The best type of flour for a cookie is likely not the best choice for a baguette. While a home baker can typically get by with a bag of all-purpose flour, a retail bakery has rigorous standards for product quality and consistency and therefore relies on a range of flours for specific purposes.

“To really hone in on formulas and processes, bakeries can have their flour tested,” explains Josh Reasoner, milling technical service manager, ADM. “The farinograph is a piece of lab equipment that analyzes the performance of the protein present. It’s an industry standard and can provide valuable data on not only how much water will be needed to hydrate the flour but also the time that flour comes together in an optimal mix. Knowing these values can give retail bakers improved repeatability in production as well as peace of mind.”

Reasoner explains that cake and pastry flours are technically very similar and are milled from the same type of wheat. Both contain about 8% to 8.5% protein to create airy and delicate bakes, including brownies, layer cakes, donuts, pie crusts, pastries and cookies.

All-purpose flour is a middle-of-the-road standby with about 10% protein content. It provides volume and a good internal crumb for white sandwich bread, tortillas, pizza doughs, muffins and other general baking, he says.

“Retail bakeries rely on multiple types of flour to achieve a variety of breads, cakes, donuts, cookies and more,” Reasoner says. “Choosing not only the right level of protein but also the quality of protein best suited for the finished bake is crucial in producing consumer-preferred products. For consistency and reliability in flour quality, bakeries should partner with a supplier that mills superior raw materials with top-of-the-line technologies and equipment.”

The most important attributes for retail bakeries to consider are that their chosen flour has the right balance of taste, functionality and price, Reasoner adds.

A technical understanding of aspects such as protein content are necessary to create breads and baked goods with structural integrity and sensory appeal.

For instance, “protein content in flour refers to the two proteins that make up gluten, glutenin and gliadin,” he says. “Different grains and specialty milled products contain different levels of these proteins, each of which features unique properties that can affect the end product.”

Pastry flour

Tom Santos, a field sales rep at General Mills Foodservice and part of an esteemed team of dedicated flour experts known as the Doughminators™, points out that pastry flour is mostly used for pie crusts and cookies.

“Pastry flour is especially good for pie crusts, as it is a lower protein (8.5-9%) winter wheat that allows for a much flakier crust than all-purpose flour,” he explains. “Cookies made with pastry flour also tend to be more tender to the bite.”

Meantime, patent flour is a mid-protein flour that’s very popular with bread and roll bakers. Patent flour is usually in the 12.3% to 13.0% protein range that can be straight spring wheat or a blend of winter and spring wheat. With this protein level, a firm, crusty loaf with new bite can be made.

It’s important to note the crust is also a function of steam used at beginning of bake, Santos offers. Patent flour also can be used to make a variety of rolls, donuts, and sweet doughs.  Because it is a mid-protein flour, you could not make a good New York-style bagel (this requires a much higher protein to produce the chewy quality).

“It all starts with identifying the right flour to meet your needs,” he says. “It can be overwhelming considering all the different flour options available today. At General Mills, we work closely with bakers to help them understand how different flours can impact their dough. Once we identify the right flour, we also help our customers by offering training and technical assistance to ensure they achieve consistent results every time.”

Above all, consistency equals quality, Santos explains. Most quality baked products start with the flour used to produce it. As the flour goes, so goes the formula and final product.

Desired specs

Jeff Yankellow, director of bakery and food services sales at King Arthur Baking, stresses the important need to look at your desired specifications.

“You get what you pay for,” he emphasizes. “Is it a classic all-purpose with a protein window of 9-13%, which results in low cost, or is it a true AP, European-style at 11.5% to 11.9%, for example?”

With pastry flour – low protein soft wheat is really the only differentiating factor, he explains. It’s usually going to be just a step up above a cake flour.

“If you want an unbleached cake flour and can’t source it, this is the next best thing,” Yankellow says. “If I was trying to limit how many different varieties of flour I bought for my bakery, I think I would skip this one. I think an all-purpose can fill in and do the job.”

His general advice is to ask for the specification or product information sheet to be sure the flour suits your needs. There is only so much to a name.

“If you are buying a brand you trust, that is consistent, then it’s reasonable to expect that flour to perform the same from batch to batch,” Yankellow explains. “Baking is an art and making some adjustments to minor changes should not be surprising, but I am confident in saying that flour is rarely an issue that can’t be overcome when something goes wrong. Don’t make knee jerk adjustments or changes after on mishap. Dial in on the process and variables, and really think through what may have gone wrong.”

Specs are important, he adds. A certificate of analysis can tell you more about the flour in the bag.

“Most importantly when troubleshooting, and you want to rule out the flour,” he says, “look at two or three COA’s from consecutive batches to see if anything has changed. “