Flour is an integral ingredient in a lot of baked goods. But if you’re new to baking, it can be challenging to distinguish it among all of the different kinds. One of the most common questions? Is all purpose flour the same as plain flour?
All purpose flour, also known as AP flour, is a common pantry item in a lot of kitchens, especially if you have a baker in the house. We go through a lot of it at RecipeFAQ headquarters!
But what if your recipe calls for plain flour instead? Are they interchangeable?
In fact, all purpose flour and plain flour are two different names for the same thing. The distinction is regional. In the United States, the term “all purpose flour” is more common, while “plain flour” is more widely used in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where it’s also called “standard flour.” All purpose flour can also be referred to as white flour.
Confused yet? Don’t worry. I’ll walk you through the various uses for AP flour, or plain flour, as well as how it differs from other commonly used types of flour.
What is all purpose flour?
If you’ve ever baked a cake, made pizza dough, or simply whipped up some pancakes, chances are you’ve used all purpose flour.
This versatile wheat flour type was developed to help make it easier to buy flour for a wide variety of uses. Prior to its advent, very specific types of flour were needed to make various kinds of foods.
For example, “hard” or “strong” flour was required to make things like pasta and pizza dough, as it is higher in protein and gluten content so it can bind better. In contrast, “soft” or “weak” flour with less gluten was better suited for flaky pastries, biscuits, or cakes. And additional flour varieties had separate uses.
While that’s still the case, in order to streamline things a bit, refined, all purpose flour was invented. Now instead of needing to stock several flour types, one could be used for a whole range of baked goods.
In terms of strength and gluten, all purpose flour is a middle-of-the-road blend of hard and soft flour. In general, it contains between 10 to 12 percent protein. That makes it a good fit to make everything from cakes and cookies to bread and pasta. It can also act as a thickening agent in sauces and soups.
So if you see a recipe that simply calls for flour or plain flour, it’s safe to assume that you can use all purpose flour.
Is all purpose flour enriched?
During the refinement process to create all purpose flour, bran and germ are extracted, leaving the endosperm of the wheat behind. That endosperm is then ground to make the flour.
Since bran and germ contain many of the vitamins and minerals in wheat, the resulting all purpose flour is often enriched to add nutrients back in. That can include iron, niacin and thiamine (to promote nervous system and digestive health), and riboflavin (for healthy cell growth and function).
What does flour do in baked goods?
Simply put, the type of flour used helps determine the structure of the baked goods that you’re making. And this is largely due to the amount of gluten in the flour. Gluten is made when two proteins found in wheat, gliadin and glutenin, combine. The higher the gluten levels, the more structure the resulting dough will have.
Soft flours have low protein content, so they’re more suitable to airy baked goods with a lighter texture like sponge cakes. Hard or strong flours have more gluten and can create more body. So they’re great for denser, chewier baked goods like some breads, bagels, and pretzels.
Why do you knead dough?
Gluten also helps makes dough elastic, so kneading it properly also helps provide structure. The more you knead it, the greater the structure will end up being. So properly kneaded dough will retain its shape during baking.
However, kneading dough too much, or overworking it, can give the finished product a tough or chewy texture. And it can diminish the dough’s ability to rise.
If you feel your dough getting very stiff and dense, you may have overworked it. If that’s the case, try letting the dough rise for twice the recommended amount. That can help soften the gluten.
What can you substitute for all purpose flour?
While all purpose flour can work in a wide range of baked goods, it may not be the best option in some cases. Or you simply may not have it on hand. In either case, you can swap it out for different types of flour, depending on what you’re baking.
If you’re making delicate pastries or flaky pie crusts, you may want to use pastry flour instead, which has a lower protein content than AP flour.
For cakes or cupcakes, cake flour is a good substitute. It’s also lower in protein levels.
For denser baked goods like some breads or choux, you may get better results using a bread flour that features higher protein content.
Typically, these flours can be swapped for AP flour using a 1:1 ratio.
Is all purpose the same as self rising flour?
These two types of flour are similar, but with one main difference. Many baking recipes that call for all purpose flour also require a leavening agent to make the foods rise. That can include yeast, baking soda, or baking powder, among others.
Self rising flour, or self-raising flour in the United Kingdom, is all purpose flour that features baking powder, along with added salt. The included baking powder eliminates the need for a separate leavener.
Each cup of self rising flour contains 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
While it can be more convenient in some cases than regular all purpose flour, it also has a shorter shelf life, as the rising effectiveness begins to weaken after around 6 months. By contrast, AP flour will keep for upwards of a year.
And self-rising flour isn’t suitable in all cases, especially when you don’t want the food to rise. Some examples include pie shells, crackers, and shortbread cookies. In addition, don’t use it in recipes that also call for yeast, baking powder, or another rising agent.
What is cake flour?
Cake flour is a type of soft flour that’s lower in gluten proteins, so it produces lighter, less structured baked goods. Many cake recipes will specifically call for cake flour instead of all purpose flour in order to create a fluffy, airy texture. You can also use cake flour for cupcakes, muffins, and sponges.
What is bread flour?
This strong flour made from hard spring wheat features higher protein content, up to 13% as compared to closer to 10% or 11% for AP flour. That produces greater amounts of gluten. The result is a more densely structured dough that’s ideal for thick breads like brioche, challah, pizza crust, and banana bread.
What is whole wheat flour?
Whole wheat flour is made by using the whole part of the kernels during the milling process. This gives the flour a courser texture and a light brown color. High in both fiber and protein, whole wheat flour is often used in breads and crackers.
But foods baked with whole wheat flour can sometimes be drier and grittier than those using AP flour. So if you’re considering swapping whole flour for AP flour, it’s a good idea to use 50% of each so you don’t wind up with an overly dense final product.
Keep all purpose flour in a cool, dry place like a pantry or kitchen cupboard. And make sure it’s tightly sealed. For best results, use an airtight container. That will help preserve its freshness and keep out insects. All purpose flour can keep for up to a year if stored properly.
You can use either, with or without the hyphen, when referring to this type of flour. Typically, a hyphen is used to create compound adjectives, multiple-word descriptions that precede a noun (see what I did there!) So, if you wanted to be strictly grammatically correct, you would add the hyphen. But it’s not a requirement. And many examples of all purpose flour packaging do not include it.
Get more baking answers
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