The Difference Between Bread Flour, Cake Flour, and All-Purpose Flour

Flour Mill

I used to think recipes calling for bread flour were being pretentious, like the recipes that specify Kosher salt, or fresh-ground black pepper. Then I started using Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper and realized, “Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff makes a difference.”

So I read up on what makes the different flours different, and it sounded pretty important. I finally tried it when I made rye bread for St. Paddy’s Day. I was really impressed, but I hadn’t made rye before so I didn’t know just how impressed I should be.

Then I made pizza dough.

I was amazed at the difference. But someone left a comment telling me that using bread flour was a “crutch”. I got a little ticked off.

Rather than go through that again, I figured I should go ahead and explain the difference. It’s all about the gluten.


Gluten is a protein in flour. It forms long, twisted chains. These chains tangle up with each other and trap bubbles of gas released by the yeast. That’s why we put yeast in bread.

But for that to work, you need to knead the dough. Think of a bag of rubber bands. If you dump them out on the counter, you can grab one and it will just come out. But add a little something sticky — like a few drops of syrup — then roll the rubber bands back and forth under your hands. Now they’re all tangled up and ready to capture bubbles of yeast gas.

Knead too much, though, and the rubber bands will get all tangled up into a tough ball of eww. Same thing happens if you knead bread dough too much.

Bread flour

Good bread is light and fluffy. Which means you want lots of big bubbles. Bread flour comes from strains of wheat that have lots of gluten. It’s perfect for bread, pizza dough, pretty much anything made with yeast.

Cake flour

Cake is supposed to have a very tight, crumbly texture. You don’t want chewy, you want it to fall apart with a light touch. You don’t use yeast for the rise, you use baking powder or baking soda. They act much faster, and rise while the batter is baking, so you don’t need the structure of gluten to keep the gases from escaping. So cake flour is made from wheat with much less gluten.

NOTE: Some pizza makers swear by low gluten flour for their crust. Please don’t ask me to get into that discussion. Pizza people are almost as crazy as chili people.

All-purpose flour

You don’t know what you’re going to make next: bread, cake, pizza, biscuits. You can get something that’s not great for bread, but it will work; not great for cake, but it will work.

Obviously bread will be better made with bread flour, and cake will be better with cake flour. But you can make all-purpose flour better for bread by adding some vital wheat gluten. That’s right, if you want high gluten flour but you’ve got all-purpose, you can get a box of just gluten and add a few teaspoons.

For cake … you’re going to need cake flour.

Whole wheat flour

White flour has the bran, the papery outer layer, stripped off before it is ground. Whole wheat flour is made from the whole wheat berry. So by volume there is more insoluble fiber and less gluten than the white version of the same strain of wheat.

Also, the bran has sharp edges that tend to cut into the strands of gluten. This prevents the gluten from capturing as much yeast gas, which means not as much rising. This is why whole wheat breads tend to be heavier and denser, and many recipes call for part whole wheat, part bread flour.


  1. Being allergic to corn, it’s hard enough just to find an all purpose flour without corn-derived enrichments. I’ve learned to make cake flour by putting one tablespoon starch (potato or tapioca)per cup into my measuring cup and then filling it the rest of the way with AP flour. It works like a charm.

    • Kristy, what corn additives do they use? I know “enriched” flour has a bunch of stuff, but I don’t know which ones come from what.

      And speaking of starch, I discovered confectioners’ sugar actually contains sugar and cornstarch. I never noticed that before this week.

  2. My new go-to flour is a whole wheat pastry flour. I use it often, but not always, in place of all-purpose flour. It’s the best for muffins and quickbreads.

  3. Can you tell us about whole wheat flour? I have some regular whole wheat flour (not pastry, not bread, not even labeled all-purpose) and was wondering if there were some tips I needed to know. I don’t mind the taste of a true whole-wheat or whole-grain startch (I actually prefer it) so I don’t buy into the whole “mixing it with another white flour.”

    • Beatrice, thanks for the reminder. I went back and added another section with the explanation.

      • Thank you for finding out that information! Just one last question, what’s your take on using all whole wheat in cookies, cakes, and other baked items aside from bread or anything with yeast?

      • With quickbreads — anything using baking soda or baking powder instead of yeast — whole wheat shouldn’t make as much difference to the texture as it does in yest breads. Ultimately the only thing that matters, though, is what you like.

        And with most baked items, you’re talking about a couple of dollars for each experiment. You can make it several different ways for less than the cost of buying one batch pre-made at the grocery store.

  4. This is FANTASTIC thank you!

  5. I just discovered your site and really like it so far (will explore further during more normal hours). What is your take on making a Roux? Would all-purpose flour be the best?

    And on the subject of pizza guys being as crazy as chili guys, I’ve heard (albeit second hand) about NY pizzerias using a flour that’s even higher in gluten than bread flour. I guess they would have to get it from a restaurant supply source because I’ve never anything like that at the super market.

    • I use all-purpose for the roux. Stirring constantly and not burning is more important than the flour IMO.

      For the flour, you can either order the higher-gluten flour from wholesalers, or buy a box of vital wheat gluten — usually in the baking aisle right next to the flour. Add it to any flour to increase gluten.

  6. Drew – you’re right that for a roux the type of flour isn’t all that important. Actually what you’re using is the starch and there’s going to be sufficient starch in any of the flours. If you brown the roux, to make a brown sauce, which is OK in some cases, you won’t get the same thickening power because the starch molecules aren’t going to be able to absorb the same quantity of water, so you may want to add a little extra in that case.

    This is a nice site – I just found it and you do a nice job.

    A word about the gluten in the flour – everything you said is true insofar as it goes, but if you really want to complicate it, the thing that’s going to make your pizza different from that in a pizza place is that your oven isn’t going to get nearly as hot. Consequently, although it seems counterintuitive, you may be better off using a lower gluten flour, which will enable you to obtain the same result. The reason is that the extra few minutes of cooking in a home oven will toughen the gluten. A pizza store gets an oven to like 900 degrees, whereas tops on a home oven is like 500F. That means you need an extra 2 or 3 minutes, and that actually makes a difference in the dough.

    You gotta be a kind of obsessive to pay that kind of attention though.

    In any event, good for doing this site.

  7. Oh think you on the findings of the different flours, i even ran into one that was for pie crust only, but i dont use it. I love your cooking from scratch, we here at our home grow all our veggies a, we canned almost everything we eat not all but most. If i see something in the grocery stor i write it down an figure out to make itfrom scratch . I really dont like all the unknown ing. we find in store foods. I am now trying to learn, bread making at the age of 60. but never to old to learn. King Auther flour is a really big help to me. Thank you for your blog Mary Karolyn

  8. I read the rye bread article. What are the alternatives for using white flour and baking flour. I have gout and an inflammation problem. I want to use rye flour . What is the problem with using only rye flour ?

    Charles Hancock

    • I don’t know that rye is so much better for inflammation, but if it is, you can just use all rye. It won’t be as light and airy as bread made with white flour. You might be able to add vital wheat gluten if that doesn’t aggravate the inflammation, but all rye will never be quite the same.

  9. Hi
    I stumbled onto your site looking for recipies for dishes that my gram used to make. I have always wondered what these different types of flour were. My question is it seems as if gluten is being demonized like high frutose corn sugar. what is in it that everything is gluten free these days?

    • Woo, this is a tricky one. Some people get near-religious about it. I’ll try to be clear about what is fact and what is opinion.

      There is a condition called “celiac” wherein people are unable to process a protein — gluten — commonly found in wheat and other grains. What makes this a really difficult condition to live with is that gluten is the protein that gives flour its wonderful thickening power, and makes bread dough stretchy instead of crumbly, like a cake. (Cake flour is low-gluten.) So there is gluten in a lot of processed food.

      This is where things start going off the rails a bit. Some people are very intolerant of gluten. Some people believe that most of us are somewhat intolerant of it. At the extremes are people who think no one should eat wheat ever. (I’m not saying those people are wrong, by the way.)

      Avoiding all wheat also happens to be one of the recommendations of paleo and primal advocates. Avoiding wheat products also makes it much easier to follow a low carb diet.

      So that’s a lot of people saying you shouldn’t eat wheat, and a lot of people trying to follow that advice. Problem is, the “low carb” label has been tied to Atkins and other well-known diet plans, and various advocacy groups — generally those favoring a vegetarian diet — have been demonizing high fat diets for decades.

      “Gluten-free” is the latest marketing buzzword intended to attract people avoiding wheat (or carbs in general) while not associating the product with “those fad diets”.


      • Gluten is very bad for some people.
      • Gluten is possibly bad for many people.
      • Gluten happens to be in one of the major sources of carbs in the western diet.
      • Paleo, primal, and low-carb advocates all recommend eating less (or no) wheat.
      • Food manufacturers have picked up on these factors to promote heavily processed food as though it is “health food” because it is missing one substance that some people are making a big deal about. (Without mentioning all the other chemicals and pseudo-foods they included to replace the taste and texture gluten used to provide.)
      • Hi, Drew! I just happened upon your site, and read your answer to the commenter who asked why gluten is considered a bad thing these days. You gave an excellent, well-informed answer in surprisingly few words. Concerning flour classifications of bread, cake, and all-purpose, the secret to achieving excellent quality gluten-free products is similar to achieving excellent quality baked products using wheat flour: ratio of protein to starch in the flour. This feat is a bit more tricky with gluten-free baking. The gluten-free cook has to use a blend of flours to achieve the right ratio of protein flours to starch flours, depending upon what one is baking. Thus, if one wants to bake bread that has a moist, spongy texture, she wants to use a higher ratio of flours with protein (brown rice, sorghum, etc) to starchy flours (tapioca, potato, etc). To make gluten-free cakes that are light and fluffy, with a delicate crumb, she wants to use a higher ratio of starchy flours to protein flours. At any rate, your simple but thorough explanations are helpful to people who want to cook from scratch.

      • Thanks for the support. For anyone else still reading down here, if you’d like to see some gluten-free cooking click that link to check out Teresa’s site.

  10. Just wanted to say thanks for the article! Very informative. :)

  11. jennifer says:

    I am new and baking but not new at cooking I just really never baked anything. i am liking it now and am trying new things. I am used to making a peach cobbler with self rising flour but i ran out and i had bought some bread flour to make a pizza ( not yet got to it .. will soon.. lol ) I have bread flour and I want to make a cobbler. is that ok to use and if so how will it be different than self rising flour. thank you for any help you can give me..

  12. Hello, I am looking forward to using unbleached flour instead of all purpose bleached white flour. just read about the unbleached recently, but the only unbleached I found at my local store that comes in the big bag, is unbleached pizza flour. I’m wondering if its different than my regular white all purpose flour, since it doesn’t say “all purpose” on it. I sure love making pizza, but I also use my all purpose in making cookies, cinnamon rolls, pancake, bread, crepes, pasta, muffins…almost for anything.
    Thank you very much.

    • Pizza flour is probably like bread flour. Most people like a high-gluten flour for pizza so the dough is stretch and elastic.

      Except for the people who swear by low-gluten flour for pizza dough.

      Yeah, leave it to pizza lovers to prefer opposite extremes of virtually every ingredient.

      Either way, my wife has been using our bread flour to make cakes and muffins and it’s been working just fine.

  13. Does hot cake flour can make pizza??

    Cuz don’t have bread flour it’s only hot cake i have. Please answer!!

    • If you have a pre-mixed “hotcake” flour, meaning it’s a mix for what I would call “pancakes”, then no, you can’t use it.

      Those mixes — which I love for the convenience, by the way — contain baking powder. This recipe is for a yeast dough.

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