Here’s what you need to know about wheat flour: it has a lot of gluten, it’s more nuanced than you might believe, and it’s frickin’ awesome.
Because you’re a home baker and you may not want a torrent of information right now, I’m going to answer the two questions I believe to be most pressing to a home baker: Which type of flour should I use with _____ recipe? Is it okay to use bleached flour instead of unbleached flour?
With flour, the main characteristic used to designate type (at least in the United States) is protein content, which you’ll see as a percentage. The protein is gluten, of course, and a lot of it means bigger air bubbles and greater rise while baked products made with low-gluten flour have more even crumbs and a more tender texture.
Cake/Pastry Flour: 6-9.5%
These two flours are perfect for their titular baked goods, providing regular, tender crumbs. I most likely won’t use these for recipes on Millennial Loaves, but you might find yourself making a cake or a puff pastry that calls for one of these. Cakes and puff pastries definitely benefit from lower gluten flour; however, a lot of times it wouldn’t be the end of the world for you to substitute…
All-Purpose Flour: 9.5-11.5%
All-purpose flour (APF) is great for most baked goods, from cupcakes to pizza dough. If you have to pick one flour to keep around, this is the one. Making cake with APF instead of cake flour will lend a different texture, as will making pizza with APF instead of bread flour, but APF produces reliable, delicious foods in most instances.
Fun Fact! King Arthur Flour’s all-Purpose has a protein content of 11.7, making it comparable to some bread flours.
Bread Flour: 11.5-13.5%
The names are pretty descriptive, right? Bread flour’s higher protein content helps leavened products rise higher and look better. You can usually substitute APF for bread if you only have all-purpose on hand. Again, results will be noticeably different, but do what makes you happiest because you deserve it.
High-Gluten Flour: 13.5-16%
The 16% protein content is pretty rare, but this flour lives up to its name. It is great for some breads, like bagels, to make them chewier, but I have never used high-gluten flour myself. It’s not the most readily available flour out there.
All of the flours above share one major characteristic, and that is that they are all made from the endosperm of a wheat berry. Apart from the endosperm, a wheat berry contains two other significant parts: the germ and the bran.
The endosperm contains the most protein and starch, thereby ticking the major boxes required to make bread. The germ is a fatty pocket of the wheat berry, kind of like the yolk of an egg, and the bran can be compared to an egg shell. Cake/pastry, all-purpose, bread, and high-gluten flours only make us of the endosperm, and their various protein contents result from different varieties of wheat. I will go into that in a blog post in the near future (so check back if you’re interested).
Whole Wheat Flour
Again, the name is pretty descriptive because whole wheat flour contains the entire wheat berry. The bran lends whole wheat its darker color while the germ adds some good oils.
If you’re looking for a more nutrient-rich bread and/or you want to incorporate a slightly nuttier flavor, whole wheat is a great choice. You can also incorporate whole wheat into recipes that don’t call for it—just be aware that whole wheat absorbs more moisture. Be prepared to add a bit more water to get a fully hydrated dough.
The oil makes storage a bit more difficult; whole wheat flour goes rancid at room temperature much sooner than all-purpose. If you think you’ll take longer than a couple months to go through your bag of whole wheat, store some of it in an airtight container in the freezer until you need to use it.
Should you buy bleached or unbleached flour?
Unbleached unbleached unbleached unbleached unbleached unbleached
Obviously, you do you. Bleached flour will give you perfectly fine results. Whenever possible, however, buy unbleached flour. According to Reinhart, the bleaching process targets the beta-carotene (a pigment found in veggies like carrots) found in wheat. Unbleached flour will have a slight tint compared to bleached flour, and bread made with this beta-carotene in tact has deeper flavor and aroma.
But, all said and done, substituting bleached flour for unbleached is perfectly fine.
More Reading!! Yay learning!!
Baking 101: The Difference Between Baking Flours on the blog Joy the Baker
This King Arthur Flour page about wheat
Pages 27-30 in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (15th Anniversary Edition) by Peter Reinhart