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Do you really need to use cake flour for cakes (and other sweet baked goods)?

People come down on both sides of this debate. There are pastry chefs who swear that cake flour is the only road to tenderness, while others happily use all-purpose (with one crucial addition) for cakes.

It helps to understand why different flours (cake, pastry, bread, and all-purpose) exist in the first place. They all contain different amounts of protein, essential in forming gluten, the thing that gives structure and texture to baked goods. The more protein in a flour, the more gluten the flour forms in a dough or batter. So bread flour, with a protein content ranging from 14 to 16 percent, yields a lot of gluten, which forms the skeletal structure of bread.

In contrast, cake flour has a protein content of 7 or 8 percent, which helps makes cakes and other baked goods light and airy (it can even help lighten up coatings on savory food like chicken wings or fried fish).

If you’re only an occasional home baker, though, odds are the only type of flour you have in your pantry is all-purpose, which has a protein content of 10 to 12 percent.

No—but you have two alternative options.

First, if you don’t think you’ll use up an entire bag of cake flour in a year, or can’t otherwise justify the purchase, you can make a homemade cake flour substitute by removing two tablespoons of all-purpose flour from every cup your recipe calls for and replacing it with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch; sift together before using (author-bloggers Joy Wilson of Joy the Baker and Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen both swear by this easy approximation).

It works because you’re replacing some of the all-purpose flour that encourages gluten creation with a tenderizing ingredient (cornstarch) that forces the flour to share the liquid in the recipe, moderating gluten development and helping to create a tender cake.

Or you could simply be a rebel like professional baker Warren Brown, owner of Cakelove bakery, and use all-purpose flour exclusively in cakes, because he feels the extra gluten lends a slightly nutty flavor that cake and pastry flour just can’t achieve. He reduces the all-purpose flour in a cake recipe to the barest minimum needed to maintain structure, then adds bulk with a pure starch (his favorite is potato).

Here are a handful of recipes where we do think cake flour (whether store-bought or homemade) is the best choice:

A famously light and lofty cake, angel food will be weighed down by AP flour. Whipped egg whites give it wings, so to speak, but the cake flour (meticulously sifted, we might add) really helps it soar. Get our basic Angel Food Cake recipe (pictured at the top of this page)—or take it to even greater heights with our Angel Food Layer Cake with Blackberries and Salted Caramel Sauce.

Light-as-air chiffon cake is made in the same way as angel food, but it contains fewer eggs and also adds fat to the formula (often a neutral oil). It can be the base of all sorts of stunning cakes, but we have a soft spot for our Strawberry Short Cake Layer Cake when strawberries are at their best.

Pound cakes are fairly dense by nature, but cake flour can help prevent them from being totally leaden. This double chocolate version doesn’t quite taste like a mocha; instead, the coffee mostly intensifies the cocoa flavor. Get our Double Chocolate Espresso Pound Cake recipe.

Banana bread is a perennial favorite, but it too can be pretty heavy and moist; cake flour helps lighten the crumb of these lovely banana cupcakes with a fluffy Swiss buttercream and caramelized bananas to crown them. Get our Banana Cupcakes recipe.

Using cake flour in scones gives them an extra soft and tender crumb, which is just what you want at teatime. Get this Classic Scone recipe for serving with clotted cream, or see our other sweet and savory scones.