We were just as surprised as you were when, in the middle of an apocalyptic global pandemic, everybody decided it was time to bake bread. Now walking down the baking aisle of the local supermarket can be like staring into the void, with regular old, run-of-the-mill all-purpose flour nowhere to be found. But fear not. There are plenty of alternatives to all-purpose, and we’ll walk you through the best of them. Before we get started, a bit about all-purpose flour, and why it can be tricky to imitate.
If Goldilocks’s porridge was made from wheat, it was made from all-purpose. A blend of soft and hard wheat, ground and refined to remove the flavorful germ and bran, AP is not too flavorful and not too fine, not too strong and not too weak (at around 9–12 percent protein, it’s just right). As such, it doesn’t overpower or clash with other flavors. It makes light cakes and pastry that would be rubbery and tough with excessive gluten development, as well as crusty breads that require gluten development for structure.
Use all-purpose flour for...well...just about anything. It's great for featherlight chiffon cakes or gooey brownies, in sourdough bread and croissants, to dredge chicken for frying or to thicken savory sauces. It really is remarkably flexible, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice. Below, we’ll show you how to make substitutions in style.
The key to replacing all-purpose flour, as Food52 columnist Alice Medrich explains in her wonderful book, Flavor Flours, is not to get stuck on the “all-purpose” part. If you’re willing to accept that different flours have different roles, you may be surprised with the results you can achieve. In the desolate baking aisle, seek out the gluten-free flours, mercifully spared from the ravaging hordes (and packed with exciting flavor). Dig out some whole-wheat flour from the back of your cupboard to bake a crusty, open-crumb sourdough more nuanced than a plain white loaf. Just know that it’s better to use a recipe tailored to the flour that you have—substitution is always an experiment, and not always a successful one.
Before we dive in, another word of wisdom from Alice. There may be only one all-purpose flour, but there are some recipes that really don’t care what flour you use. Make pancakes, crepes, and waffles with any of the flours below, relying on the eggs to take care of texture (mix with an equal part white rice flour if you’re using almond or chickpea flour). For everything else, take a look at the guide below.
Last, a note on measurement: It is always best to use a scale instead of measuring cups. Different flours, or even different brands of the same flour, have varying particle sizes, so your cup of buckwheat flour might have more or less buckwheat than mine. A scale solves the problem.
With Other wheat flours
Cake flour is finely milled white flour produced from soft wheat that’s low in gluten. Oftentimes it’s also chlorinated to further inhibit gluten development. This makes it perfect for sponge cakes and flour tortillas. Or pair it with one of the more assertive flours described below in this endlessly adaptable pound cake. It’s best to sub it into recipes calling for AP flour by weight, not volume—a cup of cake flour is lighter than a cup of AP.
Pastry flour is cake flour’s older, stronger sibling. Not quite as high in protein as AP flour, it still has enough gluten to make flaky and crumbly textures. It can be substituted 1:1 by weight with AP flour, but skip this one if you’re making bread. Instead, treat it right by baking it into recipes like this one for luscious banana cake.
AP flour’s unrefined cousin, whole wheat has lots of flavor and personality, which makes it great in heartier baked goods and rustic breads, like this 100 percent whole-wheat loaf by Food52’s Resident Baker, Maurizio Leo. But don’t count on it for fluffy brioche or airy choux. Sub it into recipes that call for AP flour at your own risk, keeping in mind that whole-wheat flour absorbs more water than white flour, but takes longer to absorb it. Try adding a little liquid to the recipe and letting the mixture rest for a couple hours before baking. Accept in advance that you’re gaining flavor at the cost of light, delicate texture.
With Gluten-free flours
If you imagine gluten-free baking as the domain of health-obsessed masochists, think again. Using gluten-free flours unlocks a huge range of flavors to incorporate into your baked goods. And because gluten is the sworn enemy of all things fluffy and tender, cutting it out of recipes removes the need for all sorts of technical fussery. In many cases, gluten-free flours make baked goods with more flavor and better texture.
White rice flour
With a floral flavor even subtler than that of AP flour, rice flour is a great vehicle for other ingredients, as in these bold chocolate brownies. If you can find superfine Thai rice flour, use it to make a superior pastry cream, or work it into a wonderfully flaky rice- and oat-flour crust under fresh strawberries for an elegant summer dessert.
Sticky rice flour
Sticky rice, also known as sweet or glutinous rice, is a starchy variety grown across East and Southeast Asia. The flour is a powerful thickening agent and the base for some of the world’s great sweets, including Japanese mochi and Hawaiian butter mochi.
To picture where oat flour could be useful, forget about porridge and instead think about oatmeal raisin cookies. Those nutty, chewy, addictive snacks (three or four and we’ll call it a meal) capture all the good qualities of oat flour. Now imagine that flavor transposed into a delicate genoise or these crumbly chocolate shortbread cookies.
Blini aren’t the only baked good to benefit from the rich, earthy flavor of buckwheat. The pseudocereal, which is unrelated to wheat and totally gluten-free (it’s a relative of rhubarb), has found its way into many cuisines around the world, from Japanese soba and Korean naengmyeon (the most underrated summer dish of all time) to crepes and kasha. And though many of its traditional uses skew savory, its slightly bitter edge plays wonderfully in sweets like Nick Sharma’s Buckwheat & Oat Flour Cutout Cookies.
Chickpea or gram flour
An age-old staple of Indian cuisine—especially Indian dessert making— chickpea flour also forms a delicious, shatteringly crisp crust when fried. Batter up some pakoras, or sub for all-purpose flour in your favorite fish-and-chips recipe (maybe this one).
Made of ground blanched or whole almonds, this flour has a surprisingly mild taste when raw. It’s delicious as a thickening agent in curries and moles, but it also provides enough structure for short-crust pastry and moist cakes.