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The Best All-Purpose Flour
Here’s everything you need to know about buying, storing, and baking with all-purpose flour.
What You Need To Know
Flour is a kitchen staple, and we use it in a variety of ways, from baking breads, cakes, cookies, and biscuits to making roux, sauces, and pastas to coating fried foods. While flours can be milled from barley, chickpeas, and tapioca (just to name a few options), we rely most heavily on all-purpose flour milled from wheat in our recipes. But despite the all-encompassing name, not all “all-purpose” flours are the same. In the test kitchen, we keep two types of all-purpose flour on hand: moderate-protein flour and high-protein flour, and we’ll often note a preference for one or the other in our recipes. We’ve found that these two products sometimes perform differently, and we employ each strategically when making baked goods to produce a desired texture. But what causes these differences, and how can such a simple ingredient create such varied outcomes?
To find out, we took a closer look at all-purpose flour by rounding up five top-selling brands and using them to make our Easiest-Ever Biscuits and Olive Oil Cake recipes. We also had our resident bread expert, Cook’s Illustrated Senior Editor Andrew Janjigian, use each flour to make loaves of our Almost No-Knead Bread. Along the way, we asked tasters to evaluate the appearances, textures, and flavors of the baked goods.
Bleached versus Unbleached Flour
All-purpose flour comes in both bleached and unbleached varieties. When flour is milled, pigments in the wheat called carotenoids (the same pigments that give carrots their bright orange color) give it a yellowish hue. While this color fades to off-white with exposure to oxygen over time, some manufacturers choose to speed up the process by chemically bleaching their flours with additives such as chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers the chemicals used to bleach flour food-safe, several of these additives are banned in many countries, including China, India, and Brazil, as well as in the European Union.
Many brands make both bleached and unbleached versions of all-purpose flour, but we opted for the unbleached versions here since we’ve found in previous testings that bleached flours sometimes produce a bitter, metallic flavor in baked goods. We did include one bleached flour from White Lily, a favorite brand in the South that does not offer an unbleached version. While we didn’t detect any off-flavors in the biscuits, cake, or bread we made with the White Lily flour, we did notice that the baked goods we made with it were paler in color than those we made with the unbleached flours.
Protein Content of All-Purpose Flour
The protein content of wheat flours can range from ...
Everything We Tested
This flour is milled to a specific protein percentage of 11.7 percent, which was among the highest protein levels of the brands we tried and close to the bottom of the range usually found in bread flours. As a result, the bread we made with this flour rose tall and had an “airy,” “chewy” crumb and “crispy” crust. The biscuits were also tall, albeit a bit “bready.” Tasters noticed a “nice wheat flavor” in both the bread and the biscuits. However, texture and flavor differences were less discernible in the cake; while its texture was “a tad stiffer” than those of the cakes we made with other brands, it was still “pleasantly moist” and “plenty tender.” While we recommend this flour for bread baking, it’s also a good option for multipurpose baking.
This flour, which is milled to a protein range of 10 to 12 percent, produced a tall, airy loaf of bread. We were impressed with its “tender crumb” and “nice wheat flavor.” The biscuits weren’t quite as tall as those made with the King Arthur flour, but they were still “well risen,” with a nice, open structure. Since it's milled to a range of protein rather than a specific percentage, you can expect a bit of variability from bag to bag (which may account for the differences in the amount of rise we saw in our bread and biscuit tests). However, every baked good we made with this brand turned out well, and it’s a good all-purpose option. (The company also makes an organic all-purpose flour that has almost identical packaging to this product. We did not test the organic version.)
Our standby in the test kitchen, this brand worked well in most of the recipes, making moist cake and flaky biscuits. Our bread expert reported that the bread he made with it was almost an inch shorter and less robust in flavor than the breads he made with the higher-protein all-purpose flours, but he said that it still made a decent loaf. We slightly prefer this flour to the Pillsbury all-purpose flour we tested because it’s milled to a very specific protein percentage, which limits variability in results.
This flour made tender cake, well-risen biscuits, and pleasantly chewy bread loaves. Our bread expert, who is notoriously picky, deemed bread made with this brand “surprisingly good” for a moderate-protein flour, and its rise was similar to that of the higher-protein flours. While we were impressed by its performance in our tests, it's milled to a range of protein percentage rather than a specific percentage (albeit a smaller range than most brands), so results may vary a bit from bag to bag. Overall, it’s a solid option for multipurpose baking.
Unlike other all-purpose flours that are typically milled from a blend consisting primarily of hard wheat, this regional-favorite flour is made exclusively from soft wheat, which has a lower protein content. As a result, the protein level of this flour is similar to cake flour—about 7 to 8.5 percent—and baked goods made with it were notably “cakey,” “tender,” and “soft.” For this reason, White Lily is often lauded by Southern chefs as a key ingredient for making tender, delicate biscuits. In fact, the biscuits we made with it were so tender that one taster called the biscuit he sampled “a savory cupcake.” Due to its lower protein content, its biscuits and bread rose less and were “wider” and “squatter” than the baked goods we made with other all-purpose flours. Height differences weren’t noticeable in the cake, however, where the confines of the pan prevented spreading. Baked goods made with this flour were also notably lighter in color, as it was the only bleached flour we tried. However, the bleaching didn’t affect their flavors. All in all, it’s a regional favorite that is good for making biscuits and cake but not ideal for making bread.
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