Produce Explained: Understanding Flour 101

Last Updated: May 3, 2020

Written by Felicia Koh

Finally able to differentiate between a chye sim and a kai lan after reading our first Produce Explained article on leafy greens? Veterans in the kitchen will find distinguishing between vegetables a piece of cake, but when it comes to bakeshop ingredients such as flour, it might be a whole new ball game.

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Credit – Shutterstock

Second, to our Produce Explained series, we will be exploring a baker’s/pastry chef’s best friend in the kitchen—flour. With a wide variety of different flours available in the market, what exactly are they best used for in order to achieve the desired texture of our products?

Can plain flour be used to re-create our favourite sourdough bread with that chewy texture and crisp crust? How can you avoid purchasing the wrong type of flour for your baking adventure in the kitchen? Read on and you will find your answer.

Before diving into the different types of flour, let us first understand the purpose of this ingredient. Flour provides bulk and structure to baked goods. Not only that, but certain flours are also used to thicken liquid items such as puddings and pie fillings.

Produced when grain kernels are milled or ground into a powder, flour comprises mainly of starch (63% to 77%) and protein (6% to 18%). Proteins in flour play a crucial role in determining its gluten-forming potential responsible for volume, texture and the appearance of our baked goods.

1. Plain Flour/All-purpose Flour 

What it is:

A blend of soft (low protein content) and hard (high protein content) flour, plain flour or all-purpose flour are formulated to have a medium gluten content ranging from 9.5% to 12%. 

What makes it unique:

Its middle-of-the-road protein content makes it a good everyday flour that can be used in a broad range of baked goods such as bread, cookies and even pastries. However, with its diverse use comes a disadvantage as its strength might also affect the texture of your final product depending on what is being baked. The use of plain flour will not necessarily change the texture of cookies, but if you are using the same flour for a chiffon cake, be prepared that your cake might not turn out as soft and fluffy as you might expect.  

Simple Stay Home Recipes Mcdonalds Hotcakes With Sausage (2)

What it’s used in: 

Cookies, biscuits, muffins, pizza doughs, sandwiches/white bread, waffles, and thickening agent for sauces and fillings. See how we used plain flour/all-purpose flour in our McDonald’s Hotcakes recipe here!

Price: S$1.80 – S$2.65

2. Self-raising Flour

What it is:

For those of you who might be confused between self-raising flour and all-purpose flour, the only difference between these two products is that baking powder and salt are added to self-raising flour. This allows baked goods to raise even without the addition of any extra chemical leavener. 

What makes it unique:

Intended for convenience, using self-raising flour in your baking will help save on the cost required to purchase an additional ingredient—baking powder. Nonetheless, this particular type of flour is usually not recommended for use (unless you have no other options or your recipes specifies for it) as you won’t have any control over the amount of baking powder and salt used in your product.

Furthermore, baking powder tends to lose their leaving ability over time and this might lead to inconsistency in your final products. Also, do take note of the storage period of your self-raising flour as their lifespan is usually shorter than other flours in the market!

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What it’s used in:

Can be used for any baked goods as recommended under plain flour/all-purpose flour. If you are thinking of substituting plain flour for self-raising flour, you can use 150g of plain flour with two teaspoons of baking powder as a rough replacement guide.

Price: S$2.40 – S$2.75

3. Cake Flour

What it is:

Ground from deep within the endosperm of a wheat kernel, cake flour is usually bleached to produce its pure white colour. The process of bleaching also helps the flour absorb moisture resulting in the development of weak gluten bond.

What makes it unique:

With a protein content of 6% to 8%, the soft, fine and tender texture of cake flour makes it preferable for delicate cakes and pastries. Due to its nature, it is also highly recommended to always sieve your cake flour before use to prevent any clumps from forming in your products!

What it’s used in:

Cakes (sponge cake and chiffon cakes) and cupcakes.

Price: S$2.60 – S$3.30

4. Bread Flour

What it is:

Milled from hard wheat, bread flour has a relatively high gluten content of 11.5% to 14%. Texture and appearance-wise, it is slightly coarser than cake and plain flour and will appear slightly off-white in colour.

What makes it unique:

With a higher protein content and the ability to form stronger gluten bonds, the use of bread flour will help retain the structure of the bread by trapping air released during the process of fermentation. It is also responsible for the chewy crumb and crisp crust which we are familiar with in our artisanal bread like sourdough and baguettes. 

What it’s used in:

Bread, pizza crust, pretzels, bagels.

Price: S$2.50 – S$2.90

5. Whole-wheat Flour

What it is:

Made by milling the entire wheat kernel including the bran and the nutritious germ, whole-wheat flour has a nutty, sweet flavour and is brown, flecked in colour.

What makes it unique:

The inclusion of the bran and germ makes whole wheat flour a nutrition-rich ingredient to work with. They are especially rich in vitamin B and soluble fibre which is required for healthy digestion and regular bowel movements. Baked goods made using whole-wheat flour are usually heavier and denser with less volume. Its bran particles also cut through the gluten strands resulting in a heavier crumb. 

What it’s used in:

Whole-grain bread, mantou, pau, pancakes.

Price: S$5 – S$6.60

6. Hong Kong Flour/Pau Flour

What it is:

Similar to cake flour, Hong Kong Flour or pau flour is highly bleached flour that has its gluten level broken down, making the flour extra fine and delicate.

What makes it unique:

Comparing to cake flour, Hong Kong flour contains a slightly higher protein content (8% to 10%). Its pure white colour also makes it ideal for Chinese pastries such as dim sums and steamed paus, giving them its unique fluffy texture. 

What it’s used in:

Dim sums, paus, steamed cakes and mooncakes. Hong Kong flour can also be used as a substitute for cake flour due to their similarities.

Price: S$3.20 – S$3.70

7. Rice Flour

What it is:

Ground from long or medium-grain white rice, rice flour is a common substitute for wheat flour in gluten-free baking and can also be used as a thickening agent in recipes that are refrigerated or frozen since it inhibits liquid separation.

What makes it unique:

Since all rice is gluten-free, rice flour is a common ingredient used in gluten-free cooking and baking. Properties of rice flour are similar to that of cake flour but due to its low viscosity and absence of gluten strands, the resultant products will not have as much of a chewy bite. Often, rice flour is used to lighten heavy flour such as whole-wheat flour and chickpea flour to add tenderness to the baked goods. 

What it’s used in:

Noodles, pasta, crepes, chee chong fun skin, steamed kuehs, gluten-free bakes and thickening agent in soups and sauces.

Price: S$1.20 – S$1.60

8. Glutinous Rice Flour/Sweet Rice Flour

What it is:

Glutinous rice flour or sweet rice flour is produced by grinding short-grain glutinous rice. Like rice flour, it does not contain any gluten and is mellow in flavour, with a touch of milkiness.

What makes it unique:

Glutinous rice contains a higher starch content as compared to other kinds of rice, making glutinous rice flour an efficient thickening agent and the perfect binder for items like mochi. Although it is also made from rice, it is not advisable to use glutinous rice flour and rice flour interchangeably as they not only have very different textures, they also cook differently. Glutinous rice flour yields products that are sticky and chewy in texture, suitable for foods that do not require much structure.

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What it’s used in:

Sticky rice balls (tang yuan), mochi, muah chee

Price: S$1.40 – S$2.30

9. Tapioca Flour/ Tapioca Starch

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What it is:

Made from the crushed pulp of the cassava root, a woody shrub native to South America and the Caribbean, tapioca flour is a fine white powder which is gluten-free in nature.

What makes it unique:

What makes tapioca flour so special is that it will turn transparent when cooked with water and exposed to heat. Consequently, products prepared using tapioca flour will have a certain elasticity and the retention of a chewy bite. Tapioca flour tends to get slimy when used in large quantities, thus, when using it as a thickener, it is important to take note of the amount added.

Simple Stay Home Recipes Bubble Milk Tea With Tapioca Pearls 15

What it’s used in:

Tapioca cakes, steamed kueh, gluten-free bakes. See how we use tapioca flour in our Home-made Bubble Tea recipe here!

Price: S$1.10 – S$1.20

10. Corn Starch

What it is:

Corn starch, sometimes referred to as corn flour, is a fine powder extracted from the endosperm of corn. Unlike corn flour which is made from the entire corn kernels, corn starch contains less protein, fibre and nutrients. 

What makes it unique:

Since it is made from pure starch, corn starch is not normally used in baking. Nonetheless, it is good for thickening foods like sauces, puddings and pie fillings as the starch acts like a sponge, absorbing liquid and expands when it’s cooked.

Furthermore, due to its gelatinous nature, it also sets to firm when it cools—a property which is good for semi-solid fillings. Corn starch can also be used to replace flour as a batter for deep-fried food items resulting in a light and crisp coating. 

What it’s used in:

Thickening agent in the cooking of sauces, custards and pie fillings.

Price: S$0.70 – S$1.45

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