Whole grain flour is nutritious and flavorful, but simply swapping whole grain flour for refined flour in baking formulas, whether freshly milled or not, may not result in a product that meets your expectations. This is because whole wheat flour behaves quite differently than refined flour. Below are some tips about baking with whole wheat flour (part A), baking with freshly milled whole wheat flour (part B), and general tips (part C). The reward for all of these extra calculations? Baked goods that are more nutritious, flavorful, textured, and interesting– and, as King Arthur Flour puts it, you will embark on a “wonderful voyage of discovery”.1
We’ve interviewed bakers about their approach to using whole grain flours and we hope the resulting tips will be helpful guides, but there is no foolproof formula for converting a refined grain recipe into a whole grain formula. Maura Kilpatrick, Pastry Chef and Co-Owner of Sofra Bakery, reassures us that experimentation is the fun part of it all. Watch her talk about the trial and error of using whole grain flours.
1. Weight. Whole wheat flour is lighter in weight than refined flour, meaning one cup of refined wheat flour weighs more than one cup of whole wheat flour. This is because the bran and germ take up more space than the endosperm.
2. Hydration. Whole grain flour absorbs more water than refined flour – so it is especially important to adjust hydration in whole wheat breadmaking. It can be helpful to let your dough sit for about a half-hour before kneading to allow the flour to absorb the water fully.2
Weight and hydration work together to affect your dough, so it is helpful if you consider them together when making adjustments to recipes. Here are a few methods for adjusting for weight and absorbency when baking with whole wheat flour:
Method 1: Substitute flour by weight and add additional water as needed, in an amount that you can determine by the feel of the dough. Bakers refer to “hand feel”, the sensitivity that develops through the baker’s fingers to the feel of the ideal ratio of water to flour. Many bread bakers use 90% baker’s percentage of water, or even higher [link to Baker’s Percentage section below].3
Method 2: Use less flour by weight but use the same amount of hydration called for in the refined flour recipe. For example, use 113g whole wheat for every 120g refined flour called for in the recipe.4
Method 3: Measure flour by volume. Since there is less whole wheat flour by weight per cup, this will help compensate for the absorption difference between the two flours.5
3. Gluten development. Whole grain flour has higher protein content than refined flour, but it also has bran flakes that can slice through gluten strands and impair the development of air bubbles in bread.6,7 You’ll want to knead your bread dough less and consider allowing for more proofing time.8 A way to compensate for this is to use bolted flour, which is flour with the larger fragments of the bran sifted out. Jonathan Stevens of Hungry Ghost Bakery (Northampton, MA) discovered that using bolted flour with 18% of the bran removed is the “perfect compromise.” His breads retain most of the nutrients and the slightly sweet flavor of the wheat while producing a less dense interior and a richly caramelized crust. Some suppliers sell bolted flour, or you can put your whole wheat flour through a sieve to make your own.
There are so many good reasons for incorporating fresh whole grain flour into your bakery practices. In addition to the significant nourishment provided by whole grains [link to Lancet article], fresh whole grain flours add subtle flavors – earthy to grassy – and you can actually taste the freshness. Another plus: bakers report that some of their products when made with 100% fresh whole grain flours, stay fresh longer than the version made with all-purpose white flour [link to bakers’ Q & A]. To bake with whole wheat flour that is freshly milled, in addition to considering the suggestions above, you’ll need to consider a couple of points:
In addition to selecting varieties that perform best for specific products (such as durum for pasta), wheat varieties also vary in taste. For example, whole grain flours ground from hard red wheat can have a more pronounced earthy, nutty flavor than those milled from soft white wheat. Many bakers prefer red wheat for hearty sourdough breads, but if the flavor is heartier than you would like, King Arthur recommends trying the milder flavor of white whole wheat flour.13 Their full guide to different types of whole grains and flours can be found here.
Baker’s percentages describe recipes for baked goods in ratios of each ingredient to the weight of flour. Flour is always expressed as 100%. This allows bakers to easily make comparisons across recipes and scale them up or down. Baker’s percentages are especially helpful when modifying and tracking changes to recipes for which you have swapped out some or all refined grains for whole grains. For instance, whole grain breads require higher hydration. The baker’s percentage of water in a refined bread recipe may be 70%, but when swapping out for whole grains, some bakers opt for a higher hydration, as much as 90% .
Here is an example of baker’s percentages in a recipe.
Sourdough or Yeast?
With whole grain flours, either sourdough or commercial yeast will leaven your bread. Yeast offers the benefit of a quick and reliable rise and is easy to purchase and measure. Sourdough, natural leavening from wild bacteria activated in flour and water, can offer additional flavor from acids produced by the bacteria but may require a more intuitive baking approach. Temperature and hydration can play a big part in the speed of fermentation and the flavor of the final product made with sourdough. If you are unfamiliar with sourdough, King Arthur offers a comprehensive guide