Photo by Lauren V. Allen

The search for secrets to making a perfect loaf of bread can take you down an endless rabbit hole. From making your own starter to creating steam in your oven, there is a long list of tips and tricks for improving your home bread baking. But no matter the recipe or method, the best bread always starts with the best flour. And not all flours are created equal.

What is flour?

Simply put, flour is made by grinding wheat berries into a fine powder. (There are, of course, flours made from other grains and ingredients, like rice flour, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll stick to discussing wheat-based flour here.) All-purpose flour is only made from the endosperm of wheat, whereas whole-wheat flour is made of the entire grain: endosperm, bran and germ. (There’s also brown flour, which includes some of the bran and germ, but not all of it.)

Once milled, most flour also undergoes a bleaching process; technically, all flour bleaches naturally over time, but “bleached” flour is done so with the help of chemicals, which results in a softer, lily-white flour that’s best for pie crusts, cakes and cookies.

Which flours are best for baking bread?

In short, the best flour for bread is the freshest flour. Fresh flour is better for two main reasons; it has more flavor, and it has more nutrients. As soon as flour is exposed to oxygen, it starts to lose its flavor. Since the flour you buy at the grocery store has been around for a few months (at least), it’s susceptible to this loss of flavor. In contrast, freshly milled flour has a deeper, more distinct flavor, which it imparts on whatever you bake with it. Additionally, freshly milled flour contains more fiber, vitamins and antioxidants, since it contains the whole wheat grain (endosperm, germ and bran), whereas store-bought flour loses nutrients over time.

So if fresher flour is better, how can you get the best flour at home? If you have the time and ambition, milling your own flour will give you the best results. Milling your own flour takes two steps:

1. Buy wheat berries. These are the whole kernels of wheat. You can find them at many grocery stores, at your local farmers market, or order them online. (Wheat berries will keep for a very long time—years even—so buy in bulk!)

2. Choose your method of milling. If you want to dabble at home milling without fully committing to the process, then don’t invest in a countertop mill just yet. Instead, you can mill flour using a coffee grinder, food processor or high-powered blender (if you have it, a Vitamix is the best option). (You can find a quick tutorial here on how to grind your own flour in a blender. None of these machines will get your flour quite as fine as an actual mill, but they’ll still get the job done, though you might have to grind the flour more than once to get a finer finish.

Blenders or coffee grinders are OK for occasional milling, but if you’re going to mill your own flour regularly, then buy a countertop mill. Flour mills will grind up your flour more finely, and they’re made to withstand the high power needed for grinding flour. When it comes to selecting a mill, you can choose between either an electric mill (this one has great reviews), or a manual one. (This video covers electric vs. manual mills, as well as demonstrating how to use both of them.)

Realistically, most of us aren’t going to make our own flour. The next best option is to buy fresh flour from a local mill. As is the case with most ingredients, your local farmer’s market is the most likely place for finding freshly milled flour. If you don’t have a farmer’s market nearby, or yours doesn’t have a grain purveyor, you can always turn to the Internet; this roundup can help you find a mail-order mill.

Most of us buy our flour at the grocery store. What matters most in store-bought flour is protein; the higher the amount of protein in a flour, the easier it is for that flour to form gluten, giving it the stretchy, airy network that you want in a loaf of bread.

Different types of flour contain different amounts of protein, which is measured in percentages. Bread flour generally has a higher protein content, making it better for baking (you guessed it) bread. Nevertheless, you can use bread or all-purpose flour interchangeably, but you’re better off selecting a good-quality, all-purpose flour with a relatively high amount of protein. Whole-wheat flour contains even more protein than bread and all-purpose flour; while you can’t typically substitute in whole wheat flour for all of the all-purpose flour in a recipe, you can combine the two to experiment with different results. This page does a good job of explaining how to use them together.

Although your options will vary depending on the store, most supermarkets stock these flours, which are some of the best off-the-shelf options for baking bread:

King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour (12.7% protein content)
Bob’s Red Mill Artisan Bread Flour (12 to 14%)
Gold Medal Unbleached Bread Flour (12%)
King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (11.7%)

Most all-purpose flours don’t list their protein content on the packaging, so if you see a brand you don’t recognize, try looking it up! You might find that it’s better (or worse) than the flour you typically use.

How should I store my flour?

Although we usually think of flour as a non-perishable good, it can go bad. To preserve the flavor of your flour, and to keep it from spoiling (or worse, attracting bugs!) it’s important to store it in an airtight container. If you’re not going to use up a new bag of flour right away, it’s best to transfer it to a container as soon as you buy it (the bags of flour that you buy at the grocery store really aren’t airtight.) In warmer climates or seasons, keep your flour in the refrigerator or freezer to help it stay fresh longer.

For freshly milled flour, the rules are a bit different. Fresh flour can only be stored at room temperature for about three days, refrigerated for up to a week, or frozen for up to six months. Since unmilled wheat berries can last a very long time, it’s best to mill your flour as you need it.

Your biggest takeaway here is that flour matters: better flour means better bread! And while milling your own flour at home is certainly an option, you don’t have to sacrifice quality just because you’re shopping at a grocery store. If you don’t like the loaf you bake, you can always experiment with something new: try new ratios of whole wheat and all-purpose flour, or buy freshly-milled flour from your farmer’s market.