As science learns more about the makeup of a healthy diet, one fact has become clear: Refined grains are bad for our health—and our waistlines. Saying that a grain is “whole” means that it has three essential parts: the endosperm, the bran and the germ. Unlike the refined white flour in processed food and in most of our pantries, in which the nutritious bran and germ have been removed, whole-grain flours contain plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals, plus healthy plant compounds such as lignans, phytoestrogens and phenolic compounds. These important nutrients can help us maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of numerous diseases, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, respiratory dysfunction, gout, osteoarthritis and some cancers.
There are more than 30,000 varieties of wheat, yet the options for highly nutritious flours—even if “whole”—are not numerous. Donald R. Davis, a former nutrition scientist at the University of Texas, has researched wheat nutrition extensively, and found that over the last 50 years, as farmers have shifted to industrial systems that have increased yield, wheat has declined in a number of nutrients, including minerals, protein and antioxidants. Some of today’s varieties have half as much protein as earlier varieties.
A few intrepid artisan companies are bucking this alarming trend. Wheat Montana Farms, for example, is one of the few companies where you can buy wheat directly from the farmers who grow it. Their two special varieties, Prairie Gold and Bronze Chief, were selected for superior protein content. Similarly, Pleasant Hill Grain and The Urban Homemaker, which sell whole, unmilled grains for home grinding, source high-quality grains that are always free of genetic modification—and many are organically raised. You might also find a local source of quality grain via any bakery near you that turns out wonderful breads: Ask them where they buy their flour—many small mills will accommodate special orders.
How to Store & Measure Whole-Grain Flour
Whole-grain flours contain a small amount of fat in the germ. This oil is responsible for the superior flavor and nutrition of whole grains, but it also means the flour can actually go bad, whereas refined white flour never will. Unmilled whole grains such as wheat, spelt or rye berries can be stored almost indefinitely, but once they are ground into flour, they must be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. The flour should smell fresh, nutty and mild—never sour or rancid.
Whenever possible, flour and all other baking ingredients should be weighed rather than measured out with volume measuring cups and spoons. Food scales that give gram and ounce measurements are inexpensive and well worth the money, especially when it comes to baking. If you must bake without one, do as the King Arthur Flour expert bakers do when measuring flour: Use a fork to vigorously fluff up the flour in your bag or container. Then use a spoon to dip the now-aerated flour out of the container and into your dry measuring cup until it’s completely full or even overfull, but do not pack it in. Use the edge of a knife to scrape excess flour off and level it at the top of the measuring cup.
Types of Flour
All of the following flours are exceptionally nutritious (and many are low-gluten or gluten-free—see key later in this article). To reap the biggest dietary benefits, try to incorporate a number of them into your cooking rotation. But remember to buy only the quantities that you have room to store in your fridge or freezer.
If you are not sure whether you can simply replace the white or wheat flour called for in a recipe with one (or a combination) of these, begin by replacing one-quarter to one-half of the flour and see how things turn out. Good reference books for the novice whole-grain baker are King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking and Bob’s Red Mill Baking Book.
For a flour blend recipe to try see Homemade Gluten-Free Flour Blend.
Amaranth flour* has a bold flavor some describe as woody, grassy or malty. Try pairing amaranth flour with other bold ingredients such as chilies, coffee and pungent spices.
Barley flour** was once the main flour used for making bread in Europe. Its flavor is sweet and malty, and it has a moist and creamy quality that comes through in baked goods.
Bean flours* have varying degrees of starchiness. The flavor is the same as the bean. The most popular bean flour is garbanzo bean flour, also called gram flour (don’t confuse it with graham flour, which is made from wheat).
Buckwheat flour* is rich and earthy with a savory or “umami” quality. Most people either love it or hate it. Try it to find out which type you are.
Corn flour* is both sweet and bitter, so it pairs well with sweet and savory recipes. Corn flour comes in a range of grittiness so be sure to choose the coarseness you’ll want in your finished product. Kim Boyce, author of Good to the Grain, likes to pair slightly gritty corn flour with whole-wheat pastry flour for added softness.
Millet flour* has a mild, cornlike flavor. Use it in recipes where you might use cornmeal.
Nut flours* add moist fat that carries the specific nut flavor into your recipe. The most popular nut flours are almond, chestnut, coconut, hazelnut, pecan and walnut. To make your own, grind shelled nuts (with or without skins) in a food processor, but watch closely. There’s a fine line between nut flour and nut butter. Making homemade coconut flour is a bit more complicated. (Find a link to a step-by-step tutorial Instructables.)
Oat flour* is mild and nutty, and adds tremendous moisture to baked goods. Oats can be used to create various textures. Left whole, thick rolled oats add chewiness or crunchiness, depending how long they are cooked. Chop them in a food processor (or use “quick-cooking oats”) and you’ll have the familiar texture of your grandma’s oatmeal-raisin cookies. Pulverize them completely and you’ll have moist, fine-textured oat flour.
Potato flour* is mild-flavored and is usually used to add starch to baked goods.
Quinoa flour* is even more strongly flavored than amaranth, with a touch of bitterness. Try it in recipes that will also feature savory ingredients such as soy sauce or meat.
Rice flour* can be sticky or not. The starches in short-grain rice tend to create sweeter, stickier flours than those made from long-grain rice. You can use this to your advantage, as in the spongy Japanese delicacy mochi, which is made from sweet rice flour. The less-starchy flours from long-grain rice behave more like wheat flour, yet with the specific flavors of the type of rice.
Rye flour** is similar to oat flour in its ability to add boatloads of moisture to a baked good, but the flavor is wildly different. Rye has a dark, heavy flavor that can be described as fruity. Many people who think they hate the flavor of rye have simply never had fresh rye bread made with fresh rye flour.
Seed flours* such as flax seed bring the flavor and oils of the seed into your recipe. For the freshest product, grind seeds yourself in a coffee grinder or food processor.
Sorghum flour* tastes much like wheat, but a bit sweeter. It is made from the same plant that makes sorghum sweetener.
Teff flour* is strong-flavored and malty. It is usually fermented briefly before use, which adds an intense sourness. This Ethiopian flour is most commonly used to make the dark bread injera, but that doesn’t mean your experimentation has to stop there.
Wheat flours include whole wheat; soft wheat (used to make pastry flour); graham flour (coarsely ground whole wheat); durum (usually made into coarse semolina flour for pasta and pizza); einkorn; farro; spelt; and Kamut. Einkorn and farro are light and refined. Kamut is buttery. Spelt is nutty. Experiment to see which is your favorite. Triticale, another healthful flour, is a cross between rye and wheat.
* Gluten-free ** Low in gluten
Food Editor Tabitha Alterman’s whole-grain cookbook with Voyageur Press will be out next year. For tips about baking and whole grains, follow @TabithaAlterman on Twitter.