What Is All-Purpose Flour?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

All-purpose flour

Adel66 / Getty Images

All-purpose flour is the most commonly used type of flour, a mid-strength, medium-gluten flour that's designed to be suitable for baking everything from pizza doughs and crusty breads to pie crusts, cakes, cookies and pancakes. 

Fast Facts

  • Made from a mix of hard and soft wheat
  • Gluten content around 12 percent
  • Suitable for all sorts of baking
  • Around 125 grams to the cup

What Is All-Purpose Flour?

To understand what all-purpose flour is, we need to quickly talk about wheat flour in general. Different strains of wheat are naturally higher in protein than others, and the higher-protein ones are said to be "hard." Low-protein wheats are said to be "soft." Durum wheat, which is used for making pasta, is the hardest, or highest-protein wheat. Soft white wheat is the softest.

There are six classes of wheat overall, and each one is milled and sometimes blended with other wheats to create flours with varying strengths. Strong flour is high-protein flour, which means high in gluten and good for making pasta, pizza dough, crusty bread and so on. Weak flour is made from soft wheat, is lower in protein, and good for delicate pastries and cakes.

To make it easy for home bakers, so they don't have to buy and store multiple strengths of flour, the industry developed all-purpose flour, which is a blend of strong and weak flours formulated to be acceptable for making crusty breads as well as delicate pastries and cakes. That doesn't mean it's necessarily the ideal flour for those applications. But it's a decent middle of the road flour. 

Wheat flours are generally distinguished by their gluten content, and all-purpose flour is usually around 12 percent gluten, give or take a percent depending on the brand. This compares with 7.5 to 9 percent for cake flour and 13 to 14 percent for bread flour

How to Cook With All-Purpose Flour

All-purpose flour is usually combined with leavening agents such as yeast or baking powder, along with other ingredients such as fats, eggs, sugar, salt, and then baked in ovens or on griddles to make breads, cakes and so on. It can also be used as a thickening agent in soups and stews (usually combined with some sort of fat in what's called roux). 

In baking, all-purpose flour needs be be measured properly, and the way to do that is by weight. This is a more accurate way of measuring than volume (such as cups), and helps make sure your recipes turn out right. With all-purpose flour, a "cup" is equivalent to about 125 grams. Again, this will vary from one brand of flour to another. For instance, King Arthur All-Purpose Flour is 120 grams to the cup.

You can easily figure out the conversion by checking the nutritional label on the bag of flour. It might list the serving size as 1/4 cup and show 30 grams in parentheses. That means that this particular brand of flour is 120 grams (30 times 4) to the cup. So if a recipe calls for 3 cups of flour, you'd need 360 grams.

Many recipes call for flour quantities by weight, and if that's the case, just measure out the weight it asks for, you don't even need to do the conversion. This is especially helpful if you're using a recipe developed by that particular flour manufacturer (which is not a bad idea).

Flour
Michelle Lee Photography / Getty Images 
Pastry dough
Netrebina Elena / Getty Images
Bread
 Wicki58 / Getty Images
Pizza
Kanawa_Studio / Getty Images
Cupcakes
 Xsandra / Getty Images
Cookies
LauriPatterson / Getty Images

What Does It Taste Like?

All-purpose flour isn't eaten on its own, and foods prepared from it derive their flavor from the other ingredients, the yeast, sugar, salt, fats and so on, that it's combined with, as well as from the caramelization of starches that takes place when the dough or batter is cooked. If you were to taste the flour by itself, it would taste bland, dry and powdery.

All-Purpose Flour Substitute

If you're making a cake, which needs to be soft and tender, or a pizza dough, which needs to be chewy and crusty, you might find that all-purpose flour doesn't quite do the job. So one of the common substitutions is to use cake flour for making cakes and cookies, pastry flour for pies pastries and cookies, and bread flour for making breads and pizza doughs. If you decide to do this, simply use however many grams of flour the recipe called for, you don't have to do any conversion.

If the recipe is given in volume quantities, you could convert, but this can get complicated since different strength flours have different weights per cup. You might have better results seeking out a different recipe.

All-Purpose Flour Recipes

All-purpose flour is the most common flour that recipes are written for. All kinds of recipes, for cakes, pies, cookies, breads, muffins and other baked goods, are written for all-purpose flour. 

Where to Buy All-Purpose Flour

All-purpose flour is widely sold in the baking aisles of supermarkets and grocery stores of all kinds.

Storage

All-purpose can be stored in a cool, dry place, like a pantry, for 6 to 8 months, assuming the package is tightly closed. If you live somewhere particularly warm or humid, you could seal the opened flour bag in a large plastic bag and keep it in the fridge. But keep it away from foods like onions and others that have a strong odor, as the flour absorbs odors easily. You can also store it in the freezer for an even longer shelf life.

Things to watch out for are insects, which can lay their eggs in the flour and then hatch, as well as rancidity, although this is more of a problem with whole grain flours than with all-purpose flour.