Hard or soft, red or white - or perhaps a blend?

North American wheat flour is considered the best in the world; it is consistent, reliable, and of very high quality. One of our largest crops, flour is exported all over the globe.

But the continent grows just two types of wheat: hard and soft. Both have winter and spring crops, each of which produce red and white varieties. Hard wheat is high in protein and grows best in colder climes. (Durum wheat, the hardest kind of wheat, thrives in locations like Montana and Manitoba, where winter means serious business.) Soft wheat is low in protein and grows plentifully in the Carolinas, where winters are mild and dry.

Two basic types of flour are milled from these two varieties of wheat; the others on the U.S. market are hybrids. Here’s a quick roundup of the wheaty basics in the flour department.

Traditional Whole-Wheat Flour

Traditional whole-wheat flour is milled from the whole red-wheat kernel: endosperm, bran, and germ. The bran and germ make this flour extremely nutritious and rich in fiber, and give items made with whole-wheat flour their characteristic nutty, toasty flavor. Made from soft or hard wheat, whole-wheat flour is blended into bread, all-purpose, and pastry flours. Baked goods made with whole-wheat flour will be chewier and heavier than those made with white flours.

The fat contained in wheat germ can turn rancid within three to four months of milling, so it’s best to clear out a small corner in your refrigerator or freezer; kept here, your whole-wheat flour should last six to eight months.

When substituting whole-wheat flour for white flour in yeasted breads, use a ratio of about 60 percent whole-wheat flour to 40 percent white flour. For lighter baked goods, start with 25 percent whole-wheat flour and replace no more than half of the white flour called for in the recipe.

          Uses: Raised and quick breads, pancakes, muffins, cookies, cakes (like gingerbread, pumpkin, and banana) piecrust, and pizza dough.

White WholeWheat Flour

Although red whole-wheat flour has been around since long before any of us were baking, white whole-wheat flour is a relative (and welcome) newcomer. It was developed about 20 years ago, the result of efforts to produce a wheat flour with all the nutritional attributes of whole-wheat flour and none of the bitterness found in the phenolic acid of its bran layer.

While ordinary white flour is ground from the endosperm alone - the bran and germ are removed during milling - white whole-wheat flour is ground from the entire grain. The phenolic acid has been bred out of the bran layer, leaving the fiber and nutrients of traditional whole-wheat flour intact.

White whole-wheat flour has a milder, less tannic flavor and a lighter color than traditional whole-wheat flour. Some find it slightly bland by comparison; this blandness might be objectionable in a loaf of bread, but it’s difficult to detect in a peanut-butter cookie. In fact, white whole-wheat flour is the perfect place to begin if you’re thinking about introducing more whole grains into your diet.

Keep white whole-wheat flour in the refrigerator or freezer, as you would with other whole grains and whole-grain flours. If you buy in bulk from a source with high turnover, you can buy as much or as little as you need and have space to store. Plus, the prices are almost always better and the product will be fresh.

For everyday baking, I’ve found that using white whole-wheat flour in place of the entire amount of all-purpose flour produces a result that’s just as tasty as the original, with the benefit of increased fiber, vitamins, and minerals. You can also start by replacing 30 percent of the all-purpose flour in your favorite recipes with white whole-wheat flour. Increase that percentage gradually, until the flavor and texture are to your liking.

          Uses: Cookies, muffins, pancakes, and quick breads.

White All-Purpose Flour

Home bakers most commonly use all-purpose flour; it’s a blend of soft and hard wheat. Because the ratio of soft to hard varies among brands - and protein content is affected by climate, changes in the seasons, and weather - all-purpose flour averages between 9 and 11 percent protein. It can be purchased bleached or unbleached. Most recipes work well with all-purpose flour.

We know that whole-wheat flour is good for us, but it’s a misconception that unbleached all-purpose flour is nutritionally empty. Whole wheat has greater fiber content and is noticeably richer in potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. It is only slightly higher in protein, however, while all-purpose is lower in fat and sodium.

          Uses: Everyday baking (pancakes and waffles, cookies and muffins, quick breads). Not suitable for light-textured, fluffy cakes.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is made from finely milled soft winter wheat, which is high in starch and low in gluten-forming proteins (8 percent). It’s usually bleached to guarantee a snowy white appearance (think angel-food cake) and to destroy the extensibility (ability to stretch in a relaxed way without shrinking back to the original shape) and strength of the gluten formed. This ensures a tender texture in the light cakes and delicate pastries that call for cake flour.

You can approximate cake flour’s unique properties by adding 2 tablespoons cornstarch to 3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour to make the equivalent of 1 cup cake flour.

Don’t confuse cake flour with self-rising cake flour, which contains regulated proportions of baking powder and salt. Make your own self-rising cake flour by adding 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of cake flour.

          Uses: Delicate pastries and light cakes such as angel-food and chiffon cakes.

Pastry Flour

Pastry flour is similar to cake flour, but has a slightly higher gluten content (9 percent), which gives it the means to strike that elusive balance of tender and flaky that we covet in items like pie crust.

It’s fairly common to find pastry flour in bulk sections of grocery stores these days, but you can make your own by mixing 1 part cake flour with 3 parts all-purpose flour. In many cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to use all-purpose flour in place of pastry flour if you are careful not to overwork the dough.

          Uses: Flaky pastries and pie dough, biscuits, tarts, cakes.

Bread Flour

Bread flour is made from hard red winter wheat or a blend of hard wheat. Its high gluten content (usually between 12 and 14 percent) gives dough greater extensibility, a characteristic sought after by artisan bakers. Bread flour comes in several shapes and sizes: whole wheat, white whole wheat, organic, bleached, and unbleached.

To substitute all-purpose flour for bread flour, by volume, use 1 cup and 1 1/2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for every cup of bread flour.

          Uses: Yeast-raised breads (but not quick breads).

Durum Wheat or Semolina Flour

Durum or semolina flour (sometimes labeled “pasta flour”) is made by finely grinding the heart of the durum wheat berry. The result is silky, golden flour that is especially desirable for pasta making since it cooks firmly and absorbs less water than softer flours.

Durum wheat has the highest protein content of all wheat flours, but the gluten that it forms isn’t as elastic or stretchy as other hard wheat flours. For this reason, it is generally used in combination with all-purpose flour or bread flour.

Don’t confuse the flour with coarsely ground semolina particles, which are often used for dusting the baking sheet or stone when making bread.

          Uses: Pasta, gnocchi, traditional Italian breads like Sicilian mafalda and scaletta.

High-Gluten Flour

High-gluten flour is made from hard red spring wheat that has been treated to remove most of its starch, leaving it with an even higher percentage of gluten-producing proteins (14.5 percent and up). It’s generally added to doughs made with low-gluten flours (like rye or corn) that can’t muster enough elasticity on their own.

High-gluten flour tends to be quite a bit more expensive than bread flour, making the more readily available vital wheat gluten an attractive option. Vital wheat gluten, also know as gluten flour, is removed from flour using a washing process. It can then be then added back to doughs containing large amounts of non-flour ingredients in relation to wheat flour, or used in combination with low-gluten or alternative flours.

The addition of vital wheat gluten bolsters dough’s protein content and gives it a chewier crumb while providing extra strength, structure, and support for additional ingredients like nuts, seeds, grains, and olives.

Try adding between 2 teaspoons and 2 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten per cup of flour. Be aware that it is capable of absorbing more liquid, so additional water may be needed. Vital wheat gluten will keep refrigerated for up to 16 months.

          Uses: Add to bread dough containing low-protein flours and meals such as corn, rye, and oats, or when extra ingredients like cheese, onions, dried fruits, and nuts are added