Although flour might sound like a very simple everyday staple, the word encompasses a huge breadth of ingredients and purposes. ‘Flour’ simply refers to a ground powder, which can be made from cereals such as wheat, teff or spelt, or from other ingredients such as potato, corn, nuts, rice and chickpeas.
In this guide we look at how to use flour, which flour you should buy, and how different flours behave.MORE: Buy a huge selection of flour here
How to use flour
Making bread, cakes, biscuits, batters and pastry is the most common way to use flour. Flours that contain gluten (e.g. wheat flours and many other grain flours) are essential in traditional baking. The gluten found in flour is a binding agent, which creates an elastic dough when it is combined with a raising agent (baking powder, eggs or yeast).
It is also possible to bake with gluten-free flour by adding an additional binding agent to the mix. See more on gluten-free flours below.
The binding power of flour also means it will thicken sauces. You can use the beurre manié technique to thicken sauces by rubbing a small amount of flour with cold butter to form a paste, then whisking it into gravy or a savoury jus. Finely milled cornflour or arrowroot flour will also thicken sauces when heated.
Flour’s thickening power is also why some recipes call for meat to be lightly floured before it is browned and stewed – the flour browns and picks up the flavours of the meat as it fries, then thickens the sauce as everything cooks in stock.
Flour is also used to give deep-fried food a crispy outer layer. You can either dip meat and fish in flour then fry immediately, or add even more crunch by using the pané technique – dip your food first in flour, then a layer of whisked eggs, then breadcrumbs. Then fry for super-crisp results!
Nearly all flours need to be cooked before eaten, with the exception of nut flours.
What is gluten-free flour and how do you use it?
Many flours are naturally gluten free, including rice flour, teff flour, and gram flour (which is made from ground chickpeas). You can use these flours to make batters for pancakes, or to bind dumplings such as Indian bhajis.
However, if you wish to replicate the same texture of bouncy gluten bakes such as cakes or bread, then combine your gluten-free flour with a pinch of xanthan gum to help bind your dough and give it some extra elasticity. Without the additional binding agent, the bakes can become quite crumbly.
You can also buy pre-mixed gluten-free flour, such as Doves Farm gluten free plain white flour and Doves Farm gluten free white bread flour. These flours are made from a blend of naturally gluten-free flours, such as rice, potato, tapioca, maize and buckwheat. Bread flours or self-raising flours will also include the correct proportion of xanthan gum.
What are the different types of flour?
Below you will find some of the most commonly used flours, and a guide to how they behave in different recipes.
1. Italian ‘00’ flour
People often ask ‘what is ‘00’ flour’ and, put very simply – ‘00’ refers to the level of milling. In Italy, fours are graded using this zero rating. A single ‘0’ flour is fairly coarse, while everyday flour is ‘00’. Meanwhile, a ‘000’ flour has the texture of fine cornflour or icing sugar. Made from wheat, Italian ‘00’ flour is widely seen as the best for making pizza bases and homemade pasta as it holds together so well and creates a beautifully elastic dough. Italian ‘00’ flour is the same as German ‘type 405’ or French ‘type 45’ – which is used to make croissants.
Mulino Marino is an Italian milling company, which has been producing quality flour for over 60 years. The founder, Felice Marino, bought a small mill with his parents and began producing traditional flours using the original mill-stones that were still installed in the mill.
Today, Mulina Marino carefully selects the finest grains, nuts and pulses to produce beautiful artisan flours.
2. Masa Harina corn flour
Masa harina is a Mexican flour made from corn or maize. In Mexico it is used for making tortillas and tamales. To make masa harina, corn kernels are dried and cooked, then soaked in lime water before being ground. It is naturally gluten-free which also makes it a popular choice for gluten-free bread or to make no-gluten pie crusts and muffins. Masa harina can also be blue, depending on the type of corn used. Blue-purple corn will make a flour that is more intense and nuttier, and gives your bakes smoky colour.
Naturelo masa harina is used to make tortillas – you’re likely to find a bag in every Mexican kitchen! To make tortillas, mix masa harina with hot water and salt then knead until it forms a dough. Sandwich the ball of dough between two sheets of non-stick paper, then place in the centre of a tortilla press.
Squeeze, and hey presto - homemade tortillas! You can also use a rolling pin if you don’t have a press.
3. Tapioca flour or cassava flour
Tapioca flour is an extremely finely ground flour made from cassava root. It’s also called cassava root flour or tapioca starch. The fine flour is gluten-free, and also works well as a thickener. It’s often used to add body to sauces or soup bases. It can also be combined with other gluten-free flours such as rice flour or maize flour to make pastry or gluten-free bread. Meanwhile, Brazilian cassava flour can be either sweet or sour. Sour cassava starch is fermented before being ground, which gives it a slight tang. READ MORE: How to use cassava flour
Use tapioca flour to make pancakes and gluten-free flatbreads. You can also make tapioca pearls from tapioca flour.
Roll the flour with a little food colouring and a teaspoon of hot water to bring it together into a dough. Shape into small marble-sized balls and boil. Serve the pearls in bubble tea.
4. Rice flour & glutinous rice flour
The flour made from rice is usually very fine, and made without the outer husk of the grain. Use rice flour to make noodles, or pancakes. Rice flour can also be used to make Indian roti breads or large crispy dosa pancakes. All rice flour is naturally gluten-free, however (slightly confusingly) you can also buy glutinous rice flour. Glutinous rice flour refers to the sticky, starch-rich texture – it doesn’t contain any gluten. Use glutinous rice flour to make mochi rice sweets, and other southeast Asian desserts.
You can use rice flour to make tempura batter – as it is gluten-free, it will create a light and crunchy batter rather than an elastic one. It is also great for creating a crispy coating on fried chicken before deep-frying.
And finally, if you’d like to make a really ‘short’ biscuit or pastry dough – with a soft crumbly texture – then mix a little rice flour in with your white flour. It will give your bakes a drier, more biscuity texture.
5. Gram flour
Gram flour is made from a variety of chickpea and is gluten-free. The flour is usually fairly coarse and has a slightly nutty flavour. It is used widely in India to make flatbreads or to bind onion bhajis.
This superfine gram flour is also called besan. It can be used to make a pancake batter – great if you are avoiding gluten but still want to enjoy a stack of thin crepe-style savoury pancakes.
Flavour your gram pancakes (also called socca) with herbs such as rosemary and thyme. You can also make dumplings from gram flour to top a creamy southern Indian curry.
6. Teff flour
Teff flour is high in nutrients, and is often mixed with wheat flours to give normal bakes a nutritional boost and an extra nutty flavour. However, as a gluten-free four it will not create the same rise and texture as gluten flours, so needs to be combined with xanthan gum for a good rise. The teff grain is extremely resilient and it grows well in hot, dry climates such as in Ethiopia and Eritrea – where it is an everyday staple.
Teff is the main ingredient in Ethiopian injera bread, which is a large pancake-style bread that has a distinctive bitter-sharp taste and is often topped with different vegetables and spiced meat.
You can use teff to make small sweet pancakes too, the slight bitterness works really well with chocolate!
7. Spelt flour
Spelt flour is slightly darker than wheat flour, and has a sweet nutty flavour. The gluten in spelt flour breaks down far more quickly than wheat flours, which means that it doesn’t withstand vigorous kneading – so treat it more delicately when making spelt bread or biscuits! Spelt is an ancient grain that was once grown widely across Europe and Great Britain. You can also buy whole spelt grains and pearled spelt, translated from farro in Italian.
8. Almond flour
This sweet Sicilian almond flour is made from finely milled nuts and has a fine, crumbly texture. Like pistachio flour and hazelnut flour, it adds a slight sweetness and to bakes. As it isn’t a gluten or grain flour, almond flour won’t create any kind of rise or bind in recipes, and should be used differently to the other flours listed above.
Sicilian almond flour is a beautiful ingredient. Us it to make marzipan, or to flavour the pastry in classic bakes such as a Bakewell tart. The flour is slightly finer than ground almonds, and will create a shorter pastry dough – with a smooth texture. It's a good choice for classic French financier cakes.
9. Strong white flour
Strong white flour is made from wheat and is the best choice for classic white bread as it has a high gluten content. This makes a strong and stretchy dough which holds together really well. It’s also a good option for bagels and pizza bases. The flour has been processed to remove the outer wheat ‘germ’ or shells, which is what makes it white as opposed to wholegrain. Strong white flour also absorbs and retains water very well, which turns to steam helping bread rise, and giving it a good bouncy texture.
The French flour grading system uses T numbers - the smaller the number, the lower the ash content in the milled wheat. The lowest grade is T45.
This strong white T65 flour is a great everyday choice for breads and white rolls. It creates an elastic dough with a light and open crumb once baked.
MORE FLOURS AVAILABLE ONLINE AT SOUS CHEF:
Use this Sicilian durum wheat flour to make authentic Italian pasta dough that has a lovey elasticity when it's raw, and al dente texture once cooked. The hard durum wheat is milled in Sicily using slow, artisinal techniques.
This all-purpose '00' Italian flour is milled with well-risen cakes, soft doughnuts, perfect pastry and beautiful biscuits in mind! The fine texture will give you wonderfully refined bakes, every time.
Use this Sicilian flour to make the traditional bake Caestelvetrano - which translates as 'dark bread'. The classic Sicilian loaf has a dark crust and is a slightly coarse wholemeal texture – enjoy it with great quality olive oil and olives before dinner.
Triple '000' flour is even finer than the everyday choice of '00' flour. Italians use it to make incredibly smooth pasta dough, with a lovely velvety texture. The super-fine flour is milled from t he inner-most kernel of the wheat grain.