All-purpose flour is a common ingredient in many recipes. Yet, many people don’t know if there is a difference between it and plain flour.
Here is a detailed breakdown of what all-purpose flour is, how it is made, and whether or not it differs from plain flour.
All-purpose flour is no different from plain flour. These terms are used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Regions such as Australia and the UK use the term plain flour, while folks in the US call it all-purpose flour. However, you should expect a slight variation in gluten content in flour milled in the US and that milled in other regions.
These slight differences occur because of the countries where they are made and different types of wheat used.
The differences include the hardness and the gluten content. However, the difference is nothing to worry about.
What Is All-Purpose Flour?
All-purpose flour is general use refined wheat flour with no added raising agent. It is made from wheat grains after removing the brown outer covering.
Since it is a general use kind of flour, you can use it for baking different kinds of pastries. You can also add it to your sauces and gravies to help thicken them.
To better understand what all-purpose flour is, you have to recognize the types of wheat varieties used to make it.
You can categorize wheat grain into two types, namely:
- Hard wheat
This kind of wheat has a high gluten and protein content, giving it an elastic and coarse texture. Hard wheat is bronze in color and has a starchy center where all the gluten is stored.
The high gluten content means that it is strong enough to hold baked goods together.
Hard wheat can be white or red, depending on the color of the kernel. The red variation has brans with a red tinge. On the other hand, the bran of white wheat has a sandy, almost beige hue.
Nonetheless, once wheat is milled, it isn’t easy to notice the color differences.
Similarly, hard red has a slightly higher wheat content compared to the white strain. What’s more, hard red wheat has a nuttier, almost bitter flavor taste, while the white version has a more reserved sweeter taste.
- Soft wheat
Soft wheat has a light golden hue and is sometimes referred to as white wheat. Unlike hard wheat, it has less gluten and more starch. It also has a low protein content. This quality of soft wheat makes it best for cake and cake products.
Soft wheat can be further classified into soft red wheat and soft white wheat. You can easily mistake soft red wheat for hard wheat since they have almost identical characteristics.
However, it is easier to mill and has a finer texture. This quality makes it best for crackers, cakes and cookies.
In contrast, soft white wheat is majorly used to make soft pastries like yeast bread and snack foods. Soft, spongy cakes use such kinds of wheat.
All-purpose flour is a combination of soft and hard wheat. The gluten content for this kind of flour usually ranges from 9% to 12 %. Combining these two types of four to make all-purpose flour help make it fairly strong and can make a stretchy dough.
How Is All-Purpose Flour Made?
All-purpose flour is made by milling, refining and bleaching wheat grains. Milling wheat involves a systematic sequence of breaking grains, grinding them and separating.
When milling, all the bran and germ are wholly removed from the wheat grain in a process called crushing. At this stage, wheat is soaked in water to facilitate easier separation of the bran.
This process is particularly vital in the production of refined flours like all purposes ones.
Sometimes, the moisture content in wheat grains may vary due to reasons such as poor storage. This may make the bran to break into tiny pieces during milling.
To prevent this, wheat grains are conditioned first before the milling process begins.
The remaining white endosperm makes up a huge percentage of all-purpose flour. It contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and a negligible amount of minerals and vitamins.
Removing all the bran and germ is disadvantageous since it means getting rid of almost all the nutrients in a wheat grain.
Nonetheless, flour millers cannot skip this step as removing the germ and bran improves the dough-making characteristics of flour. Wheat germ has oil which may affect the keeping qualities of flour.
Plus, removing these components gives the flour a better color.
Bleaching all-purpose flour
Have you ever wondered why all-purpose flour is super white with a smooth texture? During milling, the flour is bleached. This process involves treating flour with chemical agents such as potassium bromate, benzoyl peroxide or chlorine.
Apart from giving flour its characteristic white color, bleaching also helps speed up aging. Millers age flour to help enhance certain baking qualities.
This process (bleaching) significantly changes the way flour tastes, appears and feels.
The chemicals cause it to have more refined grains, a softer texture and a whiter color. Another notable benefit of bleaching is that it improves the shelf life of all-purpose flour
Fortifying and enriching
After that, flour is enriched and fortified with vitamins and minerals. Remember, the wheat grain was stripped of almost all its nutrients when brand and germ were removed.
Therefore, to improve the nutritional value of all-purpose flours, vitamins, especially the B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, folic acid and riboflavin) and minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium are artificially added to it.
There is a considerable benefit of enriching and fortifying flour. For one, in its unrefined form, flour is a powerhouse of nutrients and essential minerals.
Unfortunately, a lot of these vital components are lost during processing. To replenish and restore them to their original amounts, millers have to fortify and enrich flour.
Another advantage is that fortified flour is healthier. A lot of people barely meet their recommended dietary guidelines. As a matter of fact, the number of people with macronutrient deficiencies is alarming.
Flour based foods are a staple in most homes, therefore, it’s a wise move not to have people consuming huge loads of starch and carbs only but also have them getting crucial nutrients from these foods.
Additionally, folic acid present in fortified flour helps reduce neural defects in babies.
How Does All-Purpose Flour Differ From Plain Flour?
Despite being considered similar in most regions, all-purpose flour differs slightly from plain flour. One thing that stands out is the components that make up both flours.
For instance, all-purpose flour has a high protein content compared to plain flour. Plain flour usually has a 10 percent protein content, while that of all-purpose flour ranges from 10 to 13 percent.
Types of All-Purpose Flour
There are several types of all-purpose flours, depending on the protein content. You may notice that some brands of flour make better baked goods compared to others. This is due to the amount of protein in that flour which enhances its ability to form gluten.
The milling process has nothing to do with the protein content, rather the type of wheat used. Normally, all-purpose flour is made from hard red winter wheat. This strain of wheat has a reddish hue hence the name.
It also has a protein content of 10.5 percent and is widely used to make all-purpose flours. As well, note that the hard red winter wheat is highly compatible with an acid-alkaline diet.
Nonetheless, millers mix with soft wheat, which has a protein percentage of 8.
It is easy to tell all-purpose flour made from hard wheat and that with a soft wheat mixture. Flour made from hard wheat has a slight granular feel, whereas that made from soft wheat has a very fine texture.
Here are types of all-purpose flours categorized according to their protein contents.
High Protein content all-purpose flours
These types of flours have a relatively high protein compared to other flours. You will encounter some pastry recipes that need all-purpose flours with a specific protein count.
The protein content in such kinds of flours is generally between 11% and 11.9%. Examples of flours with high protein content include:
- Ceresota unbleached all-purpose flour (11.8% protein)
- King Arthur all-purpose flour (11.7% protein)
Moderate protein content all-purpose flours
Such kinds of flours have between 9% to 11.3% protein content. Examples include:
- Hodgson Mill Unbleached all-purpose flour (10.5% protein)
- Pillsbury bleached enriched all-purpose flour (11% protein)
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour (10.5% protein)
Low protein content all-purpose flours
This category of flour has the lowest protein content. Examples include:
- White Lily enriched bleached all-purpose flour (8.5% protein)
All-purpose flour may also be categorized as bleached or non-bleached. As you shop, you may find some brands labeled bleached and others unbleached.
You can make pastries such as cookies, muffins, cakes, pancakes, biscuits and doughnuts from all-purpose flours. Most baking recipes usually mention flour as one of the ingredients.
Most times, this refers to all-purpose flour. If you are allergic to gluten, you may want to consider gluten-free options like oat flour and almond flour.
The versatility of all-purpose flour is undeniable. Even then, it is important to understand what it is and its origins to help you use it more appropriately.