Have you ever considered baking, then been overwhelmed by all your different options? There are ingredients like baking soda and baking powder to think about, not to mention yeast, which can seem confusing to the novice baker.
Then there are all the different types of flour, including the variations on wheat-based flour, like all purpose and whole wheat flour. Beyond this are the gluten-containing flours that use other grains, like spelt, and a huge array of gluten free flours that are made from almost any ingredient you can imagine.
These different products all have their own properties. Some are high in gluten, which makes them excellent for some types of baking and a poor choice for anyone with gluten sensitivity. Others are gluten free, but are high in carbs. Such flours aren’t just an issue for low carb dieters. Many of us would do well to decrease our carb intake.
There are other differences too, such as variations in flavor, availability, and texture. The products also have their quirks when baking. Because of this, you’ll often need to combine two or three types of flour to get the desired effect.
To put it simply, flour is a powder that’s made by grinding raw seeds, grains, nuts, roots, or other ingredients. In other words, if you grind anything fine enough, you end up with a type of flour. The flour is then used in various types of baking, in cooking, and in many other applications.
Even these days, most flour is made from wheat, so it’s the best place to begin. Wheat flour is the one relied on in many of our traditional recipes. It’s the time you’ll probably turn to when you start baking and the only type featured in some cookbooks.
However, wheat flour isn’t all the same. The different types vary in the amount of protein and gluten they contain, making them relevant for different applications. The following focuses on the most common examples, although there are others as well.
All purpose flour lives up to its name, as a versatile ingredient that can be used in countless situations. In fact, any recipe that simply calls for ‘flour’ can be made using all purpose flour.
This version of flour uses a combination of hard and soft wheat, with a moderate protein content of between 10% and 13%. All purpose flour is sometimes bleached, meaning that chemicals are used to make it softer and white. You can also find unbleached versions that have been aged naturally. These versions are off-white instead and tend to be coarser.
You’ll use all purpose flour in many recipes, including cakes, muffins, pies, cookies, and as a thickening agent.
Regardless of the type, all purpose flour is highly processed. Parts of the wheat have been removed, leaving just the soft endosperm. While this approach helps to create a soft versatile flour, it also makes the flour low in nutrients.
Self rising flour is a type of all purpose flour that also contains salt and a leavening agent (normally baking powder). These extra ingredients make baking easier, as you don’t need to worry about adding a leavening agent.
That said, self-rising flour is best used in recipes that call for it. Using self rising flour instead of regular flour and baking powder doesn’t always work like you would expect, due to the ratios of the two ingredients.
Whole Wheat Flour
Whole wheat flour is simply produced using the entire wheat kernel. It is high in protein, fiber, and nutrients than wheat flour. It also tends to be heavier, adding a distinctive flavor and texture to baking.
The heaviness of whole wheat flour is such that it is often mixed with lighter flours to create the desired texture.
Not surprisingly, this flour is often used for baking bread. It relies on hard wheat, which raises the protein content to between 12% and 15%. The bread is also high in gluten, helping to create the desired structure and chewiness in your finished loaf.
Cake flour takes the opposite approach. It’s a low protein flour that has been milled until it is very fine indeed. These approaches allow the flour to absorb more liquid, leading to soft and tender cakes. In contrast, using a high protein flour for cake tends to make the treat too tough and much less appealing.
The differences between bread flour and cake flour are such that you shouldn’t use one when the other type is called for. Even using all purpose flour instead of cake flour is enough to mess with some recipes.
The following flours don’t rely on wheat, but they still contain gluten. The gluten means these products behave a lot like regular flour when you’re baking, which is very helpful.
If you’re sensitive to gluten, the flours below are all ones you should avoid.
Spelt flour can be used to make delicious pizza bases and breads. The grain has a distinct nutty flavor, which makes it especially appealing for savory baking.
Moreover, spelt flour has a similar protein content to all-purpose flour. This means you can easily use it as a 1:1 replacement in your recipes. You may, however, need to add a little more moisture to stop your dough from being too dry.
Then there’s barley flour. This has some nuttiness to it too, along with subtle sweetness. It’s most suitable for quick breads and pancakes, where it provides the best possible texture.
This flour can be used instead of regular flour in many recipes. However, it can become crumbly when you use a large amount of it, so watch out for that.
There are two main types. The first is dark rye flour. This uses the entire kernel, making it heavy and one of the darkest flours you’ll find. The other is light rye flour. This relies on the endosperm only, so it tends to be lighter in color and flavor.
Rye flour might be healthier than wheat flour and has even been linked to blood sugar control. However, it is still high in carbs and contains gluten, so it isn’t helpful for everyone.
Rice flour comes in three main forms: brown, white, and glutinous. The first two are obvious from their names alone – they’re simply made from raw brown or white rice.
Brown rice flour is the whole grain version, so it provides more flavor and texture, while white rice flour is white and bland. Brown rice flour and white rice flour are excellent replacements for whole wheat flour and all purpose flour, respectively.
Those two types can also be used interchangeably, although changing the type will alter the flavor and texture of your baking.
Glutinous rice flour is a different story. This version is made from rice that has been cooked and dehydrated before being ground into flour. This flour is distinctive, as it tends to be sticky and somewhat chewy when cooked.
The flour is used to make mochi, along with other interesting desserts and even some dinners. However, the properties of the flour don’t work well in conventional baking.
Cassava is a traditional root vegetable in many parts of Africa and Asia. It’s often used much like other root vegetables, like being roasted, fried, or mashed.
The root can also be grated, dried, and ground, which creates cassava flour. While cassava root tends to be nutty, the flour has a neutral flavor and a smooth texture. This makes it versatile. Cassava flour also fits well on many diets, as it is gluten free, nut free, vegan, and paleo.
However, like many types of flour, cassava flour is high in carbs. You get around 31 grams of carbs per 1/4 cup of the flour, plus little fiber and fat.
Then there’s coconut flour. This is made from dried and ground coconut – and is one of the most famous gluten free flours on the market.
Coconut flour is more absorbent than regular wheat flour, so recipes using coconut flour often need more eggs or liquids than you might expect. The batters are often thicker as well, which can lead to differences in the textures of your baking.
The flour is particularly popular among low carb and keto dieters, especially as it is a nut-free option. That said, people with nut allergies should be cautious, as you may experience cross-reactions from coconuts.
Almond flour is the other popular keto flour substitute. It’s even lower in carbs than coconut flour and is also less absorbent. The absorbency difference means you can’t simply substitute coconut flour for almond flour. You’ll need to make tweaks to the liquids in your recipe as well.
Almond flour is also high in fat. The fat content sometimes creates greasy baking if you’re using a large amount of almond flour at a time or if the recipe is unbalanced. In fact, many recipes use almond flour along with another gluten free flour to get around this issue.
If you’re just beginning with almond flour, try to avoid making substitutions. Instead, look for a recipe that’s designed to use the flour. This will allow you to get familiar with the flour without needing to think about tweaking ingredients.
Oat flour is an excellent choice for novice gluten free bakers, as it is easier to work with than almond flour or coconut flour. Oat flour is also extremely allergy friendly, especially if you choose a version made using gluten free oats.
Beyond this, oat flour has a slight nutty flavor. This works well with savory dishes and even sweet ones. The flavor is also mild, so it won’t ever dominate your recipe.
While oat flour is certainly helpful, it’s higher in carbs than almond flour or coconut flour. It also isn’t suitable for any grain-free diets, including the paleo diet. As a result, oat flour won’t always be the right choice.
Despite the name, buckwheat isn’t a type of wheat at all. It’s considered a pseudocereal instead, much like quinoa or amaranth. This is also a nutritious ingredient, giving you a decent amount of fiber, protein, and nutrients.
Buckwheat flour is simply made by grinding buckwheat. It’s most often used to make pancakes or bread, although there are plenty of other uses.
One thing to note is that this is a dark pseudocereal and your recipes will take on this brown color. It also imparts an earthy and nutty flavor. This is an excellent flavor in some recipes but not in others, so you’ll need to be wise about when to use the flour.
Gluten Free Flour Blends
You’ll also see blends of gluten free flour. Some are sold at stores, often called gluten free all purpose flour or something similar, while you’ll need to prepare at home by following a recipe.
Such blends are able to balance out the quirks of individual flours. Some of them even behave much like all purpose flour and can be used as a 1:1 substitution.
You’ll need to be careful with blends if you’re following a specialized diet or have food allergies. Thankfully, there’s a huge number of different blends out there, so you can probably find one that matches your needs.
Millet is a tiny yellow pseudocereal that is often used to make flour (you can even make the flour from millet seeds at home). The flour has an interesting corn-like flavor that is distinct, but not overly strong.
You could use the flour on its own in a recipe or combine it with other types of flour. Combining multiple flours is useful if you don’t want too much millet flavor in your baking. That said, the flavor is often appealing, especially if you’re using millet flour in bread.
Lupin flour is made from the sweet lupin bean, which is a pretty obscure type of legume. This useful flour fits well into many diets, including keto, vegan, and paleo. It also has an appealing nutty flavor.
Like millet flour, you can make lupin flour yourself by grinding the beans in a food processor. However, you first need to find sweet lupin beans, which isn’t always an easy task. Thankfully, you can always order lupin flour online.
There’s a catch though – people with peanut allergies and those with soy allergies may also react to lupin. If you have such allergies, you’ll need to be cautious when first trying lupin flour.
Strange as it may seem, banana flour is exactly what the name suggests – flour made from bananas. It is typically made using green bananas, as these are higher in resistant starch and aren’t as sweet as fully ripe bananas.
The flour does have some sweetness and also tends to be pretty light (interestingly, the flour doesn’t taste have a distinct banana flavor). These features are excellent for baking and make banana flour fairly versitile. The resistant starch in the flour may also provide benefits for your gut health – a feature you don’t often find with flour.
If you’re using banana flour instead of all purpose flour in a recipe, try using 3/4 banana flour for each cup of all purpose flour in your recipe. You can also add a little baking powder if your recipe needs some rise. Of course, you’ll need to experiment, as each recipe behaves a little differently.
Soy is popular as a vegan source of protein and features in an absurd number of different products. So, the presence of soy flour shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
The flour is simply made by grinding soybeans, which gives it a noticeable bean-like flavor. Some people enjoy this flavor and feel that it is fairly subtle, while others find it too intense.
Still, the flavor hit is easily avoided by blending soy flour with other types of gluten free flour. You could also look for roasted soy flour, which has a different flavor profile.
While soy flour works well, it does brown faster than many other types of flour. This means you should carefully watch your baking to make sure there’s no overcooking. Pay attention to the type of soy flour your recipe calls for two, as there are different levels of fat content, which can have noticeable impacts on your baking.
Tapioca flour comes from the cassava root, just like cassava flour, but the two products are quite different. In particular, cassava flour is made from grated cassava, while tapioca flour is simply starch that is extracted through a washing and pulping process.
Because tapioca flour is a type of starch, it’s best used as a substitute for cornstarch rather than instead of all purpose flour. This means you’ll mostly be using it as a thickener. If you’re looking for a baking ingredient instead, cassava flour is the way to go.
Now we come to lentil flour. This is most often made using red lentils, but can also use other types of lentils and even sprouted lentils. You can even choose whether to use the lentils as-is or roast them first. In all cases, you’re getting a nutrient dense ingredient that offers a decent amount of fiber.
The flour works best for baking that doesn’t need to rise too much. Even then, lentil flour is best as 10% or 20% of the total flour mixture. Many recipes don’t turn out quite right if you use lentil flour and nothing else.
Teff is a tiny ancient grain, roughly the size of a poppy seed. It has a long history in Ethiopia, where it features in traditional dishes. Making the teff into flour is as simple as grinding the grains.
Teff comes in a variety of colors, so teff flour can be differently colored as well. White teff flour and brown teff flour are the most common options (although you may sometimes see others). Regardless of color, teff flour is nutty, with hints of molasses. The brown version is especially interesting, as it leads to dark brown baked products, such as this pizza dough.
Cricket flour is one of the most unusual entries on this list. It’s also pretty hard to find in the United States and mostly sold as a gimmick rather than a legitimate ingredient.
The flour is indeed made using crickets. These go through a variety of processes, including freeze-drying, crushing, and baking, to create a dark brown powder. This powder can be used much like the other flours on this list and has a distinctly nutty flavor.
Cricket flour has clear advantages, as it is high in protein and iron, making it powerful for health. However, the flour’s obscurity works against you, as few recipes use cricket flour and there aren’t many discussions about how it behaves when cooked.
When you hear nut flour, you probably think about almond flour. However, you can make flour using other types of nut as well, including hazelnuts, chestnuts, and pecans. Peanut flour exists too, although peanuts are technically legumes rather than nuts.
Nut flours all tend to create crumbly baking, so you’ll need to use a binder in your recipe. While the flours have different flavors, they behave similarly to each other, so you can generally swap one type of nut flour for another.
Just keep an eye on storage with nut flours. Their fat content means these flours deteriorate much faster than wheat flour. It’s best to buy nut flour in small amounts and store it in the fridge.