Who doesn’t love cake? Instead of buying one every time you’re in the mood, maybe you prefer baking your own. The recipe calls for cake flour, but what is cake flour, exactly? Isn’t flour just ground up wheat? What’s the big deal?
Well, cake flour is more than simply ground-up wheat. In fact, wheat isn’t always just wheat. Selecting the right flour for all of your baking needs is surprisingly more complex than simply adding “flour.” Using cake flour in your cakes almost guarantees a mouthwatering, delicate, delicious cake every single time you bake.
What Is Cake Flour?
You probably think that cake flour is flour with the word “cake” slapped in front of it. You might even think that slapping the word “cake” in front of “flour” is just marketing speak to get you to pay more.
So, what is cake flour? While cake flour is indeed flour, it’s not just flour with the word “cake” in front of it. Cake flour specifically uses wheat that is low in protein. The wheat grains are finely milled, giving cake flour a lighter, more powdery texture.
This may also seem like a fancy marketing ploy, but it’s not. The type of wheat used to create flour affects the texture and consistency of all of your baked goods. If you bake with something other than cake flour, you’ll still get a cake. However, it may not be the light and tender creation you’re hoping to achieve.
Flour Is Just Wheat
Yes, it’s true that if you ask “what is cake flour” you could say “flour,” or even “wheat flour.” Most flours are made from wheat (specifically, wheat germ). While flour is generally made up of ground wheat, there are different kinds of wheat, each with distinct characteristics. It’s these differences that affect how your cake turns out.
NOT ALL WHEAT IS THE SAME
When you look into the types of flour, you'll find two types of wheat: hard and soft (sometimes called winter wheat and summer wheat). Hard wheat is high in protein and gluten (more on that in a minute). Soft wheat has less protein and less gluten. It also has more starch.
The amount of protein and gluten in your batter impacts your baking. While protein and gluten behave the same in any baked good, higher amounts of gluten in your batter change the consistency of your cake.
They Call It “Glue”-ten for a Reason
Unless you have to avoid gluten for health reasons, you probably don't worry about how much gluten is in your food. But, if you’re an avid baker or an avid baked-goods eater, you should understand how gluten impacts your baked goods.
If you’ve ever bit into a biscuit or muffin and thought, “Wow, that’s dense,” there’s a good chance that what you’re eating wasn’t made with cake flour. Sure, it tastes fine, but it doesn’t have the light, delicate, crumbly texture you were hoping for.
All flours are created from a blend of hard and soft wheat. However, in understanding what cake flour is, know that cake flours use more soft wheat than hard wheat. Using this combination means cake flour contains between 6 and 8 percent protein. For reference, all-purpose flour contains between 8 and 12 percent protein. This is important because more protein in your flour means more gluten in your final product.
Gluten is what gives your baked goods form and structure. Without it, your cakes, breads, and muffins would fall apart.
LESS IS MORE
No matter what you bake, there’s no way to avoid protein and gluten in your baked goods — unless you skip the flour altogether. However, to create a light and tender cake, you need to use a flour with less protein, like cake flour.
Gluten forms from the proteins in the flour. The chemical reaction starts when you add any kind of liquid to your batter. It doesn’t matter if it’s milk, melted butter, or even eggs. Liquid added to any flour will initiate gluten formation.
As you mix the batter, you create and strengthen the gluten bonds. The longer you work with the batter, the more you create strong gluten strands. For example, when you make bread, you knead the dough for a long time. That’s because you’re trying to create something sturdy that will rise and keep its shape. Without strong gluten strands, you’d end up with a cracker!
Cakes, on the other hand, don’t benefit from strong gluten bonds. More gluten in the cake batter results in a firmer and denser final product. There’s nothing wrong with that — it will still taste like cake — but, if you want a light and tender cake, less is more. That’s why most cake recipes have you mix the batter lightly and for less time.
It’s also why you should use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour. Cake flour has less protein, which means you’ll get less gluten formation, even if you add a lot of liquid or accidentally overbeat your batter.
FINER IS BETTER
In answering the what is cake flour question, you should also know that cake flour is milled to a finer texture than other flours. All this means is that it takes a few more trips through the grinder. It’s kind of like the difference between granulated sugar and superfine sugar. They’re both sugars; one is just a little smaller than the other.
The finely textured cake flour, though, does play an important role in creating a delicate and tender cake. The small flour grains help distribute fats more evenly throughout the batter. This way, you don’t end up with small clumps of butter (or other fats) in one part of the cake, giving you a smooth, even, and tasty cake.
STARCH ISN’T JUST FOR COLLARS
Cake flours contain more starch because of the soft wheat. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal (all flours have starch in them), the amount of starch in cake flour is an important part of baking a light and delicate cake.
Thanks to the higher starch level, your cake batter reacts differently with liquids. Not only does this impact gluten formation, but it also changes the structure of your cake. Part of the secret to getting a tall and delicate cake is getting the right amount of liquid in your batter.
That’s where starch comes in. The higher level of starch in your batter allows it to absorb the liquids without creating more gluten strands. More starch helps you create a taller, fluffier cake — one that holds its shape without the help of gluten.
You Can Substitute, But You'll Need to Beware
Sometimes, you may not have a choice and have to use all-purpose flour in your cake recipes, and that’s OK. Just know that your cakes won’t turn out as light, tall, or tender than if you had used cake flour.
Using all-purpose flour results in a denser, chewier cake. This is because all-purpose flour contains more protein, and thus, more gluten. To help reduce gluten formation, try not to overbeat the batter.
You’re baking away and realize you’re out of cake flour. Or, you run out to the store and no one has any. But you need it right now. What to do?
In a pinch, you can make your own. It’s not perfect, but it can save you when you’re out of options.
For every level cup of all-purpose flour, take out two level tablespoons of flour. Add two level tablespoons of cornstarch to the cup of flour and gently mix.
Viola! Instant cake flour.
It’s not perfect, but, for an emergency substitution, it works, because, really, what is cake flour but some flour and starch? Taking out some of the regular flour and adding cornstarch gives you flour that’s a little more like soft wheat flour (which, remember, has more starch than all-purpose flour).
Every Day Is Cake Day
Now you know the answer to what is cake flour. And, more importantly, you know why you should use cake flour every time you bake a cake. It’s the only way to get a light, tender, fluffy cake that’s almost as good as the bakery.
Actually, it might be even better than the bakery! So, head for the kitchen and get baking. You’ll be a regular Martha Stewart in no time.