What is the Difference Between All-Purpose and Bread Flour?
There is no ingredient as important to a successful bake as flour. The quality, grind and protein level can make all the difference in a perfect loaf of bread or a well-risen cake. Flour not only provides the starch content in baked goods, but also forms the structural network that gives risen goods their strength.
Currently, wheat flour sold in the United States falls in one of several broad categories: bread flour, pastry or cake flour, and all-purpose flour. Each category dictates a different moisture level, crumb, crust and rise of the final product. Bread made with pastry flour, for example, will not be able to fully rise, while cakes made with bread flour will be hard and dry. So your baking success rests on knowing which flour to use.
What is Flour?
Simply put, flour is the grounded berry or seed of a grain, such as wheat, oat, corn, or spelt. The most common grain to ground into flour is wheat. However, as different grains have different purposes, other grains can be used. In Central and South America, for example, corn flour is more common than wheat flour. For the rest of this article, the focus will be solely on wheat flour, as this is the most common in the US.
Typical wheat flour is made by taking the wheat berry, removing the bran or outer shell and grinding the seed embryo into a flour-like consistency. This type of flour is called refined or white flour. Sometimes, a bleaching agent may be added to make bleached flour, or baking powder may be added to make self-rising flour. Enriched flour is flour sprayed with vitamins and other nutrients to replace the nutritional value lost when the bran and germ were removed.
Whole wheat flour is made by grinding all of the whole wheat berry, including the bran and seed. This is a healthier option, but due to the presence of fatty acids, whole wheat flour is more prone to spoilage than white flour. You’ve probably noticed that whole wheat flour rots more quickly than you’d expect!
What is Bread Flour?
The quality of flour is determined by the type of wheat used to make it. Bread or strong flour is made from winter wheat (wheat planted in fall and harvested in late summer). The long growing cycle and exposure to winter temperatures makes this wheat protein-rich. Winter wheat can be used to make strong flour, traditionally used for rustic and hard-crust breads, or hard flour used for pasta and very strong decorative breads.
Strong flour has a 11.5-13.5% protein content (12-14% if additives are used) and hard flours have protein contents of 13.5-16%. Honeyville’s Cal Best Bread Flour, for example, has a protein count of 11-12%. Cal Best is a patent flour, or a flour made from the center of the endosperm, and is purer and of a higher-quality than other flours.
What is All-Purpose Flour?
Spring wheat, conversely, makes low-protein flours. This includes cake flour, which has a protein count of 5-8%, and pastry flour, which contains 7.5-9% protein. These types of flour are used to create pastry and baked goods which are tender and can be easily crumbled. And because there is less protein to entrap the water in the dough or batter, spring wheat flour produces moist baked goods - ensuring that melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness every cake needs. Honeyville’s Sno-King Cake Flour, for example, has a protein content of 7-8.5%, and yields a tender crumb and a soft crust.
Not every home baker wants to worry about protein counts or buying lots of different types of flour, so all-purpose flour was created to make life just a little bit easier. Typically made from a blend of winter and spring wheat flours, all-purpose flour has a medium protein content, making it suitable for cookies, most breads, pizzas and crackers. As an engineered product, the formulation of all-purpose flour depends on the miller, making certain brands better for certain applications. Many Southern millers have blends that are low protein, making them good for cakes and biscuits. Honeyville’s All Purpose Bleached Flour has a slightly higher protein content than you’d want for cake, making it more suited for breads and cookies. As an enriched flour, this brand is formulated to be a strong blend of flavor and utility.
While all-purpose flour can be made by blending store-bought bread and cake flour in equal proportions, all-purpose flours are typically calculated to produce the optimal result and to save you the hassle. As they are designed to work predictably and for a range of baked goods, they are unsurprisingly extremely popular!