid (yellow) pigments in the flour are oxidized to produce white flour. More significant, however, bleaching alters the protein molecules, of the flour, which effectively denatures their gluten-forming capability, and the roughens the surface of the starch granules. Both of these changes promote gelatinization of the starch during baking (the absorption of water and setting of the starch granules due to heating). This is important because the ability of the flour to gelatinize is critical to the ultimate texture of baked goods.
Beranbaum, Rose Levy (2014-11-26). The Baking Bible (Kindle Locations 16471). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. 

Flours treated with these bleaching agents must be labeled as bleached. If a recipe doesn't specify, you can use either one, but where a whiter color is desired, use the bleached one. Or, in high ratio recipes, bleached is preferred. For those looking for untreated flour, note that unbleached flour can still contain maturing agents and chemical dough improvers (listed on the label).

Potassium bromate, a potentially carcinogenic chemical, has been used extensively as both an oxidizer and a conditioner. (In California, any food containing potassium bromate must carry a warning label.) Common maturing agents include potassium bromate (used mainly in the Midwest and the east) and ascorbic acid (used mainly in the west). 

There are other permissible chemical additives used to whiten and oxidize flour: such as chlorine dioxide, benzoyl peroxide, and chlorine gas. Breads treated with these agents will generally exhibit increased loaf volume, finer grain and an improved look. People with especially sensitive palates can detect a bitter aftertaste from flours treated with these chemicals.

What else is added to flour?: A small amount of malted barley flour is usually added to all-purpose flour to increase the level of enzyme activity in the flour. Malted barley flour is made from sprouted barley that is dried and ground. This sprouting stimulates the production of enzymes that break starch into sugars, on which the yeast feeds.

What is enriched flour?: in the 1940s, the Food and Drug Administration mandated that every all-purpose flour be "enriched," so small amounts of iron, niacin, thiamin and riboflavin are added. In the future, folic acid, a member of the vitamin B complex, will be added to this list.

BOLTED FLOUR:  (20 % flour) This is a whole wheat flour that has had about 80 percent of its bran sifted off. It may also be called “unbleached flour” or “reduced bran flour.”

BREAD FLOUR: Bread flour, also referred to as "strong white flour" or "strong flour", is a high-gluten flour usually milled from hard wheat. It contains a high percentage of protein which forms gluten when moistened.
Bread flour is used in bread recipes because it creates a gluten network strong enough to trap the gases from the yeast, but not good in quick-breads, cookies and cakes, which need a lesser one. If you're baking sourdough bread, bread flour's high gluten content is a big help in getting the dough to rise well.
It's best to only substitute a small portion of bread flour with grains other than wheat, such as rye, are used, instead. Those grains don't contain any gluten of their own It can be substituted 1 for 1 with all-purpose, but proceed with caution because there may be a difference in the end result.

CAKE FLOUR: This enriched and bleached flour is used in producing fine high-ratio, chiffon and angel food cakes, as well as assorted cookies. (Cakes with a high amount of sugar and liquid in proportion to flour.)

Milled from soft white flour, cake flour has a lower gluten content than whole wheat pastry flour. It is used where a delicate and tender texture is desired. Almost all cake flour is bleached. to lighten its pale beige color. In delicate cakes, it imparts some acidity to a batter yielding a cake with a crumb that's whiter, finer and sweeter in flavor. Bleached cake flour also toughens the protein molecules, enabling the flour to carry more than its weight in sugar.

Most grocery stores carry cake flour, but it is in a 2 lb. box not a bag as regular flour is. Common brands are Swans Down (red box with yellow cake on it) or else Softasilk (I prefer this brand although it seems to be hard to find now).
Question: Why is chlorinated (or bleached) flour used in cake and cookie formulations?
SARAH SAYS: Soft wheat flours intended for use in cake and cookie production are often chlorinated to enhance baking performance by improving the functional properties of flour components. In the chlorination process, the flour is treated with chlorine gas. During this treatment the flour undergoes a pH reduction proportional to the level of chlorine applied. Manufacturers can then use pH as a specification for the purchase of chlorinated flours. Unbleached flour has a pH range of 5.8 to 6.1 while optimum performing bleached flour has a pH range of 4.6 to 5.1.

In cakes, chlorinated flours improve the structure forming capacity, allowing the manufacture of cakes with high ratio formulations (high level of sugar to flour). At the optimum chlorination level, cakes have improved product symmetry, increased volume and a more desirable grain structure and texture over those produced with non-chlorinated flours.

What happens is that "unbleached flour has particles that are smooth and round and the butter slips right through them and lands in a gummy layer at the bottom, causing the cake to fall in the center while cooling. the bleaching process, however, roughens these flour particles enabling them to hold the butter in even suspension." (from Rose Levy Beranbaum)

In cookie manufacturing, chlorine treatment of flour is used to control cookie spread. Consistent cookie diameter improves overall product quality and helps avoid packaging problems. Chlorinated flour reduces spread and tightens the surface grain of cookies. The higher the level of chlorine applied, the smaller the diameter.

The exact action of the chlorine treatment on flour is not fully understood since chlorine is a non-specific reagent that can alter various components of the flour. The changes in functional properties are often attributed to the breakage of bonds in protein molecules. For cakes it is generally accepted that the structural strengthening effect is caused by the action of chlorine on starch as well as proteins. Studies on cookies have shown that the role of chlorination in the reduction of cookie spread may be attributed to oxidative changes in flour proteins.

DURUM FLOUR: is a by-product of milling semolina flour that has a the highest protein content with less starch of any flour. (It's nutritional profile similar to whole wheat.) As a result, it makes a tough dough that can stretch and expand—perfect for pasta. It is generally used in commercially made short goods pasta such as elbow macaroni and shells.

FARINA: Flour or meal made from grain or starchy roots. Also sold as Cream of Wheat, farina is made from the endosperm of the grain, which is milled to a fine granular consistency and then sifted. Although the bran and most of the germ are removed, this cereal is sometimes enriched with B vitamins and iron. Farina is most often served as a breakfast cereal, but can also be cooked like polenta. Its name comes from the Latin word for meal or flour, which in turn traces to far, the Latin name for spelt, a type of wheat. Farina was the first genuine flour

FORTIFIED FLOUR: refers to an all-purpose flour, usually wheat, to which nutrients like thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, removed during refining, have been added back.

GRAHAM FLOUR: Hard whole wheat flour with a course and flaky outer bran layer, and finely ground germ. Most famous use is in crackers. Adds texture to all baked goods.

GLUTEN FLOUR: Gluten flour is white flour mixed with concentrated wheat protein. Gluten flour has a much higher percentage of gluten - between 40 to 80% protein. Performs well in bagels, thin crust pizza, hard rolls, hearth breads and "heavy" breads such as those with extra bran, raisins, nuts and sugar

The protein binds moisture meaning your bread and baked goods will usually be more moist and "fresh" than traditional baking yields as well. This should never be confused with other gluten flours as mentioned below which can have significantly more carbohydrate. Vital wheat gluten can also be an essential ingredient when baking with soy flour or soya powder, as soy contains no gluten element to allow baking doughs to raise or hold their shape.
Please check your labels! Vital Wheat Gluten Flour is usually available in the health food section or baking section of your grocery, or at some health food stores.

High Gluten Flour and Bread Machine Flour:
While vital wheat gluten flour contains 75% or greater protein, the flours labeled Bread Machine Flour and High Gluten Flour have between 12 and 14% protein. Usually milled from hard red spring wheat, the carb count ranges from 54 grams per cup for High Gluten Flour to 66 grams per cup for most Bread Machine Flours.  For small uses, this can still be of value since all-purpose "white" flour (bleached or non-bleached; enriched or not enriched) contains a whopping 92-97 grams per cup!

All gluten products (as well as soy flours) should be stored refrigerated or frozen as they are natural products (no preservatives and a full-fat profile) and can therefore become rancid.
PATENT FLOUR - WINTER: Flour milled from a select blend of hard winter wheat. Used to produce pan style breads, buns, soft rolls, sweet goods, thick pizza crust, and specialty baked goods.

PATENT FLOUR - SPRING: Flour milled from a select blend of primarily hard spring wheat. Used to produce variety breads, pizza crusts, sweet goods, hard and soft rolls.

SELF-RISING FLOUR, ALL-PURPOSE:  Not to be confused with self-rising cake flour which is different. Self-rising flour is intended to be a convenience for bakers because the baking powder and salt have already been added to it. However, it has the disadvantage of deteriorating quickly when exposed to humid conditions. 1 CUP self-rising flour is equal to 1 CUP all-purpose flour with 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder and a pinch of salt. 

SEMOLINA FLOUR -  Semolina is the coarsely ground endosperm of durum wheat. Never bleached and high in protein, it is used to make the highest quality "white" pasta. Adds extra flavor and texture in some bread recipes. It is also used to make couscous - a North African and Latin American dish which is quickly becoming a staple in North America. FYI: Durum flour is a by-product in the production of semolina and is used for American noodles, some pastas and some specialty breads.

TWENTY PERCENT (20 %) BRAN FLOUR: In Leader's Bread Alone he writes, "To make your own 20 percent bran wheat flour with germ, combine 3 parts unbleached white flour (preferably with germ) with 1 part stone-ground whole wheat flour, preferably medium or fine grind. This is easiest to do in large batches-3 pounds white flour to 1 pound whole wheat"  On a previous page he writes about unbleached white flour with germ, "You can make your own by stirring 1 tablespoon of raw or toasted wheat germ into each cup of unbleached white flour."

VITAL WHEAT GLUTEN: Vital Wheat Gluten is used in certain types of breadmaking. It gives the yeast in the recipe a boost because it contains a high amount of gluten forming proteins.  I use it in my heavier breads that rise slowly, such as rye, whole grains, or ones loaded with sugar, dried fruit and nuts. Your loaves should rise higher and have better volume. FYI: Some bakers use it all the time when using a Bread Machine especially when using whole grain or all-purpose flour.
One widely available brand in the grocery store is Hodgson Mills - it comes in about a 10 oz box. After opening you can either reseal the inner packet or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate. If you use it often, just storing it in a dark pantry is fine, but place the box in an airtight bag or container.
Use 1 teaspoon of vital wheat gluten per cup of all-purpose, 1- 2 teaspoons per cup of bread flour or 1-1/2 to 3 teaspoons for every cup of whole grain or rye flours.

WHEAT GERM or BRAN, UNPROCESSED BRAN: Though not a flour, wheat germ, either untoasted or toasted, can be used in place of up to 1/3 of the flour in a recipe or just added for flavor and fiber. It's perfect in pancakes and other baked goods as well as meat or vegetable loaves. I use Miller's Bran (unprocessed bran flakes), a natural source of dietary fiber, found in grocery and natural foods stores.  It is less coarse than wheat germ and gives a better (lighter) texture to baked goods. 
Wheat germ is an excellent source of Vitamin E from the vitamin and mineral-rich outer layer of the wheat berry. Purchase it from a grocery or health food store; but beware, it goes rancid quickly, so try and get the freshest possible and refrigerate or freeze it. I prefer to use the freezer; no need to thaw before using.

WHITE WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR: (See also WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR) Milled from hard white spring wheat, rather than traditional red wheat, it has a finer grind. Makes lighter-colored, milder-tasting baked goods. The difference is the bran coating on the wheat; it is classified as white compared to the typical red wheat grown in the United States. The key difference is the red pigmentation in the red wheat has been removed which gives it a lighter, whiter color. With the red pigmentation removed, a less bitter taste is also apparent. I like to mix it with All-purpose or whole-wheat 66/33%.

WHOLE GRAIN (MEAL): (Whole Grains Council) Whole grains are foods that contain the entire plant kernel that is humanly edible, whereas refined grains are products that are stripped of the more coarse, fibrous part of the kernel as well as germ or seed. Wholemeal (100%) flour can be made from wheat and rye, with both organic grain and conventional grain. Research studies support that a heart-healthy diet rich in whole grains and other plant foods can be an ally in reducing your risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer.

Bulgur (non-wheat grain): Enjoy it as a main meal side dish or cold as tabbouleh salad. 
Whole Wheat: Buy 100 percent whole wheat flour, pasta, crackers and cereals. Look for brands such as for Westbrae Natural Whole Wheat Spaghetti; Ak-Mak 100 percent Whole Wheat Crackers, and Shredded Wheat, Wheaties, Wheatina, Weetabix, and Wheat Chex

WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR: (See also WHITE WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR) High-gluten, hard whole wheat flour contains the nutritious germ and bran as well as the endosperm contained in the entire wheat kernel.It is sometimes referred to as Wholemeal Flour. In addition to fiber, whole-grain baked goods are better sources of B vitamins, vitamin E, and many minerals than are those made with white flour. Whole grains are also a good source of folate and selenium, two nutritional buzzwords.

Whole wheat flour may be substituted for part (50 %) of the white flour in yeast and quick bread recipes, but the recipe will be denser. Bran particles cut through the gluten during mixing and kneading of bread dough, resulting in a smaller, heavier loaf. 

FYI: Selenium is also found in whole-grain breads at nearly twice the concentration contained in white breads. Selenium intake was linked with prostate cancer protection by a Harvard School of Public Health study. Because folate has been found to lower the risk of heart disease and birth defects, it is especially important for those at risk of heart disease and for women of child-bearing age to get the recommended daily dosage of 400 micrograms. A 35-gram slice of whole-grain wheat bread contains about 17.5 micrograms of folacin, whereas its white-bread counterpart only provides just over half this amount.

WHOLE WHEAT PASTRY FLOUR: Low-gluten flour milled from soft wheat with the bran included.  It is sometimes labeled Whole Grain Pastry Flour.  Do not confuse it with whole wheat flour. I sometimes use it instead of all-purpose flour when creating healthy baking recipes. In the absence of fat, it gives a more tender outcome. Keep tightly wrapped in the freezer. No need to thaw before using.

WONDRA: is a brand name for Instantized Flour. Wondra flour comes in a small blue canister available from the grocery store. It is pre-sifted, and specially prepared to dissolve smoothly into gravies, sauces, etc. It makes life a lot easier when compared to using regular flour

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