Difference Between All-Purpose & Bread Flour

by Fred Decker

All white flour looks more or less alike at a casual glance, so it’s sometimes difficult to understand why so many kinds line the bakery aisle at your supermarket. In most cases, the major difference lies in a flour's percentage of gluten-forming proteins. For example, bread flour is specially formulated to produce a lot of gluten, while all-purpose flour aims for a versatile, mid-range gluten level.

The Tale of the Tape

Grain farmers describe wheats as either "hard," meaning they contain lots of gluten-forming proteins, or "soft," meaning they have relatively lower levels. Millers purchase both hard and soft wheats, and blend them in specific proportions to arrive at a flour with a consistent character. In most of the United States, all-purpose flour is blended to result in a gluten level of roughly 10 to 12 percent by weight. In the South and Pacific Northwest, where softer wheats flourish, it's often as low as 8 or 9 percent. Bread flour, in contrast, weighs in at a robust 13 to 16 percent gluten.

The Tool for the Job

Each of these flours is well-suited to some forms of baking and less so for others. High-gluten bread flour makes a wonderfully light and airy loaf, with a strong crumb and a crisp crust. Unfortunately, its strong proteins make it unsuitable for cakes or delicate pastries, where gluten results in a tough, chewy crumb. Southern all-purpose flour, with its soft wheat, is the opposite. It makes good cakes and biscuits but poor bread. Ordinary all-purpose flour strikes a middle ground, making acceptable bread but remaining soft enough for other uses.

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About the Author

Fred Decker is a trained chef and prolific freelance writer. In previous careers, he sold insurance and mutual funds, and was a longtime retailer. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His articles have appeared on numerous home and garden sites including GoneOutdoors, TheNest and eHow.