Plain flour is a store cupboard staple in the UK which most people have to make cakes and biscuits. Bread making is on the rise and you might be wondering if you can reach for the plain flour when you don’t have any bread flour in your kitchen.
Can I use plain flour instead of bread flour?
You can substitute plain flour for bread flour in simple bread recipes but the bread will be slightly poorer. Bread flour has more protein to develop more gluten. This allows the dough to rise higher and be airy, rather than dense and cake-like.
So in a nutshell, you can do it but the results won’t be the same. I’ve included a recipe in this article which I tested for myself and included some pictures. There are a few tips on making bread with plain flour below, as well as the low down on what bread flour actually is and how it differs.
For a list of the best flours check out my post best flour for bread in the UK.
Plain Flour Vs Bread Flour
Plain flour is a flour found in the UK and other linked countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. It is an all purpose flour that can be used for a variety of recipes such as cakes, biscuits and sauces.
It is made from softer wheat varieties and has low protein content. This protein is what makes gluten when mixed with water – that’s the stretchy strands inside dough. Gluten gives strength, elasticity and chewiness which is ideal for bread and pizza. Gluten also holds on to the gases as the dough rises which allows it to rise up tall.
So without this gluten, plain flour makes baked goods with more crumbly textures. Think of cakes, biscuits, scones and pastry. Plain flour is a bit of an all rounder, and that’s why its found in many store cupboards. Plain flour is a generic UK term, with all-purpose flour being the US variant which is a slightly stronger flour with more protein.
Bread flour uses harder wheat varieties with more protein and is designed to make more gluten for bread making. It is more stretchy so rises better, and can hold on to gases to make airy bread. You can feel the gluten in the dough when you knead and shape it, and feel the ‘spring back’ that you get. Bread flour wouldn’t be very good for cakes or biscuits because it would be a bit more tough and chewy, rather than soft and crumbly.
The picture shows the gluten strands which form in a good bread dough. You can see the pockets of bubbles which is the result of the yeast fermenting. This gives the dough the holes when baked, and without it we get a texture more like biscuit rather than bread.
What Will Happen If I Use Plain Flour For Bread?
As plain flour has less of this gluten development it will be more compressed and the overall loaf will be flatter because it can’t rise as high. You will struggle to get the open crumb of an artisan bread loaf, but you will be able to achieve the tight crumb of a simple sandwich loaf.
It will be slightly harder to work with as the plain flour has less strength. You might find the dough spreads out faster as you let it rise because there is no tension to hold it up. The bread will be less tall and more spread out sideways.
While you won’t make the worlds best bread, you’ll still have fun and will make a decent beginner loaf that you can build upon next time.
I’ve made a few plain flour breads over the years, and sometimes plain flour seems to work pretty good. Other times I’ve used it and it doesn’t seem to form much gluten at all – it doesn’t become stretchy no matter how long you knead it. I can only assume that because plain flour isn’t designed for gluten strength, then its gluten developing properties can vary from bag to bag. Probably because the retailers haven’t focused on that.
When You Shouldn’t Use Plain Flour For Bread
When using plain flour, you can get by with making simple white loaves of bread. But more complex breads should be avoided. For instance, making long fermented doughs such as sourdough or rustic loaves, the lack of gluten will become a problem. This is because the gluten loses strength over time. These loaves require longer to rise and ferment slowly, so by the time you come to bake the bread it will be very weak. That is a good reason to use flour with a higher protein and gluten content.
Plain Flour Bread Recipe
- 500g Plain Flour
- 320ml Warm Water
- 7g yeast (2 tsp)
- 10g salt (1¾ tsp)
- 40ml olive oil
Add the ingredients into a bowl and mix with your hands until no dry flour remains. Squeezing with your hands and fingers is a quick way to pick it all up. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes so the flour absorbs the water and makes it less sticky to handle.
Scrape it out onto a worktop and knead until it becomes smooth and springy – about 10 minutes depending how vigorous you are. You can use some oil on the surface if the dough is sticky.
Return to the bowl and cover with a damp tea towel until doubled or tripled in size. This depends on your kitchen temperature but about 1-1.5 hours is typical. Slower risen bread has much better taste so if you have the time, don’t speed it up by putting in a warm place.
Tip it onto a lightly floured worktop and knock the gas out by folding the dough’s edges into the centre a few times. This builds more strength and is an important step for the next rise.
Turn the dough over so any seams are on the underside. Form into an oval shape by rolling and cupping the dough, building some tension in the dough as you do it. Place on a baking tray and proof for 45 minutes to an hour.
Preheat the oven to 230C for 20 minutes while the dough rises, and place an empty roasting tray at the bottom. We will fill the tray with boiling water when we put the dough in so that it creates steam. This helps the bread rise and form a crispy crust.
When ready, make a few slashed on the dough with a very sharp knife or razor, and put the baking sheet into the middle of the oven. Pour a few inches of boiling water into the roasting tray. Let the bread cook for around 25 minutes until nice and brown – it could be slightly different times depending on the oven. It’s cooked when the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.
Cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing to allow the crumb to set.
Tips For Baking Bread With Plain Flour
- Adding oil in the recipe will soften and improve the texture of the bread
- Knead for a bit longer than bread flour so you build up more gluten
- Avoid rising for many hours as plain flour dough will get weak
- Plain flour bread can collapse when shaping it, so don’t leave it too long to proof
- Make sure to build some extra strength by folding the dough a few times before the final rise
Best Flour For Bread
Here is a selection of decent white bread flours available in the UK – Matthews, Shipton Mill, Allinson’s, Marriage’s and Doves Farm. I mostly use Shipton Mill No. 4 flour which works great for basic loaves, sourdough and pizza. It is an independent mill and I buy it directly from their website (or Amazon) as it’s not readily available in shops. It actually works out the same price as mass produced brands if you buy a big bag of it.
If I am out of Shipton, then I usually pick up Allinson’s strong bread flour from the supermarket – it’s better than the supermarket own brands. You can sometimes find Matthews and Marriage’s in the supermarket too. Doves Farm is great too, but a bit rare – I’ve bought it in a few delis before.
One way to know exactly what is in flour is by reading the nutritional information – start reading the protein content on the package. You can see this one has 14g per 100g – so effectively 14%. That’s the standard way to compare flour protein content. More protein means more gluten, and a stronger flour. Plain flour will have around 8-10% protein, bread flour around 12% and very strong bread flour around 14%. Anything above 11.5% is usually pretty good for making bread.
While you can make bread with plain flour, I wouldn’t recommend it unless it’s your only option! Its harder to manage because its weaker, and it makes worse bread. You can pick up bread flour from any decent size supermarket.
If you’ve got no other choice then it’s good to practice making a loaf with plain flour. Better than not making bread at all, and you can make reasonable loaves if you get it all right. Try following my recipes for a simple loaf that’s makes good sandwiches.