In defence of all-purpose flour

Hi Everyone,

One day, whilst visiting a friend, she opened one of her cupboards to retrieve an item for the dish she was preparing and I casually looked up. The neat, single file of flour packages lined up like soldiers at the front of a battle captured my attention. Name the flour and she had it – cake flour, pastry flour, bread flour, rye flour, semolina flour etc. as I scanned the length of the shelf I noticed that while there was a variety, not a package of all-purpose flour was in sight. It set me wondering, what’s happened to good ole all-purpose flour? Is it no longer meeting our baking standards?

These days, when you walk into many supermarkets and check the flour or baking aisle, you’ll see all the speciality flours at your hand reach and eye level; all-purpose flour is relegated to the floor shelf. Or it’s placed on a separate part of the shelf, as if it does not belong. It’s taken a back seat to the newer kids – the ones that are singular in purpose; and for this column, I am referring to cake flour, bread flour and pastry flour.

I am a proud sack-carrying all-purpose flour user. I use it for everything – from dumplings to doughnuts, from breads to bakes, from cakes to cookies, and from pastries to roti(s). And I have to say, I am yet to be disappointed by the outcome of anything that I’ve made and shared, because I used all-purpose flour instead of the specialty flour prescribed by a recipe.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for us having choices and the opportunity to experiment and perfect a craft. Of course this division of flour amply increases the profits of the manufacturers because when we shop, no longer are we picking up one package of flour but instead we leave with three! We need one pack of flour for the cake we plan to make this weekend; another for the bread and yet another for the pastries and cookies. And just for good measure, we may pick up a pack of all-purpose flour too. Wow, so we now head to the cash register with four packs of flour!

What is bread flour? What is cake flour? What is pastry flour? How are they different from one another? Can’t I use them interchangeably? And what about all-purpose flour, don’t bother buying it anymore?

Flour is made up of carbohydrates and proteins and in whole-wheat flour, there is a bit of fat. Of the three nutrients, protein matters the most when baking. Proteins in wheat are called gluten-forming proteins and the quality and quantity of the proteins is what determines how a particular type of flour will perform. If the flour has a high percentage of protein, this will be considered strong flour, such as bread flour. If the flour has a low percentage protein, then it is a softer flour, such as cake flour and pastry flour.

Bread flour is specially formulated for crusty breads and yeast-raised products. Bread flour is high protein flour whereby more protein is added to the flour along with some malted barley and Vitamin C to help the formation of gluten. This formation makes the dough rise higher and helps it to retain the gases as it bakes resulting in greater volume and a better texture.

Cake flour has a low protein content hence it is soft flour; it is flour that is heavily milled and heavily bleached to give it a fine texture and colour respectively. The over-processing of the flour means that it will have less protein and less protein means a lighter, fluffier and tender crumb cake. This flour is usually completely inappropriate for other baking needs.

Pastry flour is a low protein soft flour too. Remember that protein equals gluten and the more gluten the heavier the flour? Well, the last thing one wants in a pastry is heaviness. We want crumbly, melt in your mouth, buttery, delicate, flaky pastry. Pastry flour has slightly more protein (gluten) than cake flour, however, unlike cake flour, pastry flour is not bleached. Pastry flour is also recommended for scones, sugar cookies, shortbreads and biscuits.

As you can see from the variances in the three aforementioned flours, each has specific qualities that make it better suited for specific tasks, as such they are not to be used interchangeably. Unless… you want to have a complete meltdown in the kitchen.

And now we turn our attention to the good ole, all-purpose flour. All-purpose flour is a mixture of high gluten wheat and low gluten wheat. What that means is that  all-purpose flour has an average protein content, enough to make it versatile for everything, from cakes to bakes, to breads, to pastries and cookies. And that is why I like it, that is why I buy it, – and that is why it is my go-to flour, every time.

It would be remiss of me not to mention to you, however, that not all flours are created equal. The amount of protein varies between different brands and that is why you will hear people swearing by some particular brands because it gives them the results they need all the time, every time. This holds true for the specialty flours as well as the all-purpose flour.

I grew up with my mom swearing by Robin Hood flour. She liked everything about it – from the colour of the dough once kneaded for bread or roti to the texture and flavour of whatever she made with Robin Hood flour. These days, she uses the local flour in Guyana. However, when she comes to visit and I make roti for her, she always comments on the good quality local flour we get here (Barbados). The roti is different in texture and flavour.

The next time you’re out shopping for flour, get your speciality flour, if that’s what you want… but don’t neglect the all-purpose flour. The drawback to buying any speciality ingredient is that you won’t use it as often as you think you will, but an all-purpose or multi-purpose ingredient will be used often. How many times have you not gone out and bought speciality ingredients because a recipe told you to do so and then realized that you cannot use that ingredient for anything else or that the dish you made is one that you will not be making again in a hurry or never? Money down the drain.


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