Do I Really Need to Bake With Cake Flour?

And how it's different from all-purpose flour.

June 17, 2022
Photo by Julia Gartland

There’s something soothing about following directions for baked goods, knowing that the final product will turn out just right if you abide by the precise measurements. I love to bake everything from elaborate birthday cakes to buttery biscuits to fudgy brownies, but sometimes I get a little lazy when it comes to using the appropriate ingredients (who doesn’t?). For example, when I see that a recipe calls for cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, I tend to turn my cheek and proceed with all-purpose, not wanting to make a last-minute run to the store. While the swap turns out okay, the final product is never quite as fluffy and light as it should be.

I did some digging to find out: is it really worth buying cake flour in addition to AP flour? What makes cake flour necessary for certain baked goods? And what’s the difference between all-purpose flour and cake flour, anyway?

What Is Cake Flour?

Cake flour is made by milling soft wheat (aka wheat that’s low in gluten, though not gluten-free) and sifting it until extra fine in texture. The fineness yields tender baked goods with a moist, airy crumb—perfect for delicate sponges and pillowy cookies, like snickerdoodles. Soft white wheat and soft red winter wheat are used in the production of cake flour due to their low levels of protein, which hover around 8.5 percent to 10.5 percent. Both grains are short and plump, and grind more easily than their hard wheat counterparts.

Another name for the protein content of flour is gluten, which acts as a binding agent, developing structure and holding the ingredients together. Each type of flour contains a different amount of gluten, which has a noticeable effect on the final result. In the case of cake flour, the minimal gluten allows baked goods to rise, but not develop the firm and chewy texture that a higher-gluten flour would. When you have cake flour on hand, it’s much easier to whip up reliably soft, light sweet treats. If you’re an avid baker, it’s worth grabbing some cake flour at the grocery store in addition to your regular all-purpose. Note: it’s typically packaged in a box instead of a bag.

What Is All-Purpose Flour?

A pantry workhorse, all-purpose flour is arguably the most versatile of all flours, used for everything from breading chicken to making pancakes and waffles to thickening gravies. It’s made by milling a combination of hard and soft wheat, which balances the protein levels to a mid-range amount of around 12 percent. All-purpose flour is not as finely ground as cake flour, although the texture can differ depending on whether it’s bleached or not. Bleached flour is treated with chemical agents to create a softer flour with a bright white hue, while unbleached flour is off-white with a denser grain. Both kinds will work well in whatever you’re baking, and the difference in your final product will be subtle, if noticeable at all. Whether you opt for bleached or unbleached, it’s a good idea to keep all-purpose flour around for a wide variety of baking and cooking applications.

If you were to use 100 percent all-purpose flour in place of cake flour, the AP flour would absorb all the liquid, causing gluten to rapidly develop and result in a chewy, dense final product.

Can You Replace Cake Flour with All-Purpose Flour?

Not exactly, but there’s an easy way to make a cake flour substitute, with just all-purpose flour and cornstarch. This DIY method works because cornstarch lacks protein, lowering the overall protein content of the blend. The cornstarch thus inhibits gluten development and has a tenderizing effect. Make sure to whisk and sift thoroughly in order to combine the flour and cornstarch evenly and aerate the mixture.

How to Make a Cake Flour Substitute:

  • Measure out 1 level cup of all-purpose flour, then remove 2 tablespoons.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to the flour.
  • Transfer to a mixing bowl, and whisk to combine.
  • Sift the flour-cornstarch mixture at least once, preferably a few times, before using.

Our Favorite Recipes with Cake Flour

Pink Champagne Cake

Pink lovers will swoon over this blush-hued cake. Sweet and tangy, with a hint of fruitiness from the Champagne, it tastes like a celebration.

Matcha Swiss Roll

If you’re looking for a fun baking project, try this inventive Swiss roll, which highlights the earthy, nutty flavor and verdant green color of matcha.

1 2 3 4 Cake with Raspberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream

This timeless 1-2-3-4 cake recipe comes from the back of a Swans Down cake flour box. We love topping it with a luscious buttercream infused with fresh raspberries, but you can easily swap in your favorite flavor.

Strawberry Shortcake Cupcakes

Everything you love about strawberry shortcake…in cupcake form! Pillowy and cloudlike, these delightful treats made with cake flour would be perfect for a spring or summer birthday party for kids and adults alike.

Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit Cake with a Hint of Mint

This charming cake flour-based bundt has a glaze flecked with fresh mint and a soft citrusy crumb kissed with lemon zest and grapefruit juice. Beating egg whites and folding them into the batter ensures an airy, light cake.

Tell us: how do you bake with cake flour? Let us know in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Regine
  • MacGuffin
  • DawnL
  • judy
  • M
Phoebe Fry

Written by: Phoebe Fry


Regine January 7, 2023
My answer to your question is no 😎

I bake all the time and I hate cake flour. I always use, and with great success, all purpose flour using formula 1 cup cake flour is 3/4 cup all purpose plus 2 tbsp cornstarch.
Regine January 7, 2023
LOL. Looks like I had already commented some time ago about cake flour. Sorry for repeating myself.
MacGuffin June 26, 2022
I keep a box of Swans Down on hand, just in case a recipe calls for it. I don't think I've ever seen Pillsbury Softasilk in NYC but now that I'm relocating back to the Midwest, I might give it a try.
DawnL June 23, 2022
Since I've switched to measuring by weight versus volume, I use an 85%/15% ratio of ap flour/cornstarch as a sub for cake flour. I think I learned that from one of Rose Levy-Beranbaum's books.
Regine June 18, 2022
Interesting article but i respectfully disagree 😎

I have made countless cakes that require cake flour with all purpose flour and the cakes might be even better or as good. Formula is one cup cake flour is 3/4 cup all purpose flour plus 2 tbsp cornstarch. I personally do not like cake flour as I find it tends to cause texture to be a bit too « soft » for lack of a better expression, and imparts some sort of acidic/metallic taste. But that’s just me maybe.
judy June 18, 2022
This is an interesting substitution. I have never used cake flour. And in recent recipes we are weighing rather than measuring flour. I guess one would weight the flour, then measure by cups, removing the appropriate the flour with cornstarch based on the number of cups in the weight measured four...
M June 17, 2022
What AP flours did you check to get a mid-range of 12%? That is really high for AP. Bobs is 10-12, Cook's Illustrated looked at high, moderate, and low-protein US AP flours and the highs were under 12, and the moderate APs were 9-11.25%. If a baker goes over 12, they're getting into bread territory and various issues.

Beyond varying wildly between brands, AP varies a lot country to country. In fact, since Canadian AP is generally 13%, it's often too high for US recipes and is suggested to replace US bread flour. Having a roughly 13% protein content makes numerous non-bread US recipes fail unless they're not adjusted.
Smaug June 18, 2022
Absolutely- none of these types of flour is very well defined, and AP least of all; I keep two types- Gold Medal bleached for cookies and such, King Arthur (11.7%) for more bready things. Sometimes the percentages are confusing- Gold Medal packages I've checked seem to indicate that all of their flours are 10% protein, which seems very unlikely, don't know what that's about.