cooking and baking with whole grains
Photo: Wendy Hebb

Cooking and Baking with Whole Grains

During the 2012 MAD Symposium, noted chef and author Dan Barber expressed strong opinions about the white flour most of us are familiar with for baking and cooking. We may call it “all-purpose flour,” he says, but actually, “we eat dead wheat.” He’s making an important point regarding the choice to eat fresh whole grain flours rather than shelf-stable white flour. A tiny seed of grain, in its natural state, contains a bounty of nourishment; white “refined” flour, however, is stripped of most of the grain’s nutrients. If you are a chef or baker who wants to add whole-grain flours to your institution’s traditional baked goods, it’s helpful to know the challenges you may encounter when you begin to work with whole grains and especially fresh-milled flours.

The appeal of standardized white flour, especially for cooking or baking on a large scale, is uniformity and predictability. Trays of cookies, pizza, and muffins can be produced on a reliable schedule, using essentially the same amount of wet and dry ingredients and similar baking times whenever you make a batch. This predictability can differ with whole grain flour, especially if freshly milled or provided by a local farmer in small batches. Whole grains like wheat, barley, and rice are “alive” when milled whole and used while fresh, which means the flour milled from them will be more variable in texture and more clearly defined by flavor and performance. Unlike white flour, whole grain flour benefits from knowledge of the particular characteristics that produced the grain you are using: type and variety, the weather and soil, and the milling process. Initially, the investigation will require extra time, but we promise that it is time well spent to fully appreciate one of the world’s most nourishing and delicious foods.

In this chapter, several bakers who are passionate about shifting the wheat paradigm from “all-purpose white” to whole grains share their experiences and lessons learned. There are many ways to incorporate whole grains into your menus – milled into flour, used whole, sprouted, and even incrementally, a handful at a time. We’ll review milling options, grain and flour storage, and techniques for adapting formulas to the unique characteristics of whole-grain and fresh-milled flours. Finally, we highlight several grains other than wheat that bakers successfully incorporate into their baking repertoire.