When it comes to your cooking and baking needs, there are many types of flours from which to choose. Wheat flour is the most common type of flour in most people’s pantries, but which variety of wheat flour should you use – whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour?
There are several different factors to consider, but it primarily comes down to nutrition and texture. You should use whole wheat flour if you want your baked goods to be richer in fiber and other nutrients, and you should use all-purpose flour if you want a lighter and fluffier texture.
In this article we’ll explain the difference between whole wheat and all-purpose flours, some benefits of both, and tips for using these types of flours in recipes.
Differences between whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour
Both whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour are made from wheat, but they are produced differently. There are three parts to the wheat kernel: the bran (outermost layer), the endosperm (middle layer), and the germ (innermost layer). During the milling process, wheat kernels are crushed into a fine powder to make flour.
Processing: During the production of all-purpose flour the wheat germ and bran are removed, leaving only the endosperm. This process is called refining grains, which is why all-purpose flour is often called refined flour.
Whole wheat flour uses the entire wheat kernel, including the bran and germ in addition to the endosperm. Whole wheat flour isn’t considered refined.
Color/bleaching: Flour will naturally bleach (turn white) over time. All-purpose flour is often bleached to quicken this natural process and is primarily for appearance. Whole wheat flour isn’t usually bleached, so it has a darker brown color compared to all-purpose flour’s bright white hue.
Enrichment: Because the process of refining wheat kernels strips some of the nutrients, all-purpose flour is usually enriched with added nutrients to make the flour more similar to unrefined flour.
All-purpose flour is typically enriched with iron and B vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine).
Whole wheat flour retains the natural nutrients from including the wheat germ and bran, so it isn’t typically enriched.
Texture/rising in baked goods: Gluten is an elastic protein found in wheat flours. The gluten strands are shorter in whole wheat flour because of the presence of the wheat bran and wheat germ. These shorter strands don’t allow products made with whole wheat flour to rise as high as when all-purpose flour (with longer gluten strands) is used.
Nutritional comparison between whole wheat and all-purpose flours
|All-purpose flour (¼ cup)||120||24 g||1 g||0.5 g||4 g|
|Whole wheat flour (¼ cup)||110||22 g||3 g||1 g||4 g|
Benefits of whole wheat flour vs. all-purpose flour
Whole wheat flour benefits
- Contains more nutrients compared to all-purpose flour such as fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and calcium.
- Higher fiber content of whole wheat flour is better for people who have blood sugar problems such as diabetes since fiber doesn’t raise blood sugar levels.
- Adds a hearty, nutty flavor when used in baking.
All-purpose flour benefits
- Can be easily used in most recipes, which typically call for all-purpose flour.
- Results in a lighter and softer texture compared to whole wheat flour with more rising potential.
- Dough made with all-purpose flour is typically moister than whole wheat flour because it absorbs less liquid.
When to use whole wheat flour
You can use whole wheat flour in place of all-purpose flour for most things – just be prepared for a difference in texture. Baked goods made with whole wheat flour will be denser than those made with all-purpose flour, and they likely won’t rise as much.
If you want to add more fiber and nutrients to your baked goods, feel free to use it in place of all-purpose flour, or you can always substitute half of a recipe’s all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour.
Whole wheat flour is best used to make things like:
- Quick breads (those that don’t use yeast to rise)
- Breakfast items like waffles and pancakes
When to use all-purpose flour
All-purpose flour is ideal for baking more delicate items like pastries and cakes, which rely on the ability to rise to give them their light, airy texture. If you prefer the texture of products made with white flour, then you’ll want to use all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat.
All-purpose flour can be used to make things like:
- Pizza crust
Besides baking, all-purpose flour is also good for thickening sauces and gravies without adding any notable flavors since it has a more neutral flavor compared to whole wheat flour.
All-purpose flour can be used for a variety of purposes, while self-rising flour is most often used to make cakes and pastries. Self-rising flour contains evenly mixed amounts of baking powder and salt added to the flour (often all-purpose flour).
If a recipe calls for self-rising flour, then you shouldn’t substitute regular all-purpose flour because it won’t rise as well as it should.
If a recipe calls for whole wheat flour, substituting the entire amount for all-purpose flour will likely change the texture intended with the original recipe. Instead, try substituting half the amount of whole wheat flour with all-purpose flour instead of 100% of it.
The same is true for the opposite situation: to substitute whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour, consider a 50/50 mix.
Whole wheat flour isn’t gluten-free since it’s made from wheat. The gluten structure in whole wheat flour is weaker than all-purpose flour because of the presence of the wheat bran and germ, but it doesn’t make it gluten-free.
Yes, largely due to its higher fiber content, whole wheat flour (59-84) has a lower glycemic index than all-purpose flour (85). This is important for diabetics and those watching their blood sugar levels. That said, there are also many lower-glycemic-index options to whole wheat flour.