Whole grain flour is nutritious and flavorful, but simply swapping whole grain flour for refined flour in baking formulas, especially if you are using freshly milled flour, may not result in a product that meets your expectations. Whole wheat flour behaves in significantly different ways from refined flour, and freshly-milled flour compounds the variables. 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 these extra calculations? Baked goods that are more nutritious, flavorful, textured, and, in our opinion, enjoyable. Or, as Andrew Jangigian remarks on King Arthur Flour’s excellent blog, “Once you start thinking about using whole grain flours in your loaves, it opens up a universe of possibilities.”1
We’ve interviewed bakers about their approach to using whole grain flours, and we hope the resulting tips will be helpful guides. Still, 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 & Cafe, reassures us that experimentation is the fun part. 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 thoroughly.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 determined by the feel of the dough. Bakers refer to “hand feel,” the sensitivity that develops in the baker’s fingers to the consistency of the ideal ratio of water to flour. Many bread bakers use 90% baker’s percentage of water, or even higher.3
Method 2: Use less flour by weight but maintain the 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 more proofing time.8 A way to compensate for sharp gluten strands is to use bolted (sifted) flour which captures the larger fragments of the bran in the sifter. Jonathan Stevens of Hungry Ghost Bakery (Northampton, MA) discovered that using bolted flour with 18% of the bran removed is the “perfect compromise.” 9 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.
4. Vital Wheat Gluten. Vital Wheat Gluten is a wheat protein mostly used in commercial bakeries to mimic the volume of white bread, but using whole-grain flour. Bakerpaedia defines Vital Wheat Gluten as a protein extracted from wheat starch. “Thanks to its elastic, viscous, and extensible properties, gluten gives bread its springy texture and allows the dough to stretch. It also provides texture, stabilization, flavor, and dough strength.” 10 More research is needed to determine if adding Vital Wheat Gluten to commercial breads can trigger wheat sensitivity.
There are many good reasons for incorporating fresh whole grain flour into your bakery formulas. In addition to the significant nourishment provided by whole grains, fresh whole grain flours add subtle flavors – earthy, grassy, even sweetness – and you can taste the freshness. Another plus: bakers report that some products, when made with 100% fresh whole grain flours, stay fresh longer than the version made with all-purpose white flour. In addition to the suggestions above, to successfully bake with freshly-milled whole wheat flour, you may want to consider a couple more 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 taste is stronger than you would like, King Arthur recommends trying the milder flavor of white whole wheat flour.11 You can find their complete guide to different types of whole grains and flours here.
Baker’s percentages describe recipes for baked goods in ratios of each ingredient to the weight of flour. Flour is always represented as 100%, and this consistency 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 flour for whole-grain flour. For instance, whole grain breads require higher hydration. The baker’s percentage of water in a refined bread recipe may be 70%, but when substituting whole grain flours, some bakers opt for 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