What’s the Difference: Flour? Part 1

Last week, when I was working at the Kitchen Shoppe, an intriguing challenge arose from a student’s question to the instructor.  The instructor was talking about the flour he was adding to a roux and one of the class members asked if you could substitute other types of flour.

The instructor began talking about different types of flour – bread flour, all-purpose flour, and pastry flour (a.k.a. soft flour or sometimes substituted by cake flour).  He challenged class members to try each of these types of flour by making the same recipe multiple times only changing the flour.

Well, never being one to shy away from a challenge, I decided to give it a whirl.  But rather than simply try one recipe, I decided I would try two.  Chocolate cake and foccacia.  This post details my findings in the chocolate cake category.

I began by making a very basic chocolate cake recipe with bread flour, with all-purpose flour and with cake flour (since I didn’t have and couldn’t easily locate pastry flour).  I drafted a team of six tasters – including one of the world’s foremost authorities on chocolate cake, my buddy Jackson, and his dad, Tim.  Incidentally, it’s not that difficult to draft a team of tasters when chocolate cake is on the menu; however I wonder if it will be so easy should I decide to test brussel sprouts!

I must admit, I went into this experiment with a preconceived idea of which flour would be the best.  I was surprised to find that the results were somewhat different than I thought they would be.

I was also surprised to find during my research that there are differences between Southern all-purpose flour and Northern all-purpose flour.  Who knew?  Not me.

I fully expected the cake flour to make the best cake – I mean, duh, cake is in the name.  And were we only judging on taste and texture, I would have been right.  But when we included appearance into the criteria, pastry flour fell flat – pun intended.

 After researching the different kinds of wheat flour, I put together a chart I hope is helpful:

Bread Flour All Purpose Flour Pastry Flour
Southern Northern
Protein Content 12 – 13% 8 – 10% 11 – 12% 9% (Cake flour 7 – 8%)
Gluten Content high medium low
Weighing and Measuring 1 cup = 160 grams 1 cup = 140 grams 1 cup = 130 grams
Wheat hard, high protein wheat Blend of hard and soft wheat soft winter wheat
soft winter wheat
General Good for breads and some pastries, best choice for yeast products Good for cakes, cookies, breads and pastries Good for cakes and cookies where a tender/delicate texture is desired. / Cake flour is slightly different than pastry flour but is a good substitute
Shelf-Life Cabinet – several months in a cool, dry cabinet in sealed container / Freezer – up to 1 year Cabinet – up to 8 months in sealed container / Refrigerator – up to 1 year Cabinet – up to 8 months in sealed container / Refrigerator – up to 1 year
Crumb / Texture Produced Chewy Delicate, tender


The following are the results of my first experiment, during which I baked the cakes for exactly the same amount of time; however, I want to see what happens if I alter baking times based upon the type of flour –  my hunch is the cakes made with the all-purpose flour and cake flour could have used a little more time than the one made with the bread flour.  I will also dust the cake pans with flour the next time, rather than my usual dusting of sugar (which people always love, but which makes it a little more difficult to remove the cake from the pan).

The taste tests were blind in that the testers did not know ahead of time which flour was used in which cake.  The cakes were simply labeled A, B and C and only I knew which flour which cake.  The cakes were single layer and did not have any icing on them.  Testers were asked to comment on appearance, texture, moisture, taste and ‘other.’

Cake A – Bread Flour

This cake looked the best.  It was 1 1/8 inches high and held its shape nicely.  It was easy to remove from the pan – no coaxing necessary.

Appearance: Testers commented that it looked brownie-like, nice and even, lightest color, compact, and cakey.

Texture: There were a wide variety of opinions on the texture. Testers commented that the texture was dense, toughest of the 3, soft and chocolatey interior, and spongy.

Moisture: Again, there were a wide variety of opinions on moisture.  Testers comments included, moist and good without frosting, a bit dry, medium – on the dry side, evenly moist, driest.

Taste: Testers said sweet – not overly chocolatey, least like chocolate, dull, like a brownie, and good.

Other: Testers comments included, I liked this, least flavorful, no frosting needed, and small holes on top.

Cake B – All-Purpose Flour

This cake was the tallest.  It was 1 1/2 inches high and took just a little coaxing to get out of the pan.  Except for a damaged corner, it held its shape.

Appearance: Testers commented that it wet (moist) and light (fluffy), thin and chocolatey, tallest overall, and tempting-looking.

Texture: There was less variety in opinions on the texture of cake B than on the texture of cake A. Testers commented that the texture was spongy, fluffy, gooey, moist – cake like, fluffy, and light in color.

Moisture: Again, there was less variety of opinions on moisture.  Testers comments included, very moist, gooey, better than A, evenly moist, and medium moist.

Taste: Testers said sweet/good, a super sweet brownie, better cake taste than A, not too sweet or too chocolatey, and chocolatey.

Other: Testers comments included, cracked top, no frosting needed, tastes like cake, very good, and I liked this too.

Cake C – Cake Flour

This cake was the shortest.  It was 1 1/16 inches high and took a lot of coaxing to get out of the pan.  The middle of the cake stuck to the pan and had to be placed back into the rest of the cake once it was coaxed out.

Appearance: Testers commented that very moist (wet on top), crumbly, fallen – least visually appealing but darkest, uneven surface, darkest color and big holes on top.

Texture: Of all the cakes there was the most variety in opinions on the texture. Testers commented that the texture was moist and light, fluffy, denser than the others – not light and airy, very light – almost angel food texture, and crumbly and airy.

Moisture: Of all the cakes there was the least variety of opinions on moisture.  Testers comments included, very moist, most moist of three, very moist throughout, and most moist.

Taste: Testers said good – different than others but not sure why, chocolatey, best taste – seems chocolatier, and delicious chocolate flavor.

Other: Testers comments included, didn’t like as much as others, like taste but not appearance, and can picture raspberry mousse, peanut butter, vanilla fillings or frostings with this.

There was no clear favorite, nor was there a clear loser. Each cake had its merits and downfalls.  As I said earlier, I will try my experiment again – at least once – and will report back.  For now I would say for an overall good result, the all-purpose flour takes the cake!