One simple way to transform the healthfulness and integrity of your baked goods is to replace up to half the white flour in your recipes with whole-grain flour. Nearly everything you bake, 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 won’t notice the switch and those who do will often find the recipe improved. This is because whole-grain flour imparts flavor and character that you can’t get with white flour. This switch works for pie crust; it works for pizza dough; it works for muffins, cakes, quick breads, and pancakes. It works for nearly everything you bake.
Why Make the Switch
While there are some baked goods that can handle a transition to 100% whole-grain flour, many will not. But even a portion of whole-grain flour added to a recipe will improve its healthfulness and limit spikes to your blood sugar. It will also make your baked goods less flimsy and more substantive, while adding a complexity that is impossible to achieve with white flour alone. The whole grain flours I have used most successfully are barley, oat, einkorn, buckwheat, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pastry, and rye flour.
10 Ways to Incorporate Whole Grain Flours Into Your Baking
The following ideas will help you learn to use whole-grain flours in baking. If you already use them, they may give you new approaches to experiment with. The points I have included reflect years of experimentation, but as with all good learning, the process is ongoing.
- Whole-wheat bread flour, made from hard wheat, is best for pizza crust, bread, focaccia, 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 thoroughly mixed in 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, I decreased the total flour 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 like banana and bran 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 with a combination of whole-wheat bread flour and rye flour and use no white flour at all. 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 has a pleasing flavor. Since its gluten is weak, it doesn’t promote a good rise, but you can successfully add it 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.
Appreciating the character and integrity of whole-grain flour in baked goods may require the palates of those you feed 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 are likely to be preferred.
(Health-supportive chef & food educator, Ellen Arian teaches Online Sourdough Bread Baking and Butter Making Classes.)