Bakers: Know the Difference Between UK Flour and US Flour

Did you try to bake a favourite recipe from the The Great British Bake Off and Fail?

I’ve heard this complaint from my American friends and similar tales from British expts who have moved to the USA that their tried-and-true recipes from back home just didn’t work, or worse still that their baking efforts were met with disastrous results.

If your Yorkshire pudding recipe just doesn’t rise – don’t fret, it’s most likely the same culprit. (It’s the flour!)

While the UK and the US have so many things in common, such as language and some of our cultural traditions, you can find things that don’t make the translation from east to west of the Atlantic in quite such a painless way.  One such thing is a simple flour.

This means that recipes for pastries, cakes and other baked goods don’t translate in as simple a way as you might imagine.  You cannot simply weigh out the same ingredients in identical quantities and expect identical results. This blog post will explain the difference between UK and US flour, so that you can get back to successful baking of your favourite recipes from the UK.

How could something as simple as ground up wheat be so different?

The key difference is the protein levels in US flour tends to be higher than UK flours – and understanding this subtle difference in UK vs US flour gluten differences is key to baking success for those British baking recipes.

Protein and Gluten

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of flour is not normally “protein”, that is normally reserved for meat and legume or even tofu, but protein is just one of the ingredients, in the form of Gluten.  Other ingredients include the endosperm of the grain (the starchy center), bran as the outer husk of the grain if you have a whole-grain flour, and the germ, which is a highly concentrated source of nutrients that formed the reproductive center of the grain.  All these are well and good, but without a little gluten, you would have nothing to hold together your batters, cakes and breads – that job is the preserve of the gluten, or the protein in the grain, and US flour tends to have considerably more gluten and therefore protein, than a typical UK flour of the same name.

Flour in the UK

In the UK, you would typically buy a “Plain Flour” or a “Self-Raising Flour”, and most of the time unless you’re making a bread that requires a “strong flour”, you can make do with the “Plain flour” from just about any of the UK supermarkets.  Most supermarket flour is every bit as good as a big-name brand, but common brands would be HomePride, McDougalls, or you might simply buy the store brand from your local Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury etc.  These flours will typically have a protein or gluten content of around 10-10.5%.

Flour in the US

The most commonly bought flour in the US is going to be an “all purpose” or a “self-rising flour”, with the all-purpose being the flour that cooks and bakers typically use as a quick substitute for UK Plain Flour.  Now hold on a second before you buy that flour or “add to cart” … have you looked at the nutritional information panel?

Take three different flours all with the same name – we looked at:

  • Pillsbury Best All-Purpose Flour
  • King Arthur Flour Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
  • Gold Medal™ All Purpose Flour

This is where it got a little confusing, because of the three UK flours, two had the same “serving size” and two had the same “protein count by gram”, but because the serving size was either 30 grams or 31 grams, a difference of only 1-gram could mean a significant difference in protein levels expressed as a percentage.

Serving Size (g)Protein (g)% Protein
Gold Medal™ All Purpose Flour30310.00%
Pillsbury Best All Purpose Flour3139.68%
King Arthur Flour Unbleached All-Purpose30413.33%

As you can see, with only minor differences in the numbers of grams involved, our protein level can range from mid-9% to mid-13%. This from flours all called “all-purpose”!

UK plain flour is typically 10.5% or lower protein.

You can find some UK ‘strong flour’ that’s only 12g/100g of protein – that would be the same as a US All Purpose Flour!

US all-purpose flour is generally low 12% and often around 12.9% which would most definitely be considered ‘Strong Flour’ in the UK.  Remember that UK Strong Flour is reserved for breads, and sometimes only for breads that require extra gluten!

What protein level should I use for which type of baked goods?

9-10% protein flour makes good cakes (sponges & small crumbs).
10.5 – 11.5% makes a decent pastry and can make bread (but not great bread), 12+ to 12.9% makes a pretty good bread. High 12% makes for crusty bread after a good hard kneading – the more you knead the bread, the more you’ll get a crust and a chewy consistency.

So yes, while US flour generally have higher protein the UK flours you need to look carefully at the ingredients.

    • McDougalls supreme sponge flour in the UK – 9.3g (9.3% protein) – this flour is perfect for light airy sponge cakes – rubbish for bread.  US equivalent is cake flour – which is typically 8-10%.
    • Homepride Plain Flour is 9.73g of protein (lower than most US All-purpose flours). The US equivalent is All Purpose flour but check for a protein level of high 9% to low 10% to get the same results.
    • Homepride Strong Bread Flour is 12.0g of protein. The US equivalent is Bread Flour.

Those are standard UK flours that would be found on any supermarket shelf.

Self-Rising Flour is a special case – you can make your own self-raising flour (I will use rising and raising interchangeably) by adding 1 and half teaspoons of baking powder (not baking soda) and ½ teaspoon of salt to regular flour.  Homepride self-raising flour is 9.73g of protein, so use an All-Purpose US flour of just under 10% and add some baking powder – Clabber Girl Baking Powder is a good cheap brand you can find in just about every grocery store in the baking aisle.

Check your local All-Purpose flour and you’ll likely find that AP Flour here in the US is equivalent to a Strong flour in the UK.

Now that you understand why UK bakers end up with different results here – it’s most likely an excess of gluten or protein, as US flours run higher than most UK flours.  The key is to understand the needs of your recipe, and make the flour and gluten level to the type of recipe.  You can’t simply buy one type of flour in the US and it be good for most recipes, just like an avid UK baker would have 3+ flours just for cakes, you need to have more than one flour at a minimum here in the states.   Know your flour and match them to your recipes!

English Flours – Order UK Flour from Amazon as an expat baker and experiment with US milled flours until you get the hang of your recipes with different ingredients:

For a dedicated UK Flour + Baking Supplies post – take a look at our other posts…


See all the British Foods on Amazon Shopping List posts…

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