Flour Power (the most riveting article you'll read today)
While some flour may be listed as "all purpose," this is unfortunately not really the case. While you can use all purpose flour in most recipes, to achieve superior results, it's much better to use the flour intended for whatever you're making. More on that later. Also, no brands are created equally. King Arthur Flour is consistently rated as superior to all other common brands, so I use it most often.
The three main types of flour I use are:
All Purpose (AP) Flour
The main difference between each of these is the amount of protein in each. The more protein in a flour, the more gluten you can develop. This is why it is important to use the flour right for your recipe. In desserts like cakes and cookies, you do not want to create gluten. However, in breads you want to create a lot of gluten. I know gluten is often demonized in the media but it is actually just a combination of proteins that give bread structure and texture by holding in air inside the crumb. If you've ever had the misfortune of trying gluten free bread, you'll notice it is either an unsweet cake or a glorified cracker, because without gluten the crumb can't hold in air the way bread usually does.
Cake flour is the type that I use with the lowest protein content. I buy King Arthur Unbleached cake flour or Swans Down cake flour. They come in 2 lb blue boxes next to the All Purpose flours. Cake and pastry flours have between 6-9.5% protein. King Arthur Cake flour is great because it is unbleached, but it is at the upper extreme in terms of protein content of cake flours. A more true cake flour (one that is bleached) is Swans Down brand; the dilemma is whether you care if your flour is bleached. The next flour I use is King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour. This flour has an 11.7% protein content. The last flour that I keep consistently in my pantry is King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour with a 12.7% protein content. You might think only a few percentage points won't make a difference, but it makes a drastic difference.
Using the right flour makes baking easier. This is comes back to the gluten. When you make cakes, usually a recipe tells you to just mix until combined. The reason is you don't want to inadvertently overwork the gluten and get a tough cake. However, with cake four, it's harder to overwork the gluten, so you can mix your batter much better. Sometimes, I'll whip my finished batter extra for a lighter texture. This is not recommended with AP flour. Contrastingly, it's easier to knead and develop gluten in bread dough made with bread flour because there is physically more gluten to develop.
The following is a break down of how I use these three flours.
Cake Flour: anything that you want to have a lighter texture.
Chemically Leavened Breads like banana bread (you could also use all purpose here)
Bread Flour: any time you want gluten
Pizza dough (although Italian 00 superfine flour is the best)
AP Flour-: basically everything else
Start using these flours when you bake. If you're making a cake that calls for AP flour, try it with cake flour instead and you will be amazed with the results.