The Whole Story on Whole Wheat Flour

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I’m a bit of Jane-come-lately to the whole wheat flour party. While I’ve always enjoyed the heartiness of a great loaf of whole wheat bread, other baked goods made with whole wheat flour always brought to mind hockey pucks rather than delicate treats. But, thanks to better availability of all kinds of specialty flours, including different types of whole wheat flours, those old assumptions are falling by the wayside.

whole-wheat-flourOf course, there’s a nutritional advantage to using whole wheat flour. It’s a whole grain, because the flour is milled for the entire wheat kernel and includes:

  • The bran, a source of fiber, B vitamins, minerals and protein
  • The germ, which is also high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fats. Because whole wheat flours have some fat in them, they can turn rancid; store them in the freezer.
  • The endosperm, which is the white, starchy portion of the kernel. Refined white flours–like all-purpose, bread flour, pastry flour or cake flour–are milled from the endosperm and have been stripped of the nutrient-rich bran and germ.

These days, you’ll find a range of whole wheat flours at health food stores (especially in the bulk bins) and even at your local supermarket. To learn more about the differences between these flours, I talked to Suzanne Cote, a spokeswoman for King Arthur Flour. Here are the different types you’ll find:

Whole wheat flour. This is milled from hard red spring wheat, which gives it a characteristic dark color and assertive flavor (some call it nutty, others find it bitter). It’s a  “strong” flour, meaning it’s high in protein. That gives baked goods structure, which is great for a hearty whole wheat bread but can make more delicate items like muffins or cookies tough.

White whole wheat flour. Milled from hard white spring wheat, this flour has a creamier color, softer texture and milder flavor than regular whole wheat flour. Yet, “the fiber and nutrition are very similar,” says Cote. It’s also a high-protein flour, so it’s a good candidate for breads and doughs. It has become my go-to whole wheat flour, and I love using it in pizza dough.

Whole wheat pastry flour. Sometimes also called graham flour (which refers to the grind), this is made from soft white winter wheat, so it has less protein than regular or white whole wheat flour. Use this for tender baked goods, including cookies, muffins, brownies and snack cakes.

But you don’t have to banish all-purpose flour from your kitchen. “Depending on what your application is, you can play with different wheat flours” says Cote. “There’s nothing wrong with blending.”

If you’re adapting an existing recipe, start by substituting a whole wheat flour for one-quarter to three-quarters of all-purpose, Cote suggests.

“The thing to remember about whole wheat flour is that it’s a really thirsty flour compared to all-purpose,” she adds. If your batter or dough looks a bit dry, add a little more liquid.

Armed with this knowledge, I’m happy to use whole wheat flour in a lot more baked goods. Is it ideal for everything? No. You’d still want to use highly refined cake flour, for example, to make a lighter-than-air angel food cake. But for everyday baking–cookies, quick breads and these muffins–I’ll turn to whole wheat.

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2017-05-19T00:19:59+00:00
  • I have long been baking with a mixture of whole wheat and white flours, and sometimes even all whole wheat. It really does come down to a difference between the regular (“strong”) and pastry flour varieties. It might help to clarify that by “protein” you are really talking about gluten, and that’s why many unsuspecting home bakers find the end results of using wheat flour “hockey-puck-like”. Another method that is sometimes used is to sift out the bran (which will help refine the texture of the final product some), but be sure to use the bran for another product (such as fruit crips, bran muffins, or even in the struesel topping!)

  • Thanks for the tips, Lydia! Also, Suzanne at King Arthur recommended subbing a couple of tablespoons of orange juice for other liquid in recipes that use standard whole wheat flour. The OJ seems to balance the strong flavor of the flour, without making the finished product taste like orange.

    I also thought about getting into the gluten issue, but it started to feel a bit technical. I think it’s a good topic for a future post (to delve into the protein/gluten/strength issue)–maybe as an intro to the recipe for the whole wheat pizza crust I’ve perfected.

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