What’s the best flour? In this post I will tell you. But you will have to sit through a bit of a windup first, even though I’m simplifying. I am not going to talk about stone ground flours or specialty flours or “clear” flour of the type that was used in my miche test. I am also not going to talk about bleached or bromated flour because I assume that taste is more important to you than snowy whiteness and long shelf life. Just good old fashioned “flour” which is made by grinding hard winter wheat after some amount of the outer shell and interior germ are removed.
For whole wheat flour, the only thing that’s removed is the inedible husk. If you bake a loaf using 100% whole wheat flour you will get something that is very dense and probably not to your liking. Several people have told me that they tried a bread recipe, from Burnt My Fingers or elsewhere, and didn’t get the results they expected. I ask what kind of flour they used and they don’t know; it was what was in the pantry. And that generally turns out to be whole wheat flour because it seemed like a “healthier” choice at the store. In reality, whole wheat flour should be used with caution, usually as a mix-in with other flours. Bread sold as “whole wheat” is typically no more than 40% actual whole wheat flour.
In my early years of bread baking, I used bread flour almost exclusively. It has a higher protein level (which is equivalent to higher gluten, because gluten = protein) than all purpose flour yet is white because the outer shell has been removed while retaining more of the protein-rich innards of the wheat berry. Then I learned from Jeffrey Hamelman that the King Arthur bakery uses probably 100 sacks of all purpose flour for every 1 sack of bread flour because American flour is already much higher in protein than the European flours on which classic bread recipes are based. I switched to all purpose, which is generally cheaper and more available, and haven’t noticed a difference.
Cake flour I don’t have much experience with, but it’s a very low protein flour, typically under 10% compared to 12.7% protein for bread flour, which may also be more finely milled. The objective is to reduce the tendency of the gluten to form strands so the crumb will be light and fluffy.
Which brings us to all purpose flour, with a protein content of 11.7%. The best flour for most bakers east of the Mississippi is King Arthur All Purpose which is available and cheap, rarely over $4 for a 5 pound bag and often on sale for considerably less. (If you have no political or moral aversion to Walmart, their prices are typically the lowest.) If you are on the west coast you will find that King Arthur is scarcer and more expensive and it may also be less fresh so you will need to look around for an equivalent brand. (In San Francisco where I used to bake, Central Milling and Giusto are popular choices.)
During my miche test I discovered that Michael London bakes with King Arthur Artisanal, an organic all-purpose with a slightly lower protein level than the pink-and-white bag of All Purpose. It’s also nearly twice as expensive in the 50-pound food service sacks. I bought a bag so I could try reproducing his recipes and I like it, but being a cheap bastard I frequently sneak back to the non-organic APF.
And what about “Sir Galahad”? Folks who peek into professional bakeries will notice there are many sacks of King Arthur Sir Galahad piled up. What is it and how can you get it? Well, according to the folks who work in the store at King Arthur, Sir Galahad is the very same thing as KA APF, just in a different package for professional vs. retail consumption. Hamelman, who likes to hold a few secrets, will only confirm that it’s “very close”. At any rate, Sir Galahad is only available in 50 pound bags from food service distributors, so you may have a hard time finding it and if you do, it may go stale before you get to the bottom of the bag.
That’s why, for the vast majority of home bakers, King Arthur All Purpose is the best flour for making bread.