Yes, most flours, whether gluten-containing or non-gluten-containing flour, will absorb water and other liquids and do so in varying amounts. This is one of the reasons we always recommend using the flour your recipe was designed for instead of substituting one flour for another.
For example, coconut flour will absorb up to 4 times more water than all-purpose flour, so if you take a pancake recipe with all-purpose flour and just sub the coconut flour 1:1, it isn’t going to be a happy pancake. A recipe for coconut flour pancakes specifically, though? Yum!
Why Is The Water Absorption Capacity Of Flour Important?
Flour mainly absorbs water with little starch molecules acting like sponges to soak up moisture. The amount of liquid absorbed typically depends on the type of flour, the grind, the gluten and damaged starch content, and a few other things. We get a bit more technical about it in this article about which flours absorb the most and least liquids.
The flour’s water absorption capacity (WAC) is determined by its ability to absorb and incorporate moisture into the dough or the batter of whatever you are cooking. WAC is important in recipes as it affects the final product’s texture, consistency, taste, and appearance. Knowing which types of liquids work best with certain flours can help create a much nicer finished product.
Adding moisture to a gluten-containing flour also helps to activate the gluten, which helps to give structure to your final product.
How Much Water Does Flour Absorb?
This is an impossible question! There are hundreds of different kinds of flour and probably thousands of different brands, methods of milling and processing (all of which affect liquid absorption), plus then depending on how you use it in a recipe will affect absorption properties too! For example, the temperature of a liquid will speed up the absorption process, as will vigorously mixing a batter or dough.
We tend to give a general idea of a flour’s ability to absorb water by stating it is high, medium, or low absorbency, with all-purpose flour being in the medium category.
The amount of time flour spends absorbing liquids affects its absorbency capabilities. The longer the flour is exposed to a liquid, the more it will absorb. This means recipes that call for marinating ingredients in liquids (like crêpes) or those where the batter is allowed to sit before baking (like pancakes and waffles) may require less liquid than instructions indicate. Knowing how much moisture your flour will absorb can give you more control over the texture of your baked goods, and this might take some practice until you get a feel for it.
What Else Does Flour Aborb?
Flour can absorb many other types of liquids besides water. Common examples include milk, buttermilk, and cream. Each type of liquid will affect the texture and flavor of the baked product differently. For instance, cake batters made with whole milk or buttermilk will be more tender than those made with just water. Finally, the type of fat used in a recipe will also affect how much liquid is absorbed. Fats like butter and even coconut oil can prevent too much water from penetrating the flour’s starch molecules, resulting in a denser finished product.
Is There Any Kind Of Liquid That Flour Won’t Absorb?
Most flour will not readily absorb liquid with a high alcohol content because alcohol evaporates much faster than water (you’ll end up with a dry cake once you bake it). Also, take care using highly acidic liquids like vinegar or lemon juice, as it could cause the gluten in the flour to break down quickly and ruin the texture of your baked product.
If you want a cake with a bit of a boozy flavor, best save the alcohol for the frosting (we love this coconut cream frosting) or the filling!
Aside from following recipes and trial and error at home, calculating the water absorption capacity of flour requires a Brabender farinograph test, where water is added to 300 g of flour until the specified consistency is brought to 500 Brabender units (BU).
The amount of water needed to reach this consistency is then used to calculate the absorption ratio. Usually, they only do this in food science labs and food production warehouses, though. I’ve never done it myself as a home cook.
If your bread dough is too wet, adding more flour is the best way to fix it. Start by adding about a tablespoon at a time until you have the desired consistency. Mix up the dough thoroughly and knead for a few minutes after each addition of flour.
You can also try adding a bit of oil to help with the texture and add more moisture. Another option is to let the dough rest for 15-20 minutes before kneading, which will give the flour time to absorb some of the extra liquid.