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All About All-Purpose Flour

By Lauren Savoie Published

Here’s everything you need to know about buying, storing, and baking with all-purpose flour.

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.

Storing Flour

  • Flour contains natural fats that will eventually oxidize, changing the color, flavor, and performance of the flour over time. It can also pick up off-flavors from its surroundings. We recommend taking the flour out of the bag it comes in and storing it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from humidity. Stored this way, all-purpose flour can stay good for up to a year. We particularly like the Cambro 6-Quart Square Storage Container for flour: It's large enough to accommodate a 5-pound bag of flour with room to spare, and its wide opening provides plenty of space for dipping a measuring cup inside.

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.

When we compared the bread we made with bleached flour (left) to bread we made with unbleached flour (right), we quickly noticed the stark color difference.

Protein Content of All-Purpose Flour

The protein content of wheat flours can range from about 7 percent to approximately 13 percent. A flour with less protein (and thus less ability to form gluten) will produce a tender, soft texture best suited for cakes and desserts, while one with more protein will form more gluten and produce a chewier, more open crumb best suited for breads. The protein content of all-purpose flour usually falls somewhere in the middle of the above range, so it can be used in a wide variety of recipes. To produce flours with different protein contents, manufacturers use specific classes and blends of wheat. Hard wheat, which has more protein, is most often used to make bread flour and all-purpose flour, while soft wheat, which has less protein, is primarily used to make cake flour, but it can be blended with hard wheat varieties to produce all-purpose flours.

We observed a wide range of protein levels in the “all-purpose” flours we reviewed.

When we contacted companies to ask about the protein content percentages of their all-purpose flours, we were surprised to discover a fairly wide range—from 7 percent to 12 percent, with levels on the lower end of the range close to that of cake flour and levels on the higher end close to that of bread flour. Some companies mill their all-purpose flour to a specific protein content percentage that is consistent across all bags (for example, 11.7 percent in King Arthur), while others allow for a range of protein content from bag to bag (for example, Bob’s Red Mill states that the protein content of a bag of their all-purpose flour can range from 10 to 12 percent). To see how much of an impact protein content has on food, we started baking.

Baking with All-Purpose Flour

The protein contents of the flours didn’t seem to matter when we used them to make cakes. All the cakes were well risen, tender, and about the same size. This is likely because there’s proportionally less flour in cake batter than there is in biscuit and bread dough.

The lower-protein flour developed the least amount of gluten and produced squat, rounded biscuits, while the higher-protein flour developed the most gluten and gave us tall, bready biscuits.

We saw much more variation in the textures and heights of the biscuits and breads we made with each brand. The White Lily flour, which is milled to a protein content range of 7 to 8.5 percent, produced squatter biscuits and bread loaves that were two-thirds as tall as loaves made with other flours. Consequently, the interiors of the baked goods made with White Lily were “soft” and “cakey” due to the lack of gluten structure. While this soft texture was pleasant in the biscuits—one taster remarked that the White Lily biscuit was like “a savory cupcake”—it was unacceptable in the bread.

To average out any slight differences in height from biscuit to biscuit, we stacked a full batch of biscuits made with each flour and measured the total height. Our results were clear: The lower the protein, the lower the biscuit.

While lower-protein White Lily produced the most dramatic differences we saw among the baked goods, we still noticed some variation between baked goods made with the higher-protein and moderate-protein flours. All produced perfectly acceptable breads, cakes, and biscuits, but the bread loaves we made with the higher-protein flours were particularly tall and well risen, with an open crumb and chewy texture. If we’re being picky, the biscuits we made with these higher-protein flours were a tad “bready” compared to the more tender biscuits we made with moderate-protein flours, but that’s a small price to pay for the superior bread loaves those higher-protein flours churned out.

While it’s worth seeking out higher-protein all-purpose flour if you bake a lot of bread, moderate-protein all-purpose flours such as those from Pillsbury and Gold Medal work perfectly well in the vast majority of recipes. The bread we made with the Pillsbury flour rose as tall as one of the breads we made with a higher-protein flour, and while it wasn’t quite as chewy, it was still a decent loaf.

Measuring Flour

  • Not all “cups” of flour are created equal; the amount of flour that actually ends up in your measuring cup depends a lot on how you measure your flour and how strong your hand is. To prove our point, we asked 10 testers with different hand strengths and sizes to measure out and weigh 1 cup of each flour in our lineup. We found that the weight of 1 cup of flour could vary by up to 10 percent depending on who was doing the scooping. The more heavy-handed testers produced more densely packed, heavier scoops than testers whose scooping efforts were a bit more dainty. To avoid these measurement discrepancies and minimize the variability of your results, we always provide both a volume and a weight measurement in recipes where the amount of flour really matters (such as baking recipes) and recommend that you use a kitchen scale to weigh the flour. 

     

    However, if you don’t have a scale handy, we can recommend an alternate way to measure flour: the dip-and-sweep method. Simply drag the measuring cup through the flour (taking care not to be too forceful while dragging) to scoop a heaping cup, and then use a flat implement, such as the back of a butter knife, to level the measuring cup from its handle to its rim without packing down any of the flour. We’ve found that this method incorporates less air than spooning flour into the measuring cup and thus provides a more accurate measurement. Sifting also incorporates air, so we don’t recommend sifting your flour unless your recipe calls for it. 

The Best All-Purpose Flours

Ultimately, the best all-purpose flour depends on how you plan to use it. For that reason, we've decided to forgo our usual chart rankings and list the flours according to their protein contents and provide tasting notes that will help you decide which flours suit your needs and preferences.

In the test kitchen, we’ll still be stocking two types of all-purpose flours, but we realize that, for many home cooks, that may not be an option due to storage concerns. If you bake a lot of bread and prefer stocking only one flour in your kitchen, we recommend buying a higher-protein all-purpose flour such as King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Bob's Red Mill Unbleached White All-Purpose Flour. (While the protein content of the Bob’s Red Mill flour ranges from 10 to 12 percent, we suspect that it’s closer to the higher end of that range based on how it performed in our tests.) The higher protein content in these flours is the key to making the tallest and most airy loaves, and, in our tests, both products also made perfectly acceptable cakes and biscuits.

However, if you don’t bake a lot of bread, we recommend buying an all-purpose flour with a moderate amount of protein, such as Gold Medal Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Pillsbury Best Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. They are a good option in biscuit, cake, or cookie recipes. And, as our tests proved, they’re also perfectly fine for making the occasional loaf of bread. 

As for the lower-protein flour in our lineup, White Lily Enriched Bleached All-Purpose Flour is often lauded by Southern home cooks as the secret to making tender, flaky biscuits. However, we found that we were able to produce perfectly good biscuits with moderate- and higher-protein flours. Unless your primary focus is biscuit making, we recommend stocking your kitchen with a moderate- or higher-protein flour, both of which are much more versatile.

Taste Test All-Purpose Flour

Here’s everything you need to know about buying, storing, and baking with all-purpose flour.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.