The biggest baking season of the year is fast approaching now with Thanksgiving behind us. Whether you’re an experienced baker or a newbie, and whether you love baking all year round or mostly only do it around the holidays, Christmastime can either be a joy or a time of pressure and fear of failure. No matter if you’re baking pies or cakes or cookies or biscuits or yeast breads, we all want to present our most perfect baking selves for our families and friends.
Back when I first started baking, I only really knew about one type of flour. All-purpose flour, generally of the Gold Medal or Pillsbury variety. My mother made everything with it. My mother was a wonderful cook and truly inspired my love of cooking and baking. You can still make everything with all-purpose flour today–it’s just as good as it ever was, especially in the hands of an experienced cook. But some things are better, noticeably better, with other types of flour, and we have so many more types of flour available in even the smallest grocery stores today. But, when surveying the vast array of flours available on store shelves, choosing the wrong flour can actually result in disaster. At a time when we want to be our best, and especially for those of you who may be new to baking or don’t do it very often, I want to put forth the three flours you need in your pantry right now to be the best holiday baker you’ve ever been–and without buying half a dozen different types of flour. Seriously, you can do that these days. But I’ve got the three you need.
Self-rising flour. Biscuits, man. Following the Civil War, soldiers from the North returned home with tales of the most incredibly light and tender and flaky biscuits they tasted in the South. It wasn’t that Southern cooks were better, it was the flour. Back in those days, flour was a regional item. Trucks weren’t shipping flour grown in one area to other areas. You used the flour that was being grown and milled where you lived, the wheat that flourished in your warmer or colder climate. Soft white winter wheat flourishes in southern regions. Northern cooks had to wait a century to beat that advantage with cross-country shipping. Soft white winter wheat is, as it says in the name, a soft wheat. That soft flour makes for those famous tender biscuits.
Brand matters. Not all self-rising flours are made with soft white winter wheat. My recommendations for self-rising flour: White Lily, Martha White, or Hudson Cream. Stay away, far away, from Pillsbury or Gold Medal self-rising flours–they aren’t made with soft white winter wheat. Also avoid generic store brands. The flour used in them varies widely and you just don’t know. I’ve never met a store brand self-rising flour that satisfied my expectations. The price discount isn’t worth the bad biscuits.
Cake & Pie flour. They sell pastry flour and cake flour, but unless your pantry is a whole lot bigger than mine, and unless you plan to use all that flour forthwith in which having a larger number of different flours suits your fancy, skip pastry and cake flour. Buy a baking flour that will suit all light baking jobs, one made with soft white winter wheat.
My recommendation for an all-around baking flour: White Lily Light Baking Flour. It is a soft, fine flour that makes tender cakes as if it were cake flour (and it’s cheaper) and perfect pastries as if it were pastry flour (and it’s cheaper) and it’s great for cookies and muffins, too.
Warning: DO NOT use a light baking flour for yeast breads. Can you say gummy bread? This is not a flour meant to support the kind of rise you need for a yeast bread. It doesn’t have a high gluten count.
Yeast bread flour. You can buy bread flour, but it costs more. Here is where all-purpose flour does you good. A good all-purpose flour milled from hard red spring wheat has all the gluten power you need for perfect yeast breads, without filling your pantry with an extra specialty item. Hard red spring wheat is a northern wheat variety, and where they lost out back in the day on their biscuit glory, man could they bake the yeast breads.
My recommendations for yeast bread flour: Pillsbury and Gold Medal all-purpose flours. The same reason that makes them terrible for biscuits is what makes them shine in yeast breads. If you’re dying to buy a store brand, all-purpose flour is your safest store brand bet–they’re mostly made with hard red spring wheat. But, again, store brands are always a gamble. By the way, I often use all-purpose flour in cookies, muffins, etc, also, with good results, so if you’re going to stock extra on any flour, make it your all-purpose flour. Just don’t try using it in biscuits, promise?
This is not a post about whole grain flours–that’s a whole ‘nother story, and I’ll write that one soon, but I can’t do a post about baking flours without mentioning the famed King Arthur brand of flours. King Arthur makes numerous types of flours, including all those I’ve mentioned above (and more). King Arthur is a very good flour in all respects, but it also tends toward the high end of the price range. Trust me, I’ve tried every flour on the market, and while King Arthur has never disappointed me, I don’t find it to be worth the price hike. Many people swear by it, and I’m not dissing it, but if you’re watching your budget while keeping to the minimum number of flour varieties in your pantry, it’s not going to save your baking day. What will save your baking day is understanding the differences between types of flours and flour brands, and the wheat from which they were milled.
A good self-rising flour from soft white winter wheat, an all-around light baking flour from soft white winter wheat, and an all-purpose flour milled from hard red spring wheat are the three flours you need in your pantry right now for the best holiday baking ever. (And I popped out all the brand names so you don’t have to figure it out.) Who’s ready to bake?