Food & Drink

The science of subbing flours

Q. You recently gave the formula for substituting all-purpose flour for self-rising by adding 11/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to 1 cup of flour. After I clipped it out, I found a similar formula you gave a couple of years ago. In the older recipe, you said to add 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Which one is correct?

Hey, no fair – you're checking up on me. Actually, I have to apologize. When you answer a few hundred questions a year, it's hard to remember them all.

I get so many questions about self-rising and all-purpose flour that I wanted to dig a little deeper. So I called an expert, Linda Carman, the baking expert for Martha White who also is a consultant for White Lily. Self-rising flour was the Southern standard for years, because it works so well in things that used to be made daily in many Southern kitchens:

“For biscuits and cornbread, it was like a pre-mix,” Carman says. “It works fairly well for any quick bread, pancakes or waffles, but biscuits and cornbread were the driving force.”

In fact, Carman recalls that when the Martha White test kitchen was established years ago, a company executive who wanted to promote the company's self-rising flour ordered them to use only that for formulating recipes. “I think that's why people learned to use self-rising for so many things.”

To substitute all-purpose, she says the standard is to use 11/2 teaspoons of baking powder and a scant 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a cup of flour. Now, she emphasizes “scant” on the salt. If you're just working with a couple of cups of flour, that will work. But if you need a lot of flour, you wouldn't want to add 5 teaspoons of salt to 10 cups of flour.

There may be a slight difference between brands, she said, but it wouldn't be significant.

In the meantime, I'll repeat one bit of advice that never changes: Cooking is art, but baking is science. When you make changes in a recipe – say, using self-rising flour instead of all-purpose flour – you always take a little risk.