When you see flour on the ingredient list of a baking recipe, one thing’s for certain: You’re going to have to deal with gluten.
Gluten—the strong, sticky, stretchy protein that forms when wheat flour and water mix—is remarkable stuff. It gives structure to baked goods and helps wheat flour morph into many different foods: al dente pasta, fluffy waffles, crisp pastries, chewy artisan bread. But not every baked good requires the same amount of gluten.
Yeast-raised doughs rely heavily on gluten for structure, so lots of it is welcome. That’s why, for example, in his pizza dough recipe, author Peter Reinhart takes a few steps to encourage gluten development. He uses unbleached bread flour, which is higher in gluten-forming proteins than all-purpose flour. He adds salt and plenty of water. And he mixes the dough for several minutes.
However, encouraging gluten to form is the last thing you want to do when making chemically leavened baked goods such as cakes, cookies, and scones, as well as flaky or tender pastries. (And if you’re like me, you bake these kinds of things far more often than you do yeast breads.) Excess gluten makes biscuits leaden, pancakes rubbery, and piecrusts tough.
Fortunately, limiting gluten is a fairly simple matter. Here are four things you can do.
1. Start with the right flour
Well-stocked supermarkets carry a variety of wheat flours: all-purpose, cake, whole wheat, bread. You might also see flours made from grains other than wheat—rye, rice, corn, oat, buckwheat—but they form little or no gluten, so we won’t discuss them here. The various wheat flours, however, all contain gluten-forming proteins, though the quality and quantity of those proteins differ (for amounts, see the table below). What you’re baking should determine which flour you choose.
Bread flour and durum semolina (used for pasta) contain the most protein and form strong, high-quality gluten. These so-called hard flours are ideal for yeast-raised breads and pasta, because the strong gluten gives the heavy dough structure and the finished product a pleasantly chewy texture.
Pastry and cake flours contain less protein and form weaker gluten. With their low levels of weak gluten, these “soft flours” produce a more tender product, so they’re usually preferable for cakes, cookies, biscuits, and many pastries.
True to its name, all-purpose flour is a decent choice for almost everything. Though rarely used in bakeries, all-purpose flour has a middle-of-the-road protein content that allows it to work well in most recipes the home baker would want to make. Sure, cakes made with cake flour might be more tender, and loaves made with bread flour might rise higher, but the differences are subtle.
Whole-wheat flour, by the way, is very high in gluten-forming protein, but it’s not the best choice for lofty yeast breads because the shards of bran in the flour tear the strands of gluten, inhibiting its development.
Protein Content of Wheat Flours
Flour contains starch, protein, moisture, and a trace of fat. But protein is what most interests us, as its quantity and quality determine how flour performs. (Percentages are approximate, as every brand of flour is unique.)
Protein content (%)
| Whole wheat, bread, durum semolina
*Regional all-purpose flour brands in the South and Pacific Northwest may contain less protein, closer to the amount in pastry flour.