Bold Baking: Using Whole-Grain Flour

To bake boldly is to push limits when it comes to ingredients, knowing that baked goods don’t need to be made from refined sugar, white flour, and poor-quality fats to taste great. Baking with more healthful ingredients is easy to do, whether you bake once a year or every week, and you will achieve consistently good results when you use them. In this first installment of Bold Baking we’ll focus on using whole-grain flours to make both sweet and savory baked goods. As time goes on, we’ll consider other aspects of bold baking like using natural sweeteners and high-quality fats.

The Problems With Refined White Flour

There is no trick to using refined white flour to make light and tender baked goods; it handles these jobs effortlessly. But there is something else white flour does in the process. It creates inflammation inside of us by pushing blood sugar up in a dramatic spike and then causing it to plummet. This is a roller-coaster effect we should avoid because our most devastating diseases, including cancer, are often preceded by years of subtle internal inflammation. Blood sugar spikes happen whether we use white flour in sweetened baked goods or in savory baked foods like biscuits, breads, and pizza dough. Another problem with white flour is that it has been stripped of nutrients, so rather than label it a food ingredient, we might think of it as a tool we can use to lift baked goods, and to lighten their flavor and texture, but only when nothing else will do.

Why Whole-Grain Flours Are Better

There are many varieties of whole-grain flour that we can use for baking, and all are nutritious and flavorful. While there are some baked goods that can handle a transition to all whole-grain flour, others will not. But even a portion of whole-grain flour added to a recipe will lessen its impact on blood sugar in a meaningful way, minimizing the roller-coaster effect. In addition, substituting at least some whole-grain flour makes baked goods less flimsy and more substantive, while adding flavor and complexity. The whole grain flours I have used most successfully are barley flour, oat flour, buckwheat flour, whole-wheat bread flour, whole-wheat pastry flour, and rye flour.

A Golden Rule of Bold Baking

If I could encourage one change to the way you bake, it would be this: Every time you bake, replace up to half the white flour in your recipe with whole-grain flour. Nearly every baked good, whether savory or sweet, can handle this substitution. You may need to add slightly more salt to make the change work, and you will know this by tasting the finished product and then making a decision for the next time. In my experience, most people will not notice the switch and those who do will often find the recipe improved. This is true even of finicky children, and it’s because whole-grain flour has flavor, character, and integrity that are missing from white flour. This switch works for pie crust; it works for pizza dough; it works for muffins, cakes, quickbreads, and pancakes. It works, period.

How to Substitute Whole Grain Flours

The information below can help you learn how to use whole-grain flours in baking. If you already use them, it can offer new ideas and approaches. The points I have included reflect years of experimentation and my own best thinking on this topic. Yet, like all good learning, the process is ongoing. As I make new discoveries, I will share them with you.

  • Whole-wheat bread flour, made from hard wheat, is best for pizza crust, bread, foccacia, and some pancakes. Whole-wheat pastry flour, made from soft wheat, is better for muffins, biscuits, popovers, scones, waffles, pie crusts, cakes, and many pancakes. Think of chew as a goal when you use whole-wheat bread flour; think of tenderness as a goal when you use whole-wheat pastry flour.
  • Batters comprised of all or mostly whole-grain flour benefit from a rest before baking. A rest will improve the flavor; it will also lighten the texture, making it smoother and less grainy, and give the flour needed time to absorb liquid in the batter. A rest can be as short as 15-30 minutes to be effective, but it can also be as long as overnight in the refrigerator. For a longer rest, baking powder remains potent, but baking soda should be left out and then mixed in thoroughly just before baking.
  • If you completely eliminate the white flour in a recipe and replace it with all whole-grain flour, you will generally need slightly less flour than the original recipe called for. Three cups of all-purpose flour becomes about 2-3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons of whole-wheat flour. In this case, the total flour has been decreased by 2 tablespoons (1/4 cup=4 tablespoons).
  • Converting a recipe to all whole-grain flour may increase the volume of batter. In a muffin recipe, for example, you may get more than the standard 12 muffins. In a cake recipe, you may need to allow for a slightly longer baking time.
  • If you convert a recipe to all whole-grain flour and find the result too dense or wheaty, try adding a tablespoon of orange juice in place of the same quantity of liquid to mellow the wheaty flavor. You can also add back a small portion of all-purpose flour. This will lighten the texture, increase the rise, and add strength to your baked goods (“adding strength” means that what you’re baking will hold together and not fall apart).
  • Most cakes, banana breads, lightly-textured blueberry muffins, and scones work well with up to half whole-wheat pastry flour. Popovers can accommodate half or, for those with a more sensitive palate, about one-third whole-wheat pastry flour. Biscuits and hearty muffins–banana and bran, for example–can be made of all whole-wheat pastry flour.  Pancakes and waffles work well with all whole-wheat flour, either pastry or bread, depending on the recipe. I make delicious bread and pizza dough with a combination of whole-wheat bread flour and rye flour, and use no white flour at all. Of course, these are my own observations and conclusions; as you begin to experiment, you will draw your own conclusions based on your tastes and preferences.
  • To achieve a light texture in sweetened baked goods, it is best to mix whole-grain batters until the ingredients are just combined and no longer.
  • Whole-wheat flour is an ideal match for bananas, so you might begin your experimentation by adding a portion of whole-wheat pastry flour when making banana bread, cake, or muffins.
  • Oat flour pairs well with chocolate. You don’t need to buy oat flour. Simply put a portion of rolled oats (not quick oats) into a spice or coffee grinder and grind the amount you need, taking care to make it extra-fine. Use oat flour in place of the all-purpose flour in a fudgy brownie recipe and see what you think. Oat flour tends to keep baked goods moist without making them heavy or dense.
  • Barley flour is fun to work with because it adds variety to your ingredient list and imparts a pleasing flavor. Since its gluten is weak, it doesn’t promote a good rise, but it can be added successfully to muffins, cookies, and pie crusts. Using too high a percentage will cause your baked goods to fall apart. I find it works well to substitute barley flour for up to a quarter of the all-purpose flour in a recipe.

A final thought: Appreciating the character and integrity of whole-grain flour in baked goods may require our palates to adapt, slowly and over time. It’s good to keep this in mind because it means that baked goods made with a large percentage of whole-grain flour may not hold their own alongside airy confections made with white flour and refined sugar. Served alone and with confidence, however, they will be savored, and over time they will be preferred.

Sources for Superior Baking Flour and Two Books on Whole Grain Baking

All baking flour is not equal; this is especially true of whole-grain flour. Factors like how and when it was milled and how it was stored make a significant difference to the taste and quality of your baked goods. In addition, using superior flour allows you to include a higher percentage of whole-grain flour than you would otherwise be able to. I rely on three companies for all of my baking flour:

King Arthur Flour: This company has been doing business for 200 years, producing a huge variety of wonderfully consistent, high-quality baking flours. They also sell many baking supplies, as well as their own cookbook called Whole Grain Baking. If you run into baking trouble or have general questions, they provide a Bakers’ Hotline, and the people who staff it are both knowledgeable and eager to help. King Arthur Flour

Anson Mills: This is a small, young company dedicated to organically growing, harvesting and milling near-extinct varieties of heirloom grains. Their flours are costly but beyond compare, especially their Colonial Whole-Wheat Pastry Flour. I also use their Buckwheat Flour, Abruzzi Rye Flour, Einkorn Flour, and Red Fife Bread Flour. When you have a few minutes, you might enjoy looking at the delicious recipes on their website. Anson Mills

Fiddler’s Green Farm: This is a small organic farm, with a business owned and operated by two Maine families. They stone-grind and mill flour to order, just as Anson Mills does. On occasion, I use both their Rye Flour and their Whole-Wheat Bread Flour. Fiddlers Green Farm

There’s one other book I want to mention: Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich. It’s a beautifully written and photographed book that presents whole grain flours (and other high-quality ingredients) used in interesting ways. This book does not fall under the “health food” category by any stretch. It’s a gourmet dessert cookbook that, if you bake a lot, you may want to consider for your cookbook shelf. It includes several recipes that will familiarize you with buckwheat flour, chestnut flour and other whole-grain flours.

Click here for the recipe for Miniature Chocolate CupcakesRecipe

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul