Kitchen Basics: Taking the Mystery out of Different Kinds of Flours

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Because of all the hype recently on gluten free diets, people have become more educated about flours, what they contain, the health benefits (or lack thereof) and how to use them.  The problem lies in the fact that, because there is sooo much information about what’s inflammatory, what causes IB, and what is carcinogenic (most of which is not valid), many people get confused.  Even though many people in the health field claim that wheat products should have no effect on people who are not Celiac (a disease where an individual becomes so affected by gluten and wheat they will display symptoms, when they consume these products, that can be highly detrimental to their health), many individuals are finding that even reducing their intake of wheat products helps reduce inflammation and gives them more clarity (some claim wheat causes foggy brain syndrome).

Now, I am not a health professional and would never attempt to give any kind of advice on this subject (please speak to a health professional before drastically changing your diet or self-diagnosing an illness).  However, what I CAN do is give you a breakdown on the different kinds of flours out there.  Their uses are varied and they all react differently in baking (I do have a gluten free flour substitution that works well, measure for measure, in most quick bread and muffin recipes), so you need to do your reading when it comes to subbing in different flours in your recipes (although, if you are looking for a reference book on gluten free baking, I’ve found that this book is great!!).  When it comes to your health and the affects that certain food may have on you, then you are responsible to research and read up on everything that goes in your mouth.  If you think it affects you, start keeping a food diary of everything you eat and make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your findings and, together, talk about a solution.

So let’s get down to basics and explain this….Flour 101!!!

Common Flours:

All purpose – This is the most commonly used (and most easily found) flour by most bakers.  It is sold either bleached or unbleached and considered to be the flour to use if the recipe doesn’t specify.

Whole Wheat – This flour is made from the kernel of the wheat and has more fibre than all purpose flour (but less gluten/protein) so it is usually mixed with other high protein flours when making bread to get a fluffy texture.

Cake and Pastry Flour – This flour is used for delicate cakes because the flour is higher in starch and lower in protein, which helps keep the rise in cakes that have a higher sugar ratio. Although it’s not as good as using this flour when called for in a recipe, you can substitute regular all purpose flour, but subtract 2 tbsp from every cup that is asked for in a recipe.

Bread Flour – This flour is what is used to make bread (if you didn’t figure that out already!).  It is harder than all purpose flour and higher in protein (which means it has more gluten) which is what gives nice bread it’s structure.

Tipo 00 –  This flour is often mistaken for high protein flour when, in actually fact, Tip 00″ just refers to a very finely milled flour.  If any of you are bakers (bread and pizza bakers specifically), you will have run into this flour at some specialty stores or Italian bakeries that have a retail store.  This is flour that is often used to make pizza because it has a lower absorption rate (which means it will give you that crisp crust but airy inside that gives you a great chew!) and soft pasta like fettuccine because it is soft flour with high protein.  Most flours in North American are differentiated by how much protein  they have, which in turn tells you how much gluten they have.  In Europe, flours are grades (00 to 04) based on how finely they are ground and their colour (00 is finely ground and white…the closer you move to 04, the more coarsely the flour is ground and the darker the colour is).

Self Rising –  This flour, which is just regular flour (low-protein) with the addition of salt and baking powder.  Because it is often hard to find in Canada, we generally don’t use it (or make our own!).

Semolina – Usually, semolina is made with durham wheat (what is used for regular flour) but if other grains are used and ground in the same manner, it will be called by that name (ie. corn semolina) If you are making pasta that need a bit more depth (like ravioli that needs to keep it’s structure), use half semolina and half all purpose.  You will need to knead it a bit more but it will holds it’s own better.

Rye – This flour has a lower gluten level, so it will be suggested as a bread of choice for those with a gluten intolerance (but not for Celiac patients who must avoid gluten all together).  It comes in a variety from light to dark, which just tells you how much bran has been removed (less bran means lighter colour).

Pumpernickel –  This is made with coarsely ground rye flour and is fermented with sourdough starter.  It has a lower glycemic index making it a better choice for diabetics

Gluten Free Flours:

Quinoa – This toasted quinoa seeds (it is not a grain) that have been milled into a flour.  It has loads of calcium and is a complete protein.  It has a nutty flavour, makes you feel full longer but bakes very dense products.

Almond Flour – This four, which also goes by almond meal, is blanched almonds that have been milled or processed.  It is sweeter in flavour and is excellent in cookies and shortcrust.

Coconut –  Made from the dried coconut meat which is the by-product of coconut milk production, this is a relatively sweet tasting flour.  The coconut flavour is surprisingly barley detectable.

Sorghum – This flour comes from a cereal grain crop and is high in insoluble fiber.  The protein and starch in this flour are more slowly digested than other cereals and slow the rate of digestion for products made from it.

Chickpea – This flour comes from grinding dried chick peas into powder form.  Naturally gluten free, it is used to make bread products like socca and is good for colon health as it is 70% insoluble.  It is also known as garbanzo flour.

Buckwheat – Because of its name, most people don’t know that this flour is gluten free. Made from a fruit rather than a grain, it has a somewhat nutty, earthy taste with many health benefits including being rich in flavanoids.

Corn – Originating from the whole corn kernel, it is ground from cornmeal into flour.  It is used as a filler and/or binder in many processed foods.  It is used around the world as a main staple in breads and pastas as well as other baked goods.

Millet – Because of it’s mildly sweet flavour, it is used in many dessert products.  It has also been documented as being one of the earliest foods to be used in to create baked good in homes.

Rice – Made from finely ground rice (both white and brown) it is used in many forms, including baking (many people use a ratio of all purpose and rice flours to make tender shortbread) as well as being used as a thickener.

Tapioca -Extracted from the cassava plant, this is a fine powdery four that is starchy in nature and is also used as a thickener in sauces and gravies.   It is also known as tapioca starch.

Amaranth – High in iron and calcium, this grain is high quality source of plant protein and has triple the amount of fiber than wheat.  It has a mild, but distinct malt-like flavour.

Teff –  Made from an East African cereal grass, the teff grains are the smallest grains in the world but are high in calcium, fibre, protein, iron and vitamin C.

Masa harina – This is flour made from dried masa, which is Spanish for dough, and is made by cooking and soaking hominy (dried corn kernels) in limewater and then ground into masa.  IT’s most popular use is to make corn tortillas.

Potato – Made from dehydrated potatoes (and also known as potato starch).  Because of it’s ability to hold water, adding this to your gluten free baking, often gives your product a moist crumb.

Soy – Ground from dried soy beans, this flour is high in fibre and soy isoflavones and is a complete protein.

Grape seed flour –  Made from the dried skins of grapes (often the residual from wine making), this flour has a purple hue and is high is antioxidants.  One of the up and coming flours to be used in gluten free baking, it is often difficult to find and can be sourced closer to wine country.


Spelt – Often mistaken as gluten free, this flour is a relative of durham wheat and has a unique, nutty flavour.  Spelt is very water soluble so it’s health benefits are quickly absorbed into the body.

Oat – Made from ground whole oats, this flour, when used in baking, makes baked goods more moist than regular flour.  It is naturally gluten free,however, it is most often produced in the same factories as wheat product – so, because of cross contamination, it must be labelled gluten free to ensure it was manufactured in a gluten free warehouse.

Barley – Made from grinding whole barley, this is naturally wheat free but does contain gluten.  It has slightly fewer calories but 4 times more fibre than regular all purpose flour.

Triticale – This is a hybrid grain that is a cross between wheat and rye, giving it the strength, hardiness and structure from the rye and the disease resistance from the wheat.  It is high in fibre, magnesium, folate and potassium and low in sodium.

Graham –  This flour is made from ground hard red spring wheat and has a unique flavour (think graham crackers).  It contains the germ, the endosperm and the bran giving it many health qualities.

Kamut – A derivative of modern day wheat, it is a good source of fibre, has a buttery flavour and is easy to digest.

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How do you store flour?

If you use your flour on a regular basis (I go through a 20 kg bag in a matter of months), then it is fine to store it in a cool, dry place.  If, however, you don’t use it as quickly, or you are storing a variety of flours, I store them in mason jars (see picture above) on my freezer door.  To ensure that no moisture gets in, I seal the jar with a tight wrap of plastic wrap and then seal it with the canning lid.  Remember that flours absorb odors so make sure it is nowhere near cleaning supplies with strong odors or foods that may emit their smell to the flour (like onions or garlic).

How long does it last?

If you are storing it in a dark, dry cupboard, the general rule of thumb is 6-7 months. Remember that flours that contain the husk (like whole wheat) contain natural oils (the oils oxidize when they are exposed to air) that go rancid far quicker that flours without oil.

Where should you buy it?

I tend to buy my all purpose flour (which I use most of in large batch baking) in large 20 kg bags.  If you are purchasing your flours in a retail store, make sure that the packaging is intact and that no air has been allowed to enter the packaging (which might cause rancidity or infestation).  Although, if you are using smaller amounts, I find bulk store with a high turnover of product (like the Bulk Barn) are great because you can buy really small quantities to try out.