From cakes to cookies to pate a choux, flour is the first ingredient in just about every baked good. With holiday baking season in full swing, it’s good to know the different types of flours that you can use in all those batches of cookies. From plain old all-purpose to gluten-free varieties, here’s a breakdown of some of the most commonly used flours:

All-Purpose

Unless a recipe specifically says to use a different type, all-purpose flour will work in just about any baking or cooking application (such as thickening sauces/soups). It gives you a tender finished product, and as far as protein content, it’s right in the middle compared to other flours.

Whole-Wheat Flour

Because it’s made using the entire kernel of wheat, whole-wheat flour has more fiber and nutrients than those that are made with just the germ. It’s a great way to add nutrition to almost any baked good, but the rich, nutty flavor and denser texture you get when you use whole-wheat flour makes it best suited for quick breads.

Cake Flour

As its name implies, cake flour is ideal for delicate cakes and cookies. It contains the least amount of protein of all the flours, therefore making a lighter baked product.

Pastry Flour

This flour works best for pies, cookies, and other pastries. It has slightly more protein than cake flour and is made by grinding soft wheat into a fine flour. Whole-wheat varieties are available as well.

Bread Flour

The high protein content of bread flour yields a dense, chewy texture that’s perfect for yeast breads and pizza dough.

Rice Flour

Made by grinding raw white or brown rice, this flour is one of the best gluten-free substitutes for wheat flour. It contains a small amount of protein and works well as a thickening agent or a gel.

Tapioca Flour

This gluten-free flour is made from the starch of the cassava plant and has a bland but clean flavor. It is often used as a thickening agent in delicate desserts. Like rice flour, tapioca flour also forms an excellent gel.

Almond Meal/Flour

The main difference between almond meal and almond flour is whether the skin is left on the almonds (flour is usually made with blanched or skinless almonds). It has traditionally been used in macaroons, marzipan and almond paste, but has recently become a popular gluten-free flour alternative. Although it’s higher in calories, almond meal has added protein and health benefits, and results in a moister, richer product.

Cornmeal

Available in varying degrees of coarseness, cornmeal is made from ground dried maize or corn. Its most common applications are cornbread, polenta, and as a breading or batter for fried foods.

For more information on gluten-free flours, visit About.com, or click here for a gluten-free all-purpose flour recipe using rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch and xanthan gum.

Do you use other types of flour besides all-purpose? What kinds of recipes do you use them in?

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