Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.
The quality of the flour you sift into a bake is crucial, as is the type of flour you use. 

This handy guide will get you started in learning more about flour to get the best bake possible

All-purpose flour

The jack of all trades, hence the name. This versatile staple is what you'll be pulling out most times you want to make almost anything: cookies, cakes, muffins, brownies, and even some breads and pizza dough. 

So if you're going to keep one type of flour in your pantry, this is it. The brand you use does make a difference to a certain extent, since protein content can vary from 10 to 12 percent and is worth checking before you buy.

Whole wheat flour

As the name indicates, it's made from the entire wheat kernel, including the bran (protective outer layer), endosperm (the starchy food for the seed that surrounds it, used in white flour) and germ (the seed). 

Its protein content is 13 to 14 percent. The fat in the wheat germ can go rancid, which is why it should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Whole-wheat flour will give your baked goods a nuttier flavor, darker color and heartier texture. I like it in muffins, quick breads and rustic yeasted loaves.

In recipes calling for all-purpose, you can typically substitute one-third to one-half whole-wheat flour without altering the result too much, although breads can be more problematic since the bran can cut through the gluten strands. 

If you want to go higher than that, you may need to start adding more liquid or seek out a recipe designed specifically for whole-wheat flour. White whole-wheat flour is milder in flavor and lighter in color, making it a safer bet for large-scale substitutions.

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Bread flour

Best for bread (obviously) and other baked goods that use yeast. The higher protein content - about 12 to 14 percent - helps create more gluten, which gives bread its characteristic chew. 

That stretch is what allows a dough to rise without collapsing under the slow-acting power of yeast. 

When making more delicate baked goods such as cake or cookies, use bread flour in place of all-purpose only at your peril; the swap will probably cause whatever you are baking to come out tough and dense.

Cake flour

Many of your cake recipes will call for all-purpose flour, but there are times when you might find yourself reaching for cake flour. Its low protein content (6 to 8 percent) and very smooth, fine consistency give baked goods a tender texture and high rise. 

Think angel food cake, chiffon cake and biscuits. If you don't want a separate box, you can get away with using a lower-protein all-purpose flour with similar, if not identical, results. 

You may have seen a suggestion that you can approximate cake flour by starting with 1 cup of all-purpose, removing 2 tablespoons of flour and then adding 2 tablespoons of cornstarch to replace it, but Stella Parks (a.k.a. Brave Tart) over at Serious Eats makes a compelling argument for how the extra starch can absorb too much moisture and make your cake dense and heavy.

Self-rising flour

This is lower-protein (around 8 to 10 percent) all-purpose flour with salt and baking powder mixed in. White Lily, often called for in Southern biscuit recipes, is one of the better-known brands. In lieu of self-rising flour, you can add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of all-purpose flour.