Ask a Baker: does the type of flour I bake with matter?

Published on June 14 2019.

Photo: Loafer Bread (photo: Stephanie McLeod)

Strong flour, bread flour, all-purpose flour: what’s the difference, and does it matter? We spoke to a baker to find out what to do when you’re confronted with an unfamiliar flour in a recipe.

If you’ve ever baked a cake, a loaf of bread or even a batch of biscuits at home, chances are you’ve come across a recipe that calls for a specific type of wheat flour. But while you may be tempted to ignore instructions and just use that bag of plain white flour lurking in the depths of your pantry (“Flour is flour, right?”), there are a few reasons why you shouldn’t.

Cake flour, bread (or baker’s) flour and plain (or all-purpose) flour vary primarily in the type of wheat they’re made from and their protein content, says baker Andrea Brabazon from Loafer Bread in Fitzroy North.

The protein content of flour determines how much gluten will form, which then affects the texture and structure of what you’re baking. The higher the gluten protein content, the stronger and denser the structure, which is necessary for high and chewy loaves of bread that won’t collapse. 

The lower the gluten protein content, the lighter and airier the structure, which is what you want for tender, fluffier cakes.

“What this means is if you’re trying to make bread out of cake flour it’s going to really struggle to develop the structure you need for your bread to be able to rise properly,” says Brabazon. “Going the other way, a cake made with bread flour is going to be quite tough, and won’t have that soft mouthfeel.”

If you can’t get your hands on the right flour for the job, there are things you can do to all-purpose flour to achieve a better result.

If you’re making a cake, adding starch, such as cornflour or rice flour, to all-purpose flour or even cutting it with almond or another nut meal will add finesse and reduce the gluten protein content.

If you’re making bread from all-purpose or cake flour, reduce the amount of water and work the dough a bit harder to activate the gluten.

Still, it’s possible to achieve a good result with the “wrong” flour, says Brabazon.

“You won’t get the same result, but it’s going to be delicious because you’ve made it from scratch. Your cake might be a little bit tough but you’re going to be eating it at peak freshness and it’s so delightful to have all those smells and things in your home – it’s still going to be enjoyable.”

Loafer Bread, 146 Scotchmer St, Fitzroy North, (03) 9489 0766, loaferbread.com

By Anna Webster

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