The Different Types of Flour Every Home Cook Should Know—Plus How to Store, Sift, and Swap Them
If you flip through one of your grandma's cookbooks, chances are those classic recipes simply call for "flour." But today, with baking aisles, bulk departments, and health food sections, it is likely that your supermarket is home to dozens of different flours suited for gluten-free diets, light-and-airy sweets, bakery-quality bread, and beyond. Each type of flour basically serves the same purpose: to lend structure to a batter, dough, or slurry. But different types of flour deliver slightly different nutrition, flavor, and texture. One key factor differentiates one type of flour from the next—the amount of gluten. Gluten is a protein that helps wheat-based doughs rise and hold their shape. There are essentially three main levels of flour protein content:
- High-protein: Made from hard wheat varieties, flours in this category have between 10% and 14% protein.
- Lower-protein: Made from soft wheat varieties, these types of flour have between 5% and 10% protein.
- Gluten-free: Made from grains that contain zero wheat proteins, these types contain rising agents from other ingredients in the recipe or flour blend.
More protein creates more gluten, which in turn, yields a stronger, more voluminous, and chewier result. More isn't always better though—yes, even if you're not gluten-intolerant. While you do want those qualities in breads and pastas, it's less ideal in pastries, cakes, and cookies that are better when flaky or tender.
Discover more about the different types of flour and the best categories of recipes to put each to terrific use. (Before we dive in, here's a quick but important reminder: Never eat raw flour, please!)
How to Use Any of These Types of Flour
Which flour you choose is mostly a matter of personal preference and dietary needs. (Some cooks like their white cake and bread as white as can be; others prefer their flour to be processed as little as possible. And some are aiming to limit or avoid gluten.)
Still, as we mentioned, not all types of flour perform exactly the same. If you're curious about substituting another type of flour for the one listed in your recipe, we've compiled a few handy guides:
- The Best All-Purpose Flour Substitutes If You Run Out or Need a Gluten-Free Swap
- How to Substitute Whole Wheat Flour for All-Purpose Flour
- Bread Flour vs. All-Purpose Flour: What's the Difference and Are They Interchangeable?
- Can You Use Cake Flour for Cookies? Learn the Cookie Chemistry from Our Test Kitchen Pros
How to Store Flour
Even the most perfectly engineered recipe can be spoiled by, well, spoiled flour. (By the way, as long as you cook the flour, it likely won't make you sick. Spoiled flour most often just smells off and doesn't taste very great, which is why we recommend tossing it. If you notice any pests in your flour, definitely dump it in the trash.)
All-purpose, cake, pastry, bread, or self-rising flours should remain in good shape stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for about 10 to 15 months. Many whole wheat, gluten-free, and nut-based flours contain enough oils that they can go rancid, so store these in a moisture- and vaporproof container in the refrigerator up to 6 months or freezer up to 12 months. Before using a refrigerated flour in a yeast bread recipe, bring it to room temperature so it does not slow the rising of the bread.
Do I Need to Worry About Sifting Bread Flour or Other Flours?
You usually can skip sifting most of these types of flour. Even though many flours come presifted, the flour settles in the bag during shipping. So, it's wise to stir the flour in the bag or canister before measuring to make it lighter. Then gently spoon the flour into a dry measuring cup and level it off with a spatula or the side of a knife. You will need to sift cake flour before measuring it, especially for sponge cake recipes, to achieve a cloudlike texture.
For the most accurate results when measuring flour, employ a food scale.
11 Different Types of Flour Every Home Cook Should Know
When referring to flour as a general term, most people mean wheat-based all-purpose flour unless they say otherwise. That's far from your only option, however, as you'll see in our guide to different types of flour, below.
The Best Types of Flour for Baking
These are your best options for baked goods going into the oven.
Great for: Cookies, breads, muffins, piecrusts, pancakes, and biscuits
As its name implies, this type of flour is a common, multipurpose, and super-versatile flour called for in a range of sweet and savory recipes. So what is all-purpose flour made of, exactly? All-purpose, sometimes shortened to AP flour, is a blend of soft and hard wheat, or medium-protein wheats. Different manufacturers use varying proportions of hard and soft wheats, so the protein level in all-purpose flours ranges from 9 to 15 grams per cup. You may find all-purpose flour labeled as "unbleached" or "bleached"—these are interchangeable.
Test Kitchen Tip: When baking yeast or sourdough breads, reach for an all-purpose flour or a bread flour with at least 2¾ grams of protein per ¼ cup. High-protein flours tend to produce finer-textured, higher-volume yeast breads. To find out how much protein an all-purpose flour contains, check the amount of protein in grams per cup on the flour bag's nutrition label.
Great for: Sponge cakes, pound cakes, layer cakes, sheet cakes, scones, cupcakes, and muffins
This soft wheat blend is fairly low in protein (5% to 8%) and low in gluten, which makes it particularly suitable for baking fine-textured cakes. Cake flour produces a tender, delicate crumb because the gluten is less elastic. Many bakers use this type of flour for baking cakes, of course, as well as for biscuits, muffins, and more. Cake flour is able to absorb more liquid and sugar than all-purpose; a factor that helps baked goods turn out moist and pleasantly sweet.
Self-rising flour is an all-purpose or soft wheat flour (with about 8% to 9% protein) that's mixed with baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Since a leavening agent is already included, self-rising flour can make quick(er) work out of preparing batters and doughs. To make your own self-rising flour, whisk together 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon baking soda.
Great for: Yeast breads, sourdough breads, bagels, pretzels, and pizza and flatbread doughs
Since it's milled from all hard wheat, bread flour contains more gluten and protein (12% to 14%) than all-purpose flour. This makes bread flour ideal for baking chewy, golden-brown (you guessed it!) breads and doughs. If you rub a bit of bread flour between your fingers, it tends to feel more granular than all-purpose flour. When used instead of all-purpose flour, you usually need less. If you use a bread machine, opt for bread flour instead of all-purpose flour for the best results. Or, use all-purpose flour and add 1 or 2 tablespoons of gluten flour (available at most supermarkets and natural food stores).
Great for: Piecrusts, cookies, muffins, cakes, cupcakes, pancakes, and biscuits
This unbleached soft wheat flour falls between cake flour and all-purpose flour on the protein scale, at about 8% to 9%. This type of flour for baking yields flaky, tender, and light results. To make your own pastry flour, whisk together 1½ cups all-purpose flour with ⅔ cup cake flour.
Whole Wheat Flour
Great for: Breads, muffins, and cookies, especially when used in combination with all-purpose flour
Whole wheat or graham flours are processed less than all-purpose flour and, therefore, retain more nutrients and fiber since they contain the whole wheat kernel. This type of flour is quite high in protein (13% to 14%) and is ideal in some breads and some cookies, but is generally not the best choice for pastries, piecrusts, or other delicate baked goods.
Baking recipes often turn out pretty indistinguishable from the "real thing" if you use half whole wheat flour and half all-purpose flour called for in the mixture. Or if you reach for white whole wheat flour that offers the same nutrition as whole wheat but is made from a hard white wheat that acts very similar to all-purpose.
The Best Types of Gluten-Free Flour
To avoid gluten, or if you're following a gluten-free diet, these are your best bets.
Gluten-Free Flour Blends
Great for: Replacing all-purpose flour in most recipes for cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pancakes, breads, and muffins
Many types of gluten-free flour are commercially available. Some are made with one type of grain, nut, or starch, but the most versatile of gluten-free flours include a blend that most closely performs like all-purpose flour. Sometimes labeled "cup-for-cup," these blends usually include rice flour, sorghum flour, tapioca starch, and/or potato starch, plus xanthan gum (to replicate the chewiness missing sans-gluten).
Test Kitchen Tip: We recommend swapping gluten-free flour blend for all-purpose flour only if a recipe confirms that the substitute works or specifically calls for a gluten-free flour blend. Our Gluten-Free Snickerdoodles, Gluten-Free Buttermilk Biscuits with Sausage Gravy, Gluten-Free Waffles, and Gluten-Free White Bread are tested and true! It certainly can't hurt to try if this substitution isn't listed, but keep in mind that results may vary.
Great for: Cookies, muffins, quick breads, pancakes, and biscuits
Made from blanched skinned almonds that have been ground down and sifted, this type of gluten-free flour is beloved for its healthy fat content and fiber. Those two features make it weigh more than wheat flours, though, so it's best to use this only when called for in a recipe. As a general rule, you'll want to use about ⅓ to ¼ less almond flour than all-purpose flour (so ⅔ cup to ¾ cup almond flour in place of 1 cup all-purpose).
Great for: Quick breads, muffins, cookies, and pancakes
Oat flour can be purchased or made by grinding rolled oats to a fine powder in a food processor, ½ cup at a time. Since oat flour acts similar to wheat flour, it often works surprisingly well as a substitute for whole wheat or even all-purpose flour.
Test Kitchen Tip: If gluten-free flour is what you're after and you're going the DIY route, check the label on the oats you're grinding; some are made in facilities that may pose cross-contamination risks.
The Best Types of Flour for Pasta and Pizza
For Italian night, or other kinds of pasta and pizza, try these types of flour.
Great for: Noodles, pizza and flatbread doughs, crackers, sourdough recipes, and sourdough discard recipes
One of the best types of flour for pastas and pizzas, "00" flour is a popular Italian-style hard wheat flour that has about 11% to 12% protein. Curious about the "00" in type "00" flour? This reflects the very fine texture of the flour on a scale that Italians use to measure flour coarseness (2, 1, 0, and 00 are the options). Also known as double-zero or doppio zero, "00" flour is easy to roll out thinly into crackers, noodles, and doughs. If you've had Neapolitan pizza, you've likely enjoyed this type of flour. For this reason, some brands, including King Arthur, even market their type "00" flour as "pizza flour."
Great for: Focaccia breads, gnocchi, pasta doughs
One of the highest protein (13% or so)—and, thus, highest gluten—flours available, this type of flour is made from hard durum wheat. The ample gluten allows for doughs to be stretched without breaking or shrinking too much.