Even if you don't bake, flour is a pantry essential for both savory and sweet cooking. From gumbo to gravy to juicy fruit desserts, flour is a frequent ingredient in a surprising range of recipes. But first, some basics:
All-Purpose Flour. It's what most of us recognize as plain flour. All-purpose flour is made by blending hard and soft wheat flours and as the name suggests -- it's useful for most recipes calling for flour.
Hard wheat flour is usually used in bread making because it has more protein. Protein, when combined with liquid, creates gluten which gives bread its structure, which translates into air holes, height, crust, and the other traits we want in our breads.
Soft wheat flour is used in cakes and pastries because these flours have less protein and more starch, and thus produce a finer crumb.
But for most home cooks, all-purpose is the best choice. It has versatility and can be used for pies, tarts, cobblers, crisps, teacakes, breads, and also most types of savory cooking. Each brand of all-purpose flour has its own formula so one by General Mills is not exactly the same as King Arthur or Arrowhead. But they're very similar and it's not likely any differences will be evident in your cooking results except in baking when it can be noticeable.
Always buy unbleached all-purpose flour because who needs bleach to make our flour just a little bit whiter? Bleached flour also has fewer nutrients and has been stripped not only of its color but also its flavor. Most all-purpose flours sold are unbleached.
Here are a few more details, including notes on some of the more popular non-wheat flours:
- Flour is made when a grain, usually wheat, but sometimes oats, barley, spelt, corn, or millet, is ground into a powder. If the wheat kernels' bran, or outer shell, and the germ, which is the kernel's center, are removed, the result is white flour. If the bran and germ are not removed, the result is whole-wheat flour.
- There is a new product called white whole-wheat flour that has the appearance of white flour with the nutrients of brown. While this may seem like some slight of hand, this is how Cook's Country Magazine explains it: "White whole-wheat flour is milled from hard white wheat, whereas traditional whole-wheat flour is milled from hard red wheat. Both … include the whole grain (the bran, germ, and endosperm) and are nutritionally similar; though traditional whole wheat has slightly more calories, fiber, and sugar." According to Cook's Country, whole-wheat and white whole-wheat are interchangeable in recipes but the white whole-wheat flour has a milder taste.
- White flour keeps longer and has a longer shelf life than whole-wheat. That's because whole-wheat flour has the germ, which includes oil, and is thus prone to becoming rancid. White flour is also milder in flavor and lighter, and thus rises more easily. Whole-wheat flour, however, is higher in nutrients and fiber because the bran and the germ have not been removed.
- Cake Flour. With 5 to 7% protein, this is white flour that produces a fine crumb and is thus often chosen for cakes. Because it has less protein it can clump when stored and should almost always be sifted before measuring. Swans Down is a good brand.
- Pastry Flour. With 7 to 9% protein, it's excellent for pie crusts but it is also difficult to find in our markets. As a result all-purpose flour is usually used instead and will produce a fine result.
- Self-Rising Flour. With 7 to 11% protein, self-rising flour also has baking powder and salt added and is used in baking biscuits or when making fried chicken. It's popular in the southern U.S. and in the U.K. Some cake flours are self-rising so it's important to read the labels so you can be sure if you're buying just flour or one with the extras. A well-known U.S. brand is White Lily and many southern home cooks wouldn't be without it.
- Bread Flour. This has 12 to 14% protein and is used in baking bread because the higher protein produces the best structure.
- Rice Flour. Because it has 90% starch, is low in protein, and has a very fine texture, rice flour absorbs little water, making it particularly good for batters for deep-frying, as with tempura shrimp or vegetables.
- Flax Seed Flour. Made from ground flax seeds, this flour can be added to baked goods in place of whole wheat flour, or in recipes like meatloaf to increase a food's nutritional value because flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
- Instant Flour. Best known by the brand name Wondra, this is white flour that has been processed to dissolve more easily. Here's how Harold McGee explains it in his book, On Food and Cooking: Instant flour has "…low protein whose starch granules have been precooked until they gelate, then dried again. The precooking and drying make it easier for water to penetrate them again during cooking." In other words, if you use it when making gravy, you're less likely to get lumps. I also use it to dust a fish fillet before sautéing it
- Rye Flour. Used in rye and pumpernickel bread and in Scandinavian cooking. A good brand is Bob's Red Mill, which produces a wide variety of organic flours and grains; it's available at many markets, natural or otherwise.
- Cornmeal. This is not flour but as the name suggests, corn that has been dry milled into coarse meal. Cornmeal is used to make polenta, cornbread, and muffins and is also scattered on pizza and bread pans to keep dough from sticking. It also can be used in simple pastry dough for fruit tarts. See our recipe for a Plum Tart that will show you how.
- Corn Flour. Made from finely ground corn and used in pancakes, muffins, or in place of cornmeal in cornbread to produce a finer crumb and texture.
- Semolina Flour. Hard flour that is usually made from wheat (since "semolina" refers to the production process and not the grain from which the flour is made, there is also both corn and rice semolina flour) in which the bran is removed during production. Semolina flour is used in making pasta and couscous, some breads, sweets in Indian, Greek, Cypriot, and Arab cuisines, and a kind of porridge in some eastern European and Scandinavian countries.
- Gluten-Free Flours. These are flours for people who can't eat anything made from wheat. Rice and corn flours are gluten-free but so are ones made from chickpeas and tapioca. These flours are not always easily interchangeable with wheat flours and can affect a recipe's cooking time, flavor, and texture.
And what do I keep in my pantry? I always have a canister of all-purpose flour (I am partial to the King Arthur or Heckers brands) and a box of cake flour in the cabinet. In the freezer I keep a small bag each of corn meal, whole-wheat flour, and rye flour.
Cooking With Flour
- Dust turkey or chicken or veal cutlets in all-purpose flour before dipping in egg and breadcrumbs or panko before pan-frying. The flour helps the egg, and thus the crumbs, adhere to the cutlets.
- Add a tablespoon or two of flour to sliced fresh peaches, apples, or blueberries along with sugar and spices before adding to a pie, galette, or cobbler and it will help gently thicken the fruit juices without becoming gelatinous which can happen if tapioca is used as the thickening agent.
- Flour is a key ingredient in batter for deep fat frying. Rice flour, with its high starch content, is particularly good for tempura batter because it crisps quickly and lightly.
- When browning meat for stew, or a dish like short ribs braised in red wine, or boeuf bourguignon, or osso buco, a light coating of flour on the meat before browning will add a crispier surface. Then when liquid is added, the flour will help create a gravy-like sauce.
- Speaking of gravy, a slurry of flour and water or a paste made from equal parts cold butter and flour, also called a beurre manié (kneaded butter), can immediately turn stock or broth into a sauce or gravy. Remember this on Thanksgiving.
- A roux is essential for classic New Orleans dishes like gumbo, or when making French sauces such as béchamel, velouté, or espagnole. Roux is made by cooking equal amounts of flour and butter together in a pan, usually until it takes on both rich color and a nutty flavor that adds to the complexity of the finished dish.
- The primary ingredients in pastry cream are milk, eggs, sugar -- and flour.
- You need flour to make your own pasta or potato gnocchi or pierogis or pizza dough.
- Flour is an important ingredient in most soufflés, including our recipe for Goat Cheese Soufflé.
- Pancakes and waffles need flour, as do some crispy toppings for favorite casseroles like macaroni and cheese, or the crumble on an apple crisp.
- A light dusting of flour on shrimp, a boneless chicken breast, or a fish fillet can produce a crusty surface when sautéed. Add salt and other seasonings like a pinch of cayenne to the flour, toss in the shrimp or chicken or fish, shaking off any excess, and sauté in hot olive oil or fat. See our recipe for how to use a Scandinavian way to turn a plain piece of fish into something special with a dusting of tangy rye flour.
Working With Flour and Storing It
- Flour of all kinds is prone to spoilage. This can mean it can go rancid, can become stale, or become a home to little critters. Bugs. But it's easy to avoid all of these perils by buying it fresh and storing it carefully in a seal-able plastic bag or a canister. Flour generally keeps about 6 months.
- Buy your flour in quantities that match how fast you'll use it. If you're not a baker and just want to keep a little on hand for some of the reasons I've written about here, buy your flour in a little 2-pound sack. Or if you go to a bulk food store, you can buy even less.
- Buy your flour in a market where there's decent-to-high turnover. In other words, don't buy it at a bodega where that 5-pound bag of General Mills has been sitting for a year. You want your flour to be as fresh as possible so purchase in a high-turnover, busy market or if you're really concerned, from a specialty merchant such as King Arthur Flour We've added a link below.
- Store your flour in an airtight container. This can be as simple as putting the whole bag of flour into a well-sealed plastic bag or transferring its contents into a canister with a tight-fitting cover.
- If you're not going to use your flour within the next 6 months, freeze it. You can use it directly from the freezer -- defrosting really isn't an issue. Because of the rate at which I use flour, I keep my unbleached all-purpose flour in a canister in the cabinet and in the freezer I keep small containers of corn meal, rye flour, and whole wheat flour.
- Measure versus weigh? If you're a serious baker, you know better than I do that it's best to weigh flour when making pastries and bread. The type of flour you're using, plus humidity, or sifting, or how flour may have settled in storage can cause big discrepancies when it's measured. However, apart from serious baking, measuring in a dry measuring cup is perfectly fine.
- Should you sift flour before you use it? Not necessarily. Sifting lightens its volume and while flour can settle while it's stored, it doesn't do so in a way that will affect most recipes or uses. So you usually shouldn't sift it unless the recipe specifically calls for it.