Bread

So, What Is Bread Flour?

Plus, the importance of gluten and protein content in wheat.

by:
July  2, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Before we talk about bread flour, a review of how flour is made: Flour is made from finely grinding kernels of wheat, which itself falls under six classes: hard and soft, red and white, spring and winter. Hard wheats are, well, literally harder, and contain more protein and gluten than soft wheats. Flour milled from red wheat is favored for the robust flavor and rustic texture it lends to artisan loaves. Flour milled from white wheat, on the other hand, will lend loaves an airier, sponge-like texture. (Spring and winter merely refers to the growing season.)

Bread flour (or, flour that’s best for bread) is typically milled from hard red because of its high protein and gluten content. All-purpose and cake flour typically come from soft red or white wheat. Here’s how their protein contents stack up:

  • Bread flour: 12 to 15 percent protein
  • All-purpose flour: 9 to 12 percent protein
  • Cake flour: 7 to 9 percent protein

So, why does protein matter? Gluten and gliadin are two proteins found in milled wheat that, once hydrated, combine to form a strong network. This elastic but extensible network provides structure, height, and chewy texture to loaves.

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Use all-purpose or cake flour in a recipe that calls for bread flour (like bread) and you’ll get a “weaker” loaf—flatter, more tender or crumbly, less chewy than you might want. Conversely, if you use bread flour in a recipe that calls for all-purpose or cake flour (like, well, cake), expect a slightly denser, chewier, tougher end product.

I’m sure you’re starting to see a pattern here: bread flour is best for breads (pizza doughs, sourdough, enriched doughs), all-purpose for most baked goods (your scones, muffins, pie crusts), cake for tender treats (sponges, pound cakes, cupcakes).

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Top Comment:
“Locally, I can get a high-gluten, red winter wheat flour that comes in at 14.2% and it’s what I use when I make bagels. But it’s definitely not called bread flour. Regionalism, perhaps?”
— Kathy G.
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Best for being the operative words here. Knowing the rough protein contents of each of your flours means you should feel empowered by all those half-opened bags in the pantry (extra-credit if you store flour in the freezer). Combine bread and pastry flour in equal parts for homemade all-purpose flour. Use pastry and cake flour interchangeably (pastry has slightly less protein content than cake flour). Swap bread flour in for the high-gluten flour required for extra chewy (QQ) Chinese noodles. Or experiment with bumping the protein content of your bread flour with vital wheat gluten.


Bread-Flour-Friendly Recipes

What are some creative swaps you’ve discovered lately? Brag about it in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kathy Gilbert
    Kathy Gilbert
  • Smaug
    Smaug
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    Coral Lee
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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

6 Comments

Kathy G. July 9, 2020
I’m curious about the protein percentages you list for bread flour. The highest I’ve found is for King Arthur, which is 12.7%.

Locally, I can get a high-gluten, red winter wheat flour that comes in at 14.2% and it’s what I use when I make bagels. But it’s definitely not called bread flour. Regionalism, perhaps?
 
Smaug July 9, 2020
KA and Bob's Red Mill are all I have on hand- the Bob's comes in at 13.9%.
 
Kathy G. July 9, 2020
Interesting. Is the Red Mill labeled as bread flour? It’s really close to the 14.2 on the high-gluten flour I used. I wonder about cost difference, assuming, of course, I can get Bob’s Red Mill.

BTW The recipe I used was Peter Reinhardt’s recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and he advocated for “high-gluten” for the right chewiness. And the bagels were fantastic, have to say.
 
Smaug July 9, 2020
Yes, the Bob's is labeled bread flour- like nearly all bread flours, it contains malted barley flour. Hard to tell about prices these days, but I paid about $7 for 5 lbs. at Safeway, about the same as KA (which, however, sometimes goes on sale). Another option is gluten flour as an add in- Bob's among others sells it (they seem to have everything)
 
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Coral L. July 23, 2020
Hi Kathy! Yes—"bread" flour simply refers to those (relatively) higher in protein content. Some would refer to the high-gluten, red winter wheat you mention as "bread flour," because its protein content yields strong/chewy doughs (like bagels).
 
Smaug July 2, 2020
Most bread flours, at least in the US, also contain some malted barley flour, which is intended to enhance the effect of the gluten. It mostly replaced potassium bromate as an additive; bromate is a suspected carcinogen and is banned in some countries, discouraged in the US. Baked goods made with bromated flour need a warning label in California.