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The Dough Must Go On

Between the gluten, non-gluten, and experimental flour varieties that pop up occasionally, the options could easily lead to a panic-induced cleanup on aisle 13. Avoid that with some simple tips.

Tiffany Duncan
Chelsi Fisher
March 28, 2018

A trip to the grocery store used to be simple: a little fruit, vegetables, some cans of beans, a package or two of dried pasta, a bag of all-purpose flour for the pantry and badda bing! You’re done. But with the advent of the anti-gluten movement and the health-food industry coming up with alternative flours right and left, one could have a panic-induced meltdown right there in the baking aisle.

Between the family of common, gluten-containing flour varieties, the white versus wheat, the bleached versus unbleached, gluten-alternative flours, and new and experimental flours that pop up occasionally, there are easily over 30 different options lining the grocery store shelves. And if you don’t have even the briefest explanation of how the flour system operates, you will likely panic and grab something you’ll end up not wanting or needing. Avoid that with some simple tips.


Gluten: Sorting Fact from Fiction
For a good while now, many food industry platforms have touted poor gluten as being the baddest bully on the block, a weight-gain culprit, and a big reason you can’t stay “regular” with trips to the bathroom. You may be so afraid of gluten at this point that you’re ready to hide your kids and hide your wives. After all, there couldn’t be that many people decrying gluten if it were actually harmless, right?

Wrong! Well, sort of. Gluten can actually be extremely harmful to two categories of people: those who have actually been diagnosed with celiac disease, and those who have gluten sensitivities. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where, for whatever reason, the body sees gluten as an enemy and will attempt to pulverize it from the system, damaging the stomach lining and small intestine in the process, which causes unbearable pain and potential long-term damage. Gluten sensitivity, however, is a condition where sufferers will experience a wide range of symptoms after consuming gluten like bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, and fatigue.

Even though gluten can pose very real dangers to those allergic or sensitive to it, it is completely harmless to others. Gluten is not a bad word; it is not some ruinous poison that should be avoided at all costs. In fact, gluten is simply a naturally occurring composite of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. When gluten becomes wet, it transforms into a “glue” to hold dough together, and it’s what gives bread its pleasant chewiness.


Wheat Flours 101
Wheat flours all come from wheat ranging in “soft” to “hard” varieties; the softer the wheat, the less protein (gluten) it contains. The most common varieties of household flours are made from the pulverized parts of wheat’s “seed heads.” A seed head is the soft-looking top of a stalk of wheat and contains anywhere from 20-50 kernels, each one having three parts: the germ, the bran, and the endosperm. From these three parts we get the following:

  • White All-Purpose Flour (AP): The endosperm within the kernel is fine and pale, and it is stripped of the bran and germ to create white flour (or “refined” flour). Because the bulk of the fiber and protein are contained within the bran and germ components, white flour is the least nutritious. It is more shelf stable, however. When in doubt over a recipe, go for the AP, as it is versatile and adaptable. AP comes in bleached and unbleached varieties (see below for more detail on bleaching). Best used in cookies, cakes, muffins, and most other common baked goods.
  • Whole Wheat Flour: Made by grinding up all three portions of the kernel — hence the “whole” part — whole wheat flour is often brown in color but can also be white (white whole wheat does not automatically mean bleached, either; it simply means it came from a strain of white wheat). Whole wheat flour retains much more iron, calcium, protein and other nutrients than its refined white flour cousin, and it lends a rich, nutty flavor when baked into breads and other treats. It also adds a pleasantly hearty chewiness. White and whole wheat flours cannot be subbed entirely one for the other; whole wheat flour makes dough much stickier and gives less rise. If you’re in a pinch or would like to add more nutrients to a recipe, start by using half whole wheat and half white AP. All whole wheat flours will not act the same based on their “softness” or “hardness” (meaning their protein/gluten content). Use “soft” whole wheat flours for delicate pastry items like pie crusts and rolls. Use “hard” whole wheat for crusty, sturdy artisan bread loaves.
  • Bleached versus Unbleached: If you’ve ever had the thought that something edible that’s also “bleached” sounds circumspect … you’re right. Bleached white flour has been processed with chemicals like chlorine gas or, more commonly, benzoyl peroxide (you know, that cream you put on a zit last night). Why would companies do this? Well, bleaching the flour speeds up the “curing” process (which would actually occur naturally over a couple of weeks), and cured flour is easier to work with because it makes doughs less gummy and more pliable. Bleached flour is whiter, softer, and gives a fluffier rise to cookies and cakes because it’s able to absorb more liquid than unbleached. It’s best used in cookies, cakes, pie crusts, muffins, and pancakes. Unbleached flour is duller in color and slightly grainier than bleached, and it gives a bit more” backbone” to baked goods. It is best used in yeast breads and delicate pastries (éclairs, cream puffs). Just because it says “unbleached” does not mean it hasn’t been treated with other chemicals. Read labels. Although there will be slight differences between baking with bleached versus unbleached (in color, volume, perhaps even smell), the differences are slight enough that the two may be used interchangeably.


Bread Flour
When making anything that requires a strong structure, bread flour will be your go-to because it is made from “hard” wheat, meaning it contains that strong gluten elasticity necessary to build up a strong dough.

Best used in anything requiring a firmer, chewier texture like bagels, pretzels, and bread loaves.

Avoid using in softer pastries, like cakes and cookies.


Pastry Flour
Made from “softer” wheat varieties, pastry flour is the go-to flour for many in the professional baking realm. With a finer texture and lower protein or gluten content, this flour also usually comes bleached to yield softer, flakier goodies (although there are also unbleached varieties out there).

Best used in pound cakes, muffins, pie crusts, biscuits, and chewy cookies.

Do not use in bread, or any baked good requiring a firmer structure.


Cake Flour
Cake flour acts similarly to white AP flour but is milled to an ultra-fine consistency. Because of its low protein or gluten content, cake flour will yield light and airy cakes. Cake flour is also traditionally bleached to allow for more liquid absorption, further contributing to the rising properties within certain baked goods.

Cake flour acts best in sponge cakes, angel food cakes, or anything with a high amount of sugar, like cupcakes muffins, and even cookies.

Do not use to make bread; its low protein content will not yield a strong structure.


Semolina Flour
Yellow in color, semolina flour is made from course durum wheat and has a very high protein (or gluten) content. This high gluten content allows for a sticky, malleable dough to build up when kneading and is commonly used to make pasta.

Can also be used to make bread, pizza, and biscuit dough.


OO Flour
Also used to make traditional Italian pastas. Made from soft wheat varieties and ground to extreme fineness, it allows dough to be rolled very thin, which is crucial for many pastas.

To be used only in pastas and very fine crusts; no bread.


If you are looking for a totally unprocessed version of wheat flour that is packed with more nutrients than any other grain, choose einkorn. Einkorn flour has never been genetically crossed or hybridized, and is the oldest version of wheat there is. It does not need any form of fertilizer or products to thrive. Also, if you have gluten sensitivities, einkorn may be a good alternative for you because it lacks the high molecular weight proteins that are difficult for many people to digest. People with celiac must still avoid.

Baking with einkorn may require some getting used to, but it is great to incorporate its health benefits instead of traditional white flour in pancakes, waffles, muffins, dinner rolls, and more.


Spelt is actually a different species than wheat but falls under the same genus. It differs so widely from wheat that those with gluten sensitivities often use it as an alternative to wheat flour (spelt is not OK for celiac disease, however). Because the molecular structure is so different from common wheat gluten proteins, and because the fiber content is so high, spelt is much easier to digest and has earned a sturdy place on the shelves of health food stores.