How we tested
All-purpose flour is such a simple kitchen staple. Yet it is a fundamental building block for many home-baked goods. In our efforts here at the test kitchen to make a poor recipe great or a great recipe even better, we typically take this into account. We test not only amounts of flour, sifted versus unsifted, and bleached versus unbleached; we also try various specialty flours. Often we find that they can make a real difference. For some serious bakers, this is not a problem. They simply stock their pantries with a variety of flours: cake, all-purpose, bread, high gluten, and so on. But for most home cooks this option is neither reasonable nor desirable. We wanted to know if there was a single all-purpose flour that would be best for those who keep only one kind of flour in the pantry.
Differences Among All-Purpose Flours
Before we began testing, we turned to experts in both grain science and baking science to find out what we should be looking for. Most wheat that is milled is made into specialized flours used on a large-scale commercial level. All-purpose is designed to be used in a wide range of recipes written for home cooks who do not have the kind of high-intensity mixers or the expertise necessary to use the specialized flours made for commercial bakeries.
Nevertheless, there are a number of choices a flour company must make when milling all-purpose flour that will influence the way its product performs in recipes. For starters, there is the essence of the flour, the wheat itself. All-purpose flour is typically made from either hard red winter wheat, soft red winter wheat, or a combination of the two. Of the flours we used in the taste tests, five were made from hard winter wheat, one was made of soft wheat, and three were a mix of soft and hard.
The Importance of Protein Content in Flour
Perhaps the primary difference between these types of wheat—and consequently in the flours made from them—is the variation in protein content. Hard winter wheat is about 10 to 13 percent protein, and soft wheat about 8 to 10 percent. Mixtures of the two wheats are somewhere in between. You can actually feel this difference with your fingers; the hard wheat flours tend to have a subtle granular feel, while soft wheat flours feel fine but starchy, much like cornstarch.
High-protein flours are generally recommended for yeasted products and other baked goods that require a lot of structural support. The reason is that the higher the protein level in a flour, the greater the potential for the formation of gluten. The sheets that gluten forms in dough are elastic enough to move with the gas released by yeast but also sturdy enough to prevent that gas from escaping, so the dough doesn't deflate. Lower-protein flours, on the other hand, are recommended for chemically leavened baked goods. This is because baking powder and baking soda are quick leaveners. They lack the endurance of yeast, which can force the naturally resistant gluten sheets to expand; consequently, the gluten can overpower quick leaveners, causing the final baked product to fall flat.
Bleached versus Unbleached Flour
A second important difference in flours is whether they are bleached or not. Technically, all all-purpose flours are bleached. Carotenoid pigments in wheat lend a faint yellowish tint to freshly milled flour. But in a matter of about 12 weeks, these pigments oxidize, undergoing the same chemical process that turns a sliced apple brown. In this case, yellowish flour changes to a whiter hue (though not stark white). Early in this century, as the natural bleaching process came to be understood, scientists identified methods to chemically expedite and intensify it. Typically, all-purpose flours are bleached with either benzoyl peroxide or chlorine gas. The latter not only bleaches the flour but also alters the flour proteins, making them less inclined to form strong gluten. Neither chemical, however, poses any health risks. Today consumers prefer chemically bleached flour over unbleached because they associate the whiter color with higher quality.
How We Tested All-Purpose Flours
Of all the product taste tests our editors have run, these flour tastings were undoubtedly the most difficult. The differences in flavor between the various versions of the selected recipes were usually extremely subtle. The most obvious differences were often in appearance.
That is not to say, however, that the tests were inconclusive. As difficult as it was for tasters to pick up differences, they were remarkably consistent in their observations. The performance of each of the flours tested, however, was not so consistent.
While the protein guidelines make eminently good sense, to our surprise, the results of our tests did not always correspond. The biscuit test did reveal a certain progression from light, cake-like biscuits produced by the lowest-protein flours to coarser, heavier biscuits produced by the higher-protein flours. But our tasters liked all of the biscuits, except for one that had stale flavors. Another trend we noticed was that lower-protein flours spread more in tests of chocolate chip cookies and muffins. In the pie crust test, however, six of the nine flours revealed no correlation between protein content and texture or flavor.
Further research revealed that proteins are different from one wheat variety to another and therefore from one flour to another. The quality can vary considerably. Because flour is not a high-profit commodity, manufacturers often mill from strains of wheat that offer the greatest yield of flour from a given amount of grain, a practice that can be at cross-purposes with good baking properties.
As an overall category, though, the four bleached flours in our tests in fact did not perform as well as the unbleached flours and were regularly criticized for tasting flat or carrying "off" flavors, often described as metallic. These characteristics, however, were more difficult to detect in recipes that contained a high proportion of ingredients other than flour. Coincidentally, our cake tests and chocolate chip cookie tests (both sugary recipes) were the two tests in which off flavors carried by the bleached flour went undetected or were considered faint.
Our Favorite All-Purpose Flours
Despite the variations and subtleties, however, the good news is that we did end up with two flours we can recommend wholeheartedly. These two flours regularly baked up highly recommended baked goods, producing a more consistent range of preferred products than the other seven flours in the taste tests. There is an old bakers' saying that "all-purpose flour is good for everything but not real good for anything." After months of tests, we would have to differ. It can be awful at some things and really good at others. It depends on which flour and which recipe. If you are going to have only one flour in the house, though, our advice is to choose one of these two.
King Arthur Unbleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour
Pie Pastry: Crisp, thin, flaky, and tender; light toasty flavor
Biscuits: Buttery, fresh flavor; crispy, crunchy exterior; hearty
Cake: Tender yet sturdy; somewhat dry; slightly above average overall
Muffins: Good flavor but downgraded significantly for coarse texture
Icebox cookies: Crispy; tight crumb; good flavor
Yeast bread: Second-place finish; chewy, sturdy texture with a coarse crumb; yellow hue; above average flavor
Chocolate chip cookies: Clean flavor; soft, chewy texture
Pillsbury Unbleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Flaky; clean, toasty flavor; above average
Biscuits: Second-place finish; medium tender, a bit more bready than cakey; flavorful
Cake: Second-place finish; delicate yet sturdy, not particularly tender; flavorful
Muffins: Second-place finish; tender; particularly good flavor
Chocolate chip cookies: Second-place finish; thick, moist, and chewy; clean flavor
Icebox cookies: Very crispy bordering on tough; best flavor
Yeast bread Somewhat tough, decent chew, bland flavor
Gold Medal Enriched Bleached Presifted All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: A metallic flavor but tender, very flaky, and crisp
Biscuits: Metallic flavor, somewhat dense
Cake: Not among the best because of a mealy texture; it still scored well
Chocolate chip cookies: Crispy, good flavor
Icebox cookies: Pleasant, buttery flavor; crisp yet tender texture
Yeast bread: Somewhat chewy, tight crumb, not great
Gold Medal Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Thick, tough, and somewhat off in flavor
Biscuits-:Tender but a bit mushy; particularly good flavor
Chocolate chip cookies: Good flavor, moist, soft
Icebox cookies: Average
Yeast bread: Buttery and clean, “not too doughy,” somewhat tender and somewhat chewy, with a medium crumb
Heckers/Ceresota Unbleached Enriched Presifted All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Crumbly or “sandy” in texture; uneven in color
Biscuits: Off flavor, somewhat tender
Cake: Somewhat coarse crumb; leaned more toward the tough side
Muffins: Well liked; somewhat hearty with good chew and pleasant flavor
Chocolate chip cookies: Crisp exterior; tender, chewy interior; good flavor
Icebox cookies: Flavorful with a buttery taste and good crunch
Yeast bread: Sweet, clean, buttery flavor; light and soft
Hodgson Mill Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Well-liked buttery, toasty flavor; nice flaky texture
Biscuits: Downgraded for an "off," stale flavor; average tenderness
Cake: Somewhat dry, tough, and dense; uneven crumb
Muffins: Moist, cakelike, light
Chocolate chip cookies: Flat, dry, tough
Icebox cookies: Crisp, clean buttery flavor, somewhat coarse texture
Yeast Bread: Clean, clear, subtly toasty flavor; chewy and sturdier than others
Martha White Enriched Bleached Pre-Sifted All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Medium tenderness, average overall
Biscuits: Slight off flavor; cakey texture; very soft
Cake: Somewhat coarse and tough; average flavor
Muffins: Average flavor; cakelike texture
Chocolate chip cookies: Thick, crumbly texture; puffy; average flavor
Icebox cookies Sweet and buttery; “nothing outstanding or offensive”
Yeast bread: Like “store-bought white” bread; fine, dense crumb, spongy, dry, flavorless
Pillsbury Bleached Enriched All-Purpose Flour
Pie Pastry: Very tender but not flaky; flat in flavor
Biscuits: Somewhat chewy and dense; clean slightly wheaty flavor
Cake: Even, tender crumb, slight tang to what tasters considered the cake with the best flavor and texture
Muffins: Average; lackluster flavor
Chocolate chip cookies: Chewy; OK flavor
Icebox cookies: Flavor "like old cloth"; "worst of the bunch"
Yeast bread Stale flavor; soft and gummy texture
White Lily Enriched Bleached Plain All-Purpose Flour
Pie pastry: Sandy and soft like shortbread; off, sour flavor
Biscuits: Extremely fluffy, tender, and light
Cake: Notably tender and delicate; good flavor
Muffins: Off flavor; cupcakey; fluffy
Chocolate chip cookies: Thin; crisp; OK flavor
Icebox cookies: Described as “play-doughy” and “rubbery”; sour flavor
Yeast bread: Cottony texture; lacking chew; off flavor; bright white