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What Is Wheat Flour?
Flour is ground wheat. It’s used in many different culinary applications, from baked goods like breads, cakes, and pie crusts to roux for sauces and airy batters. Most conventional flours are made from wheat kernels (or wheat berries), which consist of endosperm, a germ, and bran.
How to Use Wheat Flour
There are endless uses for wheat flour in cooking and baking, but it’s most important in bread. Because wheat has a high gluten content (more than any other grain), it yields the most elastic dough. That makes wheat the flour of choice in yeast breads like brioche, flatbreads like pita, and the iconic sourdough loaf. Wheat flour is also the classic choice for baking cookies, cakes, and all manner of sweet and savory pastries.
The 3 Most Common Types of Wheat
Wheat (comprising the genus Triticum) comes in thousands of varieties, but there are three that are most common.
- Common wheat (Triticum aestivum): Common wheat accounts for 80 percent of worldwide production and is used to make bread.
- Durum wheat (Triticum durum): Durum wheat is usually ground into semolina flour for pasta and couscous.
- Club wheat (Triticum compactum): Club wheat is primarily used in pastries.
Different types of wheat can be classified as hard wheat (more protein) or soft wheat (less protein); red wheat (more tannins) or white wheat (less tannins); and winter wheat (sown in fall) or spring wheat (sown in spring).
10 Types of Wheat Flour
Even though they’re all made from grinding wheat berries, these different types of flour vary significantly depending on protein content, fineness, and more.
- All-purpose flour: AP flour is a white flour containing only the endosperm of the wheat grain. While it’ll last longer unrefrigerated than whole-grain flours, it doesn’t clock in much nutritional value as a result. That being said, it has a mild flavor, and it works well in just about any kind of baked good.
- Whole wheat flour: Whole wheat flour is flour that includes the wheat germ, bran, and endosperm, making for a dense, flavor-packed flour. It has a shorter shelf life than all-purpose flour, since the oil in the wheat bran tends to go rancid. Most commercial whole wheat flours are made by adding the germ and bran back into refined white flour, rather than grinding whole wheat berries. White whole wheat flour is made in the same way but from a white wheat variety.
- Bleached flour: Bleached flour is flour that has been treated with a whitening agent like benzoyl peroxide. Some flours are also treated with a maturing agent, which can either dampen or enhance the gluten development by manipulating the starch content of the flour itself, usually by oxidizing it; this allows flour to absorb more liquid and thus transform into a thicker dough.
- Unbleached flour: Unbleached flour is any flour that has not undergone the bleaching process and does not contain any trace preservative chemicals as a result. (“White flour” doesn’t always mean bleached: The term can refer to refined flour that does not include the bran or germ, or to flour made with a white wheat variety.)
- Bread flour: Bread flour is flour with a particularly high gluten protein content—up to about 14 percent. While yeast ferments during the early stages of baking bread, carbon dioxide gets trapped by the protein-bonded flour, resulting in stretchy dough with air pockets in the crumb.
- Cake flour: For spongy, light-as-air cakes, you have cake flour. Made from a soft wheat and ground to an incredibly fine texture, cake flour has a low protein content (and thus, less gluten) compared with all-purpose flour, which results in a lighter, loosely-structured crumb. To mimic the effects of cake flour with all-purpose flour, remove two tablespoons of flour and replace it with two tablespoons of cornstarch, which will prevent the formation of gluten to a similar effect.
- Pastry flour: Delicate pastries call for a delicate flour. Pastry flour, with its low-protein, high-gluten formula, has a superfine consistency and is perfect for flaky viennoiserie like croissants. Whole wheat pastry flour contains the wheat germ, bran, and endosperm, ground superfine.
- 00 flour: 00 flour is a fine flour graded on an Italian milling system, intended for pizza and pasta. While the soft texture is an immediate benefit, it’s the 12.5 percent protein level and corresponding high gluten content that experts agree gives perfect pizza dough and silky noodles their stretch and snap.
- Self-rising flour: Self-rising flour is all-purpose flour mixed with leavening agents (baking powder and salt), which add airiness through small gas bubbles released in the dough. Self-rising flours are typically used for baked goods like scones, biscuits, and muffins, where an even, consistent puff is the goal.
- Durum flour: Durum flour is made from durum wheat (Triticum durum). It yields a high-protein flour, good for breads and pasta, with a pale yellow color.
4 Wheat Flour Substitutes
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If you don't have (or can't eat) wheat flour, don't fear. There are plenty of alternative flours for you to experiment with. Some of the most common substitutions for wheat flour include:
- Spelt flour: Also known as dinkel or hulled wheat, spelt is an ancient grain that’s been around since 5,000 BC. Nuttier and more complex in flavor than standard whole-wheat flour, spelt is a great addition to everything from pancakes to quick breads. Since spelt is a type of wheat, it’s not gluten-free, but some people find it easier to digest.
- Buckwheat flour: Earthy, savory buckwheat flour gives depth to crepes and blini, and it’s often useful as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour. Try it in pancakes and cookies.
- Rice flour: Rice flour is ground white or brown rice kernels. It’s gluten-free and typically used in tempura and pancakes to add a crisp, light texture.
- Rye flour: A close relative of wheat, rye is a dark grain with a deep nutty flavor. Because it doesn’t produce much gluten on its own, it’s occasionally combined with higher protein flours for a boost, but it is possible to make 100 percent rye baked goods.
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