All-purpose flour is the most widely used type of flour in North America, partly because it has a long shelf-life and is widely available, but also because it’s incredibly versatile.
You may be wondering, however, is all-purpose flour the same as plain flour? Yes, all-purpose flour and plain flour are the same thing and can be used interchangeably. However, there are several types of flour that cannot be used in place of plain flour, and vice-versa.
This article is an ultimate comparison guide to various types of flour, including plain or all-purpose, of course, but also expanding to a wide variety of other flours in your kitchen.
Types of Flour
There are so many flours market, from wheat-based to rice-based and gluten-free to gluten-packed, and there’s no reason to stick to just one for everything you make.
Experimenting with different types and textures of flour can create interesting results in your baked goods.
However, it’s certainly useful to understand how different types of flour react to things like liquid and temperature before you start getting crazy.
Types of Flour and Their Key Qualities
|Type of Flour
|Best Used For
|When Not to Use
|Bread or pasta
|Bread or pasta
|Heavy, textured goods
|In delicately flavored recipes
|High rise foods
In the following sections, you’ll learn more about 13 different types of flour and the best ways to use them, as well as how not to use them.
All-purpose flour is the most common type of flour sold. If ever a recipe calls simply for “flour” without providing any other descriptive terms, it is referring to all-purpose flour.
Conventional flour is made from grinding wheat until it produces a fine powder. All-purpose flour, specifically, is made using only the endosperm of the wheat grain, rather than the entire seed.
This increases the shelf-life of the flour, making it more shelf-stable than most other varieties.
It should range between 10–12% protein content, which is considered moderate.
All-purpose flour is a versatile, middle-ground flour that can be used for almost anything, though it may not be the best choice for absolutely everything.
It’s a great choice for standard baking purposes, such as pie crusts, quick bread, and cookies. But if a recipe calls for a specific type of flour, there is probably a reason for it and you should always try to follow recipes as closely as possible.
All-purpose flour is the same as plain flour and can be used interchangeably in any recipe.
Plain flour is sometimes also called pastry flour, which is not technically true, though plain or all-purpose flour is very commonly and effectively used for baking pastries.
Now that you understand what all-purpose flour is, let’s look at a wide range of other types of flour to see how they compare.
Pastry flour, though often mistaken for plain or all-purpose flour, is different. It’s made with a variety of soft wheat that has a low-protein count, usually 8–9%.
The lower protein content helps pastries like pie crusts, biscuits, or cinnamon rolls to have a tender, fine crust.
Pastry flour should be avoided if you’re trying to bake anything that requires a firm structure, such as bread or pasta.
If your recipe calls for pastry flour and you don’t have any, you can substitute all-purpose flour in most cases, but a better substitute would be to cut your all-purpose flour with cake flour if you have it.
A great balance is 1 1/3 parts of all-purpose flour to 2/3 parts cake flour.
Cakes that need to rise tall but don’t require the strength of gluten to maintain a structure can be made with cake flour.
Cake flour is milled very fine and is often chlorinated. Both of these processes weaken gluten and also increase the flour’s ability to absorb liquid. The combination produces a light, fluffy, and lusciously moist cake.
The protein content in cake flour is even lower than that of pastry flour, ranging between 5–8%.
Cake flour and pastry flour are confused so often, we’ve dedicated another post to outline the difference between those two types of baking flour. However, in some cases, pastry flour and other flours make good substitutes for cake flour.
All of the above types of flour are commonly made with wheat, but in this section, we’re talking about one specific type of wheat: semolina.
Semolina is made from a very hard type of wheat called durum, which is quite high in gluten, usually around 13% protein content. The flour is only coarsely ground and has a yellow tint.
The coarseness of the grind and high protein content creates a firm yet silky dough texture, easily stretched and rolled out very thinly. This makes it the perfect flour for pasta.
We previously mentioned that all-purpose flour only uses the endosperm of wheat. In contrast, whole wheat flour uses the entire seed head, including the endosperm, germ, and bran.
The milling process does separate the three separate components, grinding them separately, but various amounts of germ and bran are returned to the flour.
This increases the gluten to somewhere between 11–14%, depending on the brand, and produces heartier, denser, and more heavily textured baked goods.
If you have a mild gluten sensitivity, you may find that whole wheat flour is harder to digest. In many other ways, however, it is generally considered more nutritious.
It has more vitamins and minerals than all-purpose flour, and it also has more fiber. The added fiber allows it to be digested more slowly, creating a more gradual and less intense reaction in your blood sugar levels.
You can substitute whole-wheat flour for all-purpose flour in equal measurements for nearly any recipe, however, you may find the results more consistent with conventional textures if you cut your whole-wheat flour with all-purpose flour.
Whole wheat flour is not as shelf-stable as all-purpose flour because the germ has a high oil content that is prone to turning rancid. It’s best to store it in an air-tight container, kept at a cool temperature, or even frozen.
We know that you can bake bread using all-purpose flour or even whole wheat flour, so what is bread flour?
Bread flour, similar to wheat flour like semolina, is made out of hard wheat varieties, giving it a high protein content consistently between 12–14%. The gluten creates a chewy texture with a crisp, nicely browned crust, as in bagels.
It’s also great for creating pasta that holds its shape well. Equally as important, it also provides the structure yeast bread needs to rise and maintain its shape.
Bread flour is typically considered the “strongest” flour and can be found in white or whole wheat varieties.
What’s a good substitute for bread flour? As previously mentioned, all-purpose flour will typically work quite well for baking bread, as does most whole-wheat flour.
Self-rising flour is most commonly made using all-purpose flour, but it is not the same thing.
Self-rising flour was designed to be used as a quick baking mix, reducing the prep time and ingredients list for simple foods like biscuits, pancakes, and even some cakes.
To achieve the desired results, salt and baking powder are added to all-purpose flour to allow the dough or batter to rise.
You can make self-rising flour yourself by adding 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of all-purpose or pastry flour.
It will not last as long as the flour itself, however, because the baking powder will lose its potency after a few months.
Everyone knows bread needs to rise, which often leads people to wonder, is self-rising flour the same as bread flour?
The answer is no, though for certain quick breads it can be used as a substitute if certain other adjustments are also made. It is a more suitable substitute for baking mixes, like Bisquick.
Many people have discovered they are either gluten intolerant or seriously allergic to gluten, as in the case of celiac disease. Gluten-free flour is a way for anyone to enjoy baked goods without risking extreme digestive discomfort.
Gluten is the protein in wheat that allows dough to stretch without breaking, rise without falling, and develop a chewy, satisfying texture.
It’s important to realize that protein in gluten-free flour does not act the same as protein in gluten-containing flour and can’t be compared in the same light.
Can you substitute gluten-free flour for regular flour? Yes, you can, but you’ll have to choose the right gluten-free flour for your recipe.
There are many different types of gluten-containing flour and just as many varieties, if not more, of gluten-free flour. In the following sections, we’ll introduce you to a few of the most popular gluten-free flours for a variety of uses.
Rice flour is a low-protein gluten-free flour which means it will not hold structure and shape in baked goods as well as all-purpose flour would.
If you need that structure, you can combine rice flour with other gluten-free flours for better results.
Rice flour can be made from either white or brown rice and is the most common variety of gluten-free flour, primarily because it’s comparatively inexpensive and neutrally flavored.
The texture is known to be unique, however, and many describe it as gritty. Rice flour makes decent flatbread but is better used as a substitute for all-purpose flour in dishes that require breading, such as coating meat or frying tempura.
Corn flour is a very finely ground powder made from dried corn kernels. It is a low-protein gluten-free flour that is surprisingly versatile and neutrally flavored.
Corn flour has a very fine, smooth texture, and, depending on where you live, corn flour may be another name for cornstarch, but flour and starch are very different products.
Similarly, corn flour is not the same as masa harina, which is a special type of processed, quick-cooking corn flour used to make tortillas and Latin American specialties.
Corn flour cannot be used as a perfect substitute for all-purpose flour because of its lower protein content, but it can be combined with all-purpose flour or a higher-protein, gluten-free flour for better results. On its own, corn flour works well for breading or light, moist cakes.
Almond flour is made from almonds, as you’ve probably guessed, that have been blanched and ground into powder.
It’s widely available in most grocery stores and online because it is and always has been the star ingredient in the traditional recipe for macarons.
This flour is nearly as versatile as all-purpose flour and is probably the easiest gluten-free flour to use.
It has a mild sweetness and slightly nutty flavor that will be noticeable in your baked goods, but when used properly, this can add to the enjoyment of the recipe rather than destroy it.
Almond flour makes a great substitution for whole wheat flour but it won’t act quite the same as all-purpose flour in your recipes, partly because it is very high in protein. You may have to add something to help absorb liquid, such as ground flax or chia seeds.
Almond flour is not just gluten-free, it’s also low-carb in comparison to conventional wheat flour. On the flip side, it is high in protein and fat.
Unfortunately, it is not safe for anyone with a nut allergy and almond flour goes bad far quicker than regular flour.
Coconut flour is another popular gluten-free, low-carb alternative to all-purpose flour. It is also high in protein and fiber, but it can be very difficult to bake with because it is a very delicate, soft flour.
Coconut flour is a by-product of making coconut milk. It is made from the solids left after pressing the milk out. The coconut meat is dried and ground until it creates a fine, very soft powder.
It is denser than all-purpose flour and absorbs liquid greedily, leaving your baked goods dry and crumbly if you don’t adjust your recipe accordingly.
It’s best to use coconut flour only in recipes that were specifically developed for coconut flour and how it bakes, but you can attempt to substitute it for all-purpose flour if you’re in a bind.
Use only 1/4 the amount of coconut flour as the recipe calls for in plain flour, but be prepared to increase the liquids, add an additional egg for moisture, or make other small adjustments to compensate.
Almond flour makes a good substitute for coconut flour.
Soy is another high-protein gluten-free flour that can be used to replace all-purpose flour in certain recipes.
In fact, many legumes can be converted into flour, though soy has the mildest flavor and is the most popular, with chickpea flour a close second.
Because soy flour has such a high protein content, it works more like conventional flour if you cut it with another gluten-free option that has lower protein, such as rice flour.
Otherwise, you will want to use less soy flour, replacing 1 cup of all-purpose flour with only 3/4 cup of soy flour. Unlike coconut flour or almond flour, you shouldn’t need to add any additional ingredients to compensate, which is very convenient.
Soy flour is a very effective thickening agent and, because of its fine texture, it is also great for baking delicate goods like doughnuts and pastries, despite its high protein content.
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