You’d think that I’d be in great shape when needing flours in the time of coronavirus lockdowns because I’m a pantry stocker. Not a prepper. Just someone who likes to have staples on hand in case the urge to bake hits me. Now, though, with store shelves bare and delivery options even scarcer, I’ve had to adjust. In particular, my flour supply has dwindled because of my bread making, and I can’t find any in stores or online to replace it. Many of us work out our stress and extra time in the kitchen, and nothing is more frustrating than not being able to secure ingredients.
I’m more fortunate than most. Not only did I have an extra bag of all-purpose flour on hand but also I had various other kinds in more limited quantities. I even have the ability to mill my own flour. (More on that at the end of this article.) Not all flours are equal, though. Some can be substituted for others in certain situations, while others cannot.
A little ingenuity can help you score a different kind of flour than you usually buy. If people don’t know how to use the other types, they will gravitate to the all-purpose and whole wheats flours. That means that alternatives sell out more slowly than the popular ones. Still, you need to know the properties of the flours left behind. I’ve compiled a list of types and their properties below.
One warning: Don’t buy a different flour just because the package says “flour.” If you don’t know what you’re getting and don’t know how to use it, you’ll likely end up disappointed. Even worse, you’ll toss it when someone else could have used it.
Anna’s or Antimo Caputo Tipo 00 Flour
This Italian flour is extra fine and absorbs more liquid than typical American flours. Even though the “00” refers to fineness and not type, it’s usually a white wheat flour with strong gluten and high protein. Most often used to make pizza or pasta, it can be also used for breads and for dredging. Look for a small bag amidst the regular flours. I interchange Anna (a division of Cento) and Caputo, depending on what I can find.
This white flour contains baking powder and salt. Most commonly used for biscuits, pancakes, and waffles, this can be substituted in recipes that call for those extra ingredients. Remember to omit or adjust the baking powder/soda and salt. You can use it for cookies, quick breads, muffins, and cake. The resulting baked goods may not be identical to what you usually get, but they should be close. I like King Arthur brand.
Cake Flour or Soft White Flour
White Lily makes an excellent soft white flour, and you’ve probably seen Swan’s Down cake flour on store shelves. Although the two types aren’t identical, they are close. Both are low protein (and therefore low gluten) and finely milled. Although they work best when used for tender baked goods — cakes, muffins, cookies, biscuits, etc. — they can substitute for dredging flour. White Lily recommends that when substituting for regular all-purpose flour, add an extra 2 tablespoons per cup.
If you add 2 tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to every 3-4 cups of soft flour, you can use it to make bread. (I use Anthony’s vital wheat gluten.)
White Lily comes in 5-lb bags. Cake flour is often sold in boxes. Both should be in the baking aisle. In addition to White Lily and Swan’s Down, look for Pillsbury Softasilk and King Arthur’s cake flour.
This white flour is high-protein and high-gluten, primarily to create the crumb structure in breads. Remember that pizza dough is a kind of bread, too. Bread flour doesn’t make a good substitute for all-purpose flour because it creates a tougher result; however, in a pinch, it will do. If you attempt to use it as a substitute, minimize mixing after adding liquids so that less gluten and therefore toughness will result.
Here’s where you can get inventive. Most people don’t know that spelt is a relative of wheat. It can be treated like whole wheat flour in any recipe, although of course it will taste slightly different. It is considered an easily digestible grain. When combined with vital wheat gluten (to help it rise), it makes an excellent bread. You can also cut the white flour in a recipe, substituting half spelt for half white.
Most stores stock this in the organic/natural foods aisle instead of in the baking one. Bob’s Red Mill makes a good version.
Sprouted Wheat Flour
As the name says, this flour comes from already-sprouted, then milled, wheat. Like spelt, it disgests more easily than traditional flour. Although lighter in color than normal whole wheat, it should be treated the same in recipes. This flour is much more difficult to find than any of the above, but stores that specialize in natural and whole grain groceries should carry it — at least in ordinary times. It usually comes in 1-pound bags.
Durum and Semolina Flours
These flours are both milled from durum wheat, a hard spring wheat. Semolina is usually more coarsely ground than flours labeled as “durum.” Both can be used to make fresh pasta. If you bake bread, you use use either one as a cutting flour. If a recipe calls for 4 cups of bread flour, substitute one cup of semolina/durum for one of bread flour. This will slow down your consumption of bread flour.
I’ve seen these flours both in the baking aisle and in the natural foods one. They come in small bags and tend to be expensive. Bob’s Red Mill and Caputo both manufacture this type.
Almond, Chickpea, Rice, and Other Gluten-Free Flours
Unforunately, these do not work as ordinary substitutes. Most baked goods rely on a flour’s gluten to give them structure. Don’t buy these different flours if you want to bake, say, your usual chocolate chip cookies. That said, you can find gluten-free recipes online to figure out how to use them. If you have egg whites and almond flour, try to tackle the technique of making macarons as a special treat.
Milling Your Own Flour
Talk about going back to basics! I won’t expound upon the benefits of milling your own flour at home except to say that a grain mill can deliver flour on demand. I own an electric NutriMill that can produce flour in mere minutes. (WonderMill is another good brand.) You can also buy hand-cranked mills and stand mixer accessories that will do the job. Just make sure that whatever you get can handle wheat and other hard grains in larger quantities.
Unfortunately, if you want white flour, a home grain mill won’t work because the bran (the outer coating) gets mixed in. Even when I use soft white wheat, I get those bran flecks throughout. My go-to bread flour comes from hard white wheat berries, which makes a light tan loaf, with hard red producing a more typical whole wheat bread. I use the Palouse brand of wheat berries, although any will do.
A good grain mill can also mill rice, dried beans, rye, and popcorn (for cornmeal.) It cannot mill softer things such as nuts.
None of us know how long these grocery shortages will last. Certain staples like flour have disappeared, and stores can’t seem to keep them in stock. If you happen upon the baking aisle with a few boxes or bags of specialty flours left on the shelves, you should now have a reasonable understanding of what will work in a pinch.
Check out my other articles about life in the time of coronavirus:
Debbie Lee Wesselmann