For most of us, the holiday season is the biggest baking time of the year, so there’s no better time to learn how to adapt your favorite recipes to make them healthier and more flavorful. When I first started baking with whole grains, my endeavors were limited to replacing some portion of white flour with whole-wheat flour—the easiest introductory step into whole-grain baking. Now I bake almost exclusively with whole-grain flours and use a much wider variety of grains. I don’t expect these to be stand-ins for white flour. Instead, I tailor recipes to their individual personalities. I’ve learned how to get hearty, sour and assertive results when that’s what I want; and airy, creamy, fluffy, sweet and even spongy results when I want those instead. What follows are some of the time-tested tips I’ve discovered.
Whole-Wheat Flour Recipes
Technique #1: Replace White Flour with Whole Wheat
When your aim is to make standard white-flour recipes healthier, the easiest place to start is by substituting whole-wheat flour. Begin experiments by swapping about a quarter of the white flour with whole-wheat flour, then gradually increase the ratio with each successful recipe.
Technique #2: Keep Bitterness at Bay
If someone in your family is finicky about whole wheat because they say they can detect bitterness in whole-wheat baked goods, keep these two tricks up your sleeve.
1. Replace about a tablespoon of whatever liquid is in the recipe with orange juice, which balances the tannic flavors in wheat.
2. Be absolutely sure your flour is fresh. Whole-grain flours are real, living foods. This means they can go bad. Taste a pinch to make sure it is faintly sweet with no noticeable mustiness or rancidity. Store whole-grain flours in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer.
Technique #3: Moisture on the Mind
All whole-grain flours absorb more liquid than white flour. If you have changed the flour composition of a bread dough to include more whole wheat, for example, it is wise to add extra liquid a bit at a time, keeping in mind that you can always incorporate more liquid later. With other recipes, such as muffins or cookies, just bump the liquid component up a smidgen. Take notes as you go to develop a definitive new recipe.
Technique #4: Sweet Success
Fresh whole-wheat flour is naturally sweeter than white flour. If you are adapting a recipe to include more whole wheat, reduce the recipe’s sweetener just a tad. Replace a cup of sugar with a scant cup, for example. Don’t overdo it, though, because sugar is usually an important ingredient for structure as well as flavor.
Technique #5: Define Your Purpose
If a recipe calls for all-purpose flour, you have a few options for improving it with the use of whole-wheat flour. Breads benefit when made with high-protein “hard” wheats. Pastries and desserts have better textures if prepared with low-protein “soft” wheat. All-purpose flour, bleached or unbleached, is made from a blend of flours to achieve middle-of-the-road protein content that works adequately, but not necessarily best, for many purposes. So if you are making a bread, replace the all-purpose flour with either regular whole-wheat flour or ideally with whole-wheat bread flour. If you are making a dessert or pastry, replace the all-purpose flour with either regular whole-wheat flour or ideally with whole-wheat pastry flour. If a recipe calls for “cake flour,” go with whole-wheat pastry flour.
Technique #6: To Gluten or Not to Gluten
You can adapt most recipes with any combination of flours you like as long as you keep their gluten content in mind. For most yeast bread recipes, your combination of flours must include at least half wheat flour for its gluten content. Gluten networks trap air bubbles to help breads rise. Flours that contain enough gluten to help breads rise include hard spring and winter wheat, soft wheat, Kamut, spelt and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye). Flours that contain a little, but not a lot, of gluten include barley, durum, einkorn, emmer and rye. (Attempting to forgo gluten entirely? Check out Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François.
Technique #7: Homemade “White” Flour
White flour has had its nutritious bran and germ mechanically removed. If you look closely at particles of bran, you’ll see jagged edges. In soft baked goods, such as cookies and cakes, the potentially destructive effects of jagged edges need not concern us too much. In bread dough and highly structured baked goods, on the other hand, these edges act like tiny razor blades destroying gluten networks, leading to less rise and denser results. If you’re worried about compromising the soft, light qualities of a baked good by including whole-wheat flour, consider making your own “white” flour.
Instead of leaving most of the jagged bran inside doughs, I often sift them out and use them to dust the pizza peel where my loaves rise before going into the oven, which means I end up eating the bran on the bottom crust of breads. The crumb remains soft and creamy with plenty of air. Or I find another way to keep the bran in the baked good—for example, sprinkling it into streusel toppings. Sifting out bran is easy: Just dump flour through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, and voilá!
Technique #8: Lighten Up
Some people are turned off by the heavier texture of whole-wheat baked goods they’ve encountered. This problem is often the result of technique, not ingredients. Many recipes instruct us to sift flour before mixing it into batters and doughs, yet most people ignore this important step. Sifting incorporates air and helps create light textures; it’s especially useful when using naturally heavier whole-grain flours. Sifting dry ingredients also helps distribute baking soda and baking powder evenly—essential for getting the best possible rise.
Old-fashioned flour sifters that you crank or shake to pass flour through sieves work just as well today as they always have. My favorite method for sifting flour, however, is to process it in a food processor with the recipe’s other dry ingredients, including baking powder and baking soda. It only takes about five seconds and you get the added benefit of superfine flour.
I use my KitchenAid 13-Cup Food Processor for this and numerous other tasks. When all you’ve put in the machine are dry ingredients, it’s easy to clean by simply rinsing or shaking it out. You can also use a hand mixer or whisk to thoroughly mix and distribute dry ingredients
Technique #9: Worthier Wheats
Over the last 50 years, wheat varieties have been bred to increase yield rather than increasing or even preserving inherent nutrition. Donald R. Davis, nutrition scientist at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University at Pullman, has written extensively about nutrient losses in wheat, first in 1981 about losses from wheat refining, and more recently about losses from wheat breeding. Breeding has caused substantial declines in copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur and zinc. There are also protein losses, and evidence for declining amounts of phytochemicals. By buying flour from farmers who are committed to providing a product with superior nutrition and flavor, you can subvert this troubling trend. A few of my favorite grain companies are Wheat Montana; Bluebird Grain Farms; Pleasant Hill Grain; Bob’s Red Mill; King Arthur Flour; and The Urban Homemaker. Consult my website for a more detailed list of recommended suppliers and what they offer.
Technique #10: Branch Out
It is not always necessary to build a network of gluten to make a baked good rise. You can try swapping some of the white flour in a recipe with a nonwheat flour if the recipe contains either baking powder or baking soda, or if it gets its rise from a mixing method that incorporates lots of air bubbles—you can spot these if the instructions require you to cream butter with sugar; to whip cream before incorporating it; or to whip egg whites into soft or stiff peaks before folding them into the batter gently.
Nutritious gluten-free flours include amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oat, quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff. To reap the biggest dietary benefits, incorporate a number of them into your cooking rotation. For a glossary of grains, including their unique flavors, health benefits and baking personalities, see Bourbon and Butter.
Learn more about the different flour options in our Whole-Grain Flour Guide.
White Flour’s Slow Decline
The first record of bread was a flatbread made around 6700 B.C. By 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had learned to leaven it. By the time of the Roman Empire, millers could make a version of white flour, which quickly became popular. That white flour, made by sifting out some of the coarsest pieces of bran but retaining most of the healthful germ, was a distant cousin to today’s commercial white flour. I love that kind of white flour. I make it all the time.
Homemade white flour—which is actually tan—is not to be confused with today’s commercially refined white flour, which contains only about three-quarters of the original wheat that entered the mill, plus some extra junk wheat has never possessed.
What has been removed? Nutritious bran and germ.
What has been added? Chlorine, nitrogen oxide, acetone, peroxide, ascorbic acid and potassium bromate, to name just a few of the 30-plus chemicals that brighten, moisten, condition, aerate, preserve, sweeten and, sadly, add flavor.
Which Wheat for What?
Use this guide to choose the type of whole-wheat flour that is most appropriate for a given recipe. However, although these should form the base of a recipe, you might also include small amounts of other flours for added flavor or nutrition. For example, a bit of coarse semolina in a pastry can add nuttiness and texture. Adding a bit of einkorn to a loaf of bread won’t help much with rise, but it’ll boost nutrition.
For breads: whole-wheat bread flour, whole-grain durum flour, spelt flour, Kamut flour
For cakes, cookies, moist breads and pastries: whole-wheat pastry flour, einkorn flour, emmer flour, spelt flour
For pizzas and pasta: coarse whole-grain semolina flour
This article is adapted from food editor Tabitha Alterman’s upcoming cookbook, Whole Grain Baking Made Easy: Craft Delicious, Healthful Breads, Pastries, Desserts and More, available this January. Order your copy at Mother Earth Living or Bourbon and Butter.