Grain Food: Baking Bread with Whole Grain Flours

Slices of whole wheat sourdough bread on a black metal background with one slice topped with butter

At some point, every bread baker wonders if there isn’t more to life than refined flour and the fluffy, snow-white crumbed loaves it produces. Don’t get me wrong: I love white flour breads myself, and I still bake them regularly. But limiting yourself to working with just one type of flour, and a mild-mannered one at that, is akin to cooking with just one spice, exclusively. There is a whole world of possibilities in bread baking beyond what white flours alone can provide, and there are ever more options for the baker ready to make the leap into using whole grain flours.

Of course, one reason we use white flour is that it is a grain that has been distilled to its structural essence—nearly pure gluten and starch, it is the scaffolding that breads and other baked goods require to have their appropriate shape and texture. Because whole grain flours contain all of the other components of the grain, they necessarily have less of these structural elements, so there is a risk when working with them that breads’ texture and rise will suffer. The good news is that in many instances results may change, but not necessarily for the worse, and there are ways to minimize these changes if that’s your goal. Meanwhile, even adding a modest amount of whole grain flour to your breads will pay major dividends in flavor, character, and nutrition.

The Whole Grain

While bakers have recently discovered novel ways to utilize whole grain flours without losing what makes their breads wonderful, it is white flours that are new, relatively speaking. Roller mills, the first machines to efficiently allow the separation of grains into their various parts, were invented around 1870, which is not that long ago in terms of the history of baking. And before that, whole grain baking was the norm, so there is a long tradition of techniques and recipes to look to. And nowadays there are more and more options for whole grain flours, whether made from wheat and its relatives, or from other non-gluten-forming grains.

Close up image of whole wheat berries

A wheat berry, or “kernel,” has three major parts: bran, germ, and endosperm. Bran is the protective shell of the grain, shielding it from moisture and pests. The germ is the future grain plant, waiting for the proper environmental conditions to spring to life. And the starch- and protein-containing endosperm is the energy reserves the future plant will draw upon until it begins to photosynthesize. It’s the endosperm from which white flour is derived, and it comprises about 80% of the grain’s weight. But it is in the bran and germ where most of the flavor, aroma, oils, vitamins, and minerals in the grain lies, and it is those things you gain when you opt to bake with more whole grain flours.

Finding Flours

Before you can begin to work more whole grain flours into your breads, you’ll need to procure some, and the simplest place to look for whole grain flours is your local supermarket. Whole wheat flour is something that has been available on supermarket shelves for many years now, but there are more choices now than ever, many of them from small-scale millers. And supermarkets increasingly stock flours milled from other grains, whether they’re close wheat relatives like spelt, einkorn, or rye, or other grains such as buckwheat, cornmeal, millet, oat, and teff.

You might also be able to find interesting whole grain flours at your local farmer’s market or specialty food store. And there are a wide range of flours available for sale online from baking supply companies and directly from specialty millers like North Carolina’s Carolina Ground, Texas’s Barton Springs Mill, and Los Angeles’s Grist and Toll, to name but a few. Finally, if you happen to own a tabletop flour mill (such as one of the relatively affordable and compact Mockmill mills), then you can even make your own flour from the wide variety of whole grains—like quinoa, barley, amaranth, and farro—available in supermarkets and beyond.

Storing Whole Grain Flours

The oils in the germ of whole grains are perishable once exposed to oxygen, which makes whole grain flours far more perishable than refined ones, giving them an unpleasant, rancid odor and flavor. For this reason, it’s best to buy these flours well before their sell-by date, in small quantities, and to use them up as quickly as possible. (One advantage to buying flour from small-scale millers is that they tend to specialize in freshly-milled flours, so you can be sure they have the best flavor possible.) Cold storage will slow things down; if you have room in your freezer, place the flour in a well-sealed container like a jar, freezer bag, or vacuum-sealed bag and store it there.

Whole grain bread on a piece of parchment paper on a cutting board

Whole Grain Flour Swaps

Once you get your hands on any of these whole grain flours, using them in your baking is as simple as swapping out a portion of the white flour in a tried-and-true recipe for the whole grain one. Making this move will definitely have an effect on the structure of the loaf, since doing so automatically lowers the concentration of gluten in the dough. How much it does so depends upon what percentage of whole grain flour you use, and whether that flour is gluten-forming or not.

Gluten-Forming vs. Non-Gluten-Forming Flours

Gluten is the protein that gives bread structure; without gluten, it would be hard to achieve a lofty brioche or a baguette with a wild, open crumb. Only wheat and its nearest relatives—such as spelt, emmer, and kamut—contain gluten-forming proteins, or at least the kind favored by bakers. While rye and barley contain proteins that are considered off-limits to those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, they don’t form gluten networks in bread. This is why it’s far easier to substitute a gluten-forming flour for white flour than it is to use a non-gluten-forming flour.

(In case you are wondering why I keep saying “gluten-forming” proteins instead of just “gluten,” here’s why: gluten is made up of two smaller proteins, gliadin and glutenin. These are present in wheat and its relatives, but they don’t link up to form gluten until flour meets water to form a dough.)

Bran Drain

But whether or not your whole grain flour makes gluten, there is another reason substituting it will affect the bread’s structure: the presence of bran. As I mentioned above, bran serves as a protective shell for the grain. As a result, it is extremely hard and resistant to breaking down into fine particles during milling. Bran in a dough acts like microscopic razor blades, cutting gluten and wreaking havoc on the dough’s structure.

Start Slowly

The good news is that, gluten-forming flour or not, most of the time these effects are not something to stress about, particularly when you limit the amount of whole grain you substitute. Yes, the loaf might not be as tall or as holey, but it will still be nice, and the benefits in flavor will make a welcome trade-off. Obviously, everything is recipe-dependent, but I find that you can usually swap out as much as 25% of the white flour for whole grain without drastic consequences. And you don’t even need to go that high to give your breads a boost in flavor and character; even 5 to 10% whole grain is more than noticeable. In fact, I almost never make 100% white flour breads any longer; even the “whitest” of them include a minimum of 5% rye or whole wheat flour.

Round loaf of sourdough bread sliced on a cutting board with butter and jam

Almost All-Whole Grain Breads

I generally do not recommend exceeding 25% whole grain when using non-gluten-forming flours in place of white flour, since if you do, you likely won’t have enough gluten to keep the dough structure intact. As for gluten-forming flours: Once you exceed about 25% whole grain flour in a recipe that started out with 100% white flour, you’ll likely need to start making changes to the recipe formula and method. You can start experimenting on your own or look for well-tested recipes for examples of how others approach this.

Increasing Hydration

Often this begins with adding more water; whole grain flours absorb more water than refined ones, so you need to add more water to achieve a dough that’s a consistency similar to the one that white flour creates. More water means that the dough’s structure will suffer, since more water means less gluten overall. This means you’ll likely need to build structure in other ways, such as kneading the dough longer and/or adding folding steps during the first proof. (“Folding” is the fancy term that bakers use for the “punching down” step that many older bread recipes call for, though “folding” is usually done repeatedly during the proof, a step that helps build additional structure.) Go easy as you begin experimenting; even a modest 2 to 5% additional water will make a big difference, and it is better to err on the side of caution and inch up further next time around rather than overdo it and end up with a soupy, hard-to-work dough.

Pull Out the Sifter

You can also remove some of the bran from the whole-grain flour using a fine-mesh kitchen sifter. (It helps to have one with a tight mesh—mine removes about 10% of the total flour weight, or more than half of the bran in whole wheat flour. And be sure to weigh the flour for the recipe after sifting, not before.) With even this small amount of bran removed, the dough structure will be drastically improved and it will likely need less water overall. You can use the reserved bran in other recipes (like muffins, granola, or banana bread), or do as they do in Genzano, Italy: use it to coat the exterior of the loaf after shaping, where it will toast and lend the crust a nutty flavor and a distinctive appearance.

Consult the Experts

As for breads using a high percentage of or even 100% whole grain flours, you are better off starting with a recipe designed specifically for that purpose, rather than doing a complete swap in a white flour one, since the recipe developer has likely already worked out whatever challenges such formulas produce.

Working whole grain flours into your breads might seem intimidating at first, but with a bit of experimentation, it eventually becomes second nature. And the payback in added flavor and character is well worth the extra effort.

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