Difference Between Bread Flour, Cake Flour, Pastry Flour, and All-Purpose Flour

The type of flour you use when baking matters more than you think.

Some recipes will work just fine with any kind of flour while the others will be a total disaster if you use the wrong kind. You work hard to get the perfect pastry or cake (measuring ingredients, mixing, kneading, baking) so naturally, you want the best results.

To help you out, we have created a guide on types of flour so you’ll never use the wrong kind again.

Before we begin, let’s talk about how flour is made. We all know it’s made of wheat, right? Flour is the final result of the process of grinding wheat but it’s not that simple. The wheat seed has three parts: the endosperm, the bran, and the germ. If all three parts are ground you’ll get whole grain flour. Whole grain flour is healthy, but it’s not really suitable for fine pastries, because it’s a bit rough and dense.

If only the endosperm is ground you’ll get white flour. Bread flour, pastry or cake flour, and all-purpose flour are all types of white flour. They all have different characteristics, but one thing in common – they are rich in gluten, which guarantees your baked goods will turn out great.

So let’s see what’s specific for each of them! 

What is Bread Flour?

Bread flour is ground from hard types of wheat, which gives it a higher protein amount. Bread flour contains the highest percent of protein of all flours (12 – 14%) and it is designed for yeast doughs.

Higher protein content means better rise and stronger dough. That’s not all – protein amount is important for gluten development, which ensures your dough will have a nice texture and taste. You’ll need to knead this type of flour significantly more than the other types, but as a result, you’ll get an airy and chewy texture.

Bread flour is the perfect choice when you’re making all kinds of bread, pretzels, bagels, pizza dough, cinnamon buns, sweet rolls, or strudels, for example. Avoid using this type of flour if your pastry is soft and gentle such as cake or pie.

If you’re looking for a substitute for bread flour, we have good news for you. Although bread flour has a unique structure and the highest amount of protein, you can successfully substitute it with all-purpose flour. You can add wheat gluten to all-purpose flour for an extra amount of protein, or you can use it on its own. Mixing these two kinds of flour works as well. 

Tip: Bread flour is often called strong flour, strong bread flour, or hard floor, so don’t let these synonyms trick you – it’s the same thing.

What is Cake Flour?

Cake flour is fine milled flour with the most tender consistency. It has the lowest amount of protein of all flours – only 7-10%. As we said before, protein percentage is directly responsible for gluten chains in your dough. Cake flour is low in protein and it will form fewer gluten chains. As a result, you will get a soft and fluffy texture of your cake.

Cake flour is often bleached (that’s why it’s forbidden in Australia and Europe) and it absorbs less fluid, binds fat more efficiently, and stabilizes gas production caused by baking soda, no matter how much sugar the recipe requires. That’s why cakes have such a delicate texture.

Cake flour is usually not self-rising (except a few brands that offer self-rising cake flour) and it needs baking powder or baking soda to start rising. You will know what type of cake flour to use according to your recipe. If it contains baking soda, the “ordinary” cake flour is the way to go.

Tip: If you want to reduce protein in your recipe you can replace one part of cake flour with one part of corn starch.

What is Pastry Flour?

Pastry flour, also known as cookie flour, is one of the most commonly used flours for baked goods. Pastry flour is fine milled flour, with a finer texture than all-purpose flour. It’s not bleached as cake flour, but it’s also low in protein, although it contains more protein than cake flour (8-9%). Don’t use cake flour as a replacement for pastry flour because the lack of protein (gluten) will cause a lack of structure and your deserts will fall apart.

Pastry flour is designed for light and delicate pastries such as pies with crust, cookies, muffins, biscuits, pancakes, cinnamon rolls. It’s lighter than whole grain flour, which is great for bread dough, but not so great for chocolate chip cookies or blueberry muffins. If you use whole grain flour instead of pastry flour, your deserts will be denser and chewier than you want them to be.

Pastry flour is always used with leavening agents such as baking soda or baking powder. 

Tip: If you need a substitute for pastry flour you can combine ½ cup of cake flour and ½ cup of all-purpose flour for every cup of pastry flour the recipe demands. You can also mix all-purpose flour with corn starch: for every cup of pastry flour use a cup of all-purpose one mixed with two tablespoons of corn starch.

What is All-Purpose Flour?

All-purpose flour, also known as plain flour, is the flour generally used in all homes. It is made of hard and soft grain combinations (80:20) and it is suitable for almost all kinds of baked goods:  bread, pizza dough, rolls, buns, cookies, pretzels, biscuits, and muffins. It’s also used in cooking to thicken gravies and sauces.

All-purpose flour is in the middle of the protein scale – it contains 10% of protein. It has a lack of bran and nutrients, so it’s usually enriched with vitamins and minerals. It is sold in both versions – bleached and unbleached. The bleached version of all-purpose flour creates a more tender texture in baked goods, while unbleached gives more structure to your pastries. 

If you are out of all-purpose flour you can substitute it with bread flour (half of the amount or whole amount), just make sure you don’t overmix it. You can also use cake or pastry flour in a 1:1 ratio, but mix it with two tablespoons of corn starch.

Tip: Make sure not to use self-rising all-purpose flour (all-purpose flour mixed with leavening agents) if the recipe doesn’t require it. 

To ensure the best results, always use the type of flour that recipes demand.