While they might look the same, bread flour and all purpose flour are actually quite different. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing the right flour baking.
Shopping for flour can get really confusing. When choosing between bread flour and all purpose flour, is there really a difference in bread baking? Turns out, the answer is yes and it mainly boils down to protein content.
Why Protein Matters
All flour contains protein. The higher the protein, the stronger the flour. Strong flour is preferred by bread bakers for better gluten development and in most cases, a higher rise.
Low protein flours are best for baked goods that do not need a high rise, like cookies and cakes.
Yet ironically, unless you’re a bread baker, no one really talks about protein content. It’s rarely advertised (in percentages) on a bag of flour either. But as you continue to bake, it’s important to understand why protein matters so you can choose the right flour for baking.
What Is Bread Flour?
Bread flour is a high protein flour, usually made from hard wheat varieties. It contains about 12- 13% protein, depending on the brand.
Because it’s a “strong” flour, it’s excellent for chewy bagels, artisan-style sourdough bread and anything else that needs structure and height. It also adds a delightful chewy texture to the finished product.
Bread flour is also a “thirsty” flour, which means it absorbs more water than low protein flour. For example, if your dough feels really dry (especially in winter) and you have to add more water to loosen the texture- that’s why. Same goes for adjusting the texture of your sourdough starter.
BAKER’S TIP: Bread flour is also known as “baker’s flour” in the Australia and “strong flour” in the UK. In France, the bread flour equivalent would be T55 or T65 depending on the style of bread you’re making.
What Is All Purpose Flour?
All purpose flour– which is made from both hard and soft wheat- is best for everyday baking. It’s considered a medium to low protein flour with about 10-11.7% protein, depending on the brand.
It’s also not as thirsty as bread flour, which means it will absorb less water.
Can you bake bread with all-purpose flour? Yes! With some adjustments, you can absolutely bake bread with all purpose flour. You’ll get a soft, tender, and in some cases, a fluffier product. I use all purpose flour for my sourdough cinnamon rolls! See additional recipe suggestions below.
Here are 3 sourdough bread recipes that use all purpose flour only:
Can You substitute Bread Flour for All Purpose in Sourdough?
Yes, but it’s not always an even swap.
Flour is a like a sponge. And because all purpose flour absorbs less water than bread flour, you’ll need to reduce the total amount of water in a recipe that specifically calls for bread flour. Otherwise, the dough will be too sticky. I typically recommend reducing it by 15-30 g.
Many beginner bread bakers make this mistake- doing an even swap- and end up with poor results because they just didn’t know.
What’s the Best Flour For Sourdough Bread?
For grocery store brands, King Arthur Bread Flour (12.7% protein) is excellent for sourdough bread. KAF Organic Bread Flour is great too- the texture feels like soft powder. You can also try Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour (12.5 – 13.5% protein).
How to Maintain CoNsistency In Bread baking
Because protein content in flour varies across the board, even in different countries, bakers will need to make adjustments to the dough regardless of the recipe.
My Aussie friend Celia, made my sourdough ciabatta from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple.
In a text she said “Emilie! I forgot to reduce the water in your recipe and the dough was like soup!”
Why did this happen?
Australian bread flour is actually lower in protein than US bread flour. And because low protein flours absorb less water than high protein flours, her dough was just too wet (in a recipe that was already wet to begin with!). She needed to add more flour to get the texture right.
Without practice, you’ll never know what the “right” texture actually is. So, look for recipes with visual indicators- what the dough should look and feel like- for reference.
New to sourdough baking? There’s a ton of information out there. Stick with the same brand of flour and the same sourdough bread recipe until you understand how dough works. Too many changes = too many problems. Find a baker that resonates with your style and I guarantee your technique and baker’s intuition will improve.
While they might look the same, bread flour and all purpose flour are actually quite different, especially in bread baking. Variance in brands, protein content, and overall quality will effect their performance. But now, you can choose the right flour with confidence to bake with success.