Our Artisan Bread series explores the world of professional-level bread baking and brings you more resources and guidance around how to hone your skills at true hand-crafted bread. You'll find tools, inspiration, and confidence to experiment and master what is perhaps the simplest, and the most complex, of baking genres: artisan bread.
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I love white flour breads as much as the next person. After all, there's a reason I consider King Arthur all-purpose flour my go-to “bread” flour and keep a 50-pound bin of it under my kitchen counter. But there’s more to life than white flour and the breads it can produce. Once you start thinking about using whole grain flours in your loaves, it opens up a universe of possibilities. Today we'll explore some whole grains and talk about ways to incorporate them in artisan bread, breaking down how they affect your loaves and how best to put them to use for maximum success.
Yes, using whole grains means the texture of your breads will change, but not necessarily for the worse. And as bakers become increasingly more sophisticated in their approaches to working whole grain flours into their formulas, breads won't necessarily change all that much, in fact.
In exchange for a shift in texture, you get so much in return: new flavors and aromas, more nutrition, and — perhaps best of all — a world of options.
Refined flours are a relatively recent invention — roller mills, the first machines that could easily separate the various components of a grain, didn’t appear until around 1870. That timeline means people have been baking with whole grain flours for far longer than not, so there are loads of whole grain recipes to look to. And while “flour” most often implies wheat, there are plenty of other grains to consider as well, many of which are increasingly available in supermarkets, either as a flour or a whole grain.
Breaking down whole grains: anatomy of a wheat berry
To understand what whole grains can really do, we first need to understand exactly what they are. A wheat berry (also known as a “kernel”) contains three distinct parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the “shell” of the seed: a hard, water-resistant outer layer designed to protect the seed’s precious cargo from the elements until it’s high time to sprout. The germ is the future wheat plant, in embryonic form (in other words, it’s the “germ” of the plant-to-be). And the endosperm is the seed’s gas tank, the store of energy reserves the baby plant will utilize for growth until it’s mature enough to photosynthesize all on its own.
Whole grains provide better nutrition ...
The endosperm represents about 83% of the weight of the grain and provides the greatest share of carbohydrates and protein; it’s the part that is transformed into white flour during milling. The bran comprises about 14.5% of the grain’s weight, and contains a small amount of protein, large amounts of B vitamins, and lots of dietary fiber. The germ makes up the last 2.5% of the grain’s weight, and is high in fat, more B vitamins, and trace minerals. (The high fat content of the germ is what makes whole grain flours far more perishable than refined ones. For tips on how to keep the flavor of your flours at their best, see our post on the best way to store whole grains.)
When you use whole grains, you're getting all the nutrition of the bran and the germ, which are removed to create white flour. (This is why the nutrition content of white flour is lower than whole grain flour.)
And offer bigger flavor
It's not all about nutrition: much of the flavor and aroma of grains is located in the germ and bran too. Bran is particularly rich in phenolic compounds, which strengthen the seedcoat and act as chemical defense against pests; many of these molecules are also highly aromatic. (And of course, the flavor and aroma of foods are deeply intertwined.)
Each type of grain has a distinct aromatic signature. For example, whole wheat presents flavors reminiscent of vanilla, caramel, raw potato, and honey. Rye: cooked potatoes, mushrooms, and caramel. Oats: apples, cheese, and vanilla. Buckwheat: wintergreen, clove, honey, and caramel. Barley: malt, cocoa, and “fattiness."
Whole grain options: flours and grains for baking
Gone are the days when the only whole grain flours you might find on supermarket shelves would be whole wheat, cornmeal, and (if you're lucky) rye. At my local grocery store, I can find whole wheat, white whole wheat, pumpernickel (whole rye) and medium rye, spelt, oat, buckwheat, millet, einkorn (an “ancient” relative of wheat), quinoa, brown rice, and teff flours, as well as a few varieties of cornmeal.
Over in the grains aisle, I can find whole grain barley, oats (rolled and steel cut), amaranth, teff, wheat berries, farro (also known as emmer), and quinoa, khorasan wheat, freekeh (roasted green wheat), and rices galore. Each of these flours and grains presents a new potential for your bread baking. Let's dig into how to approach incorporating them.
Getting started: adding whole grains to your bread
There are so many different ways to begin using whole grains in your breads. The simplest is to just swap out a portion of a recipe's white flour for a whole grain one.
Trading out whole grain for white flour will always have an effect on the structure of your loaves, since they lower the overall concentration of gluten in the dough — even in the case of flours that do contain gluten, like whole wheat or spelt. (The gluten-forming proteins are found exclusively in the endosperm, so anything in your flour other than endosperm means less gluten overall.) And beyond that, the bran found in all whole grain flours is hard and sharp, which wreaks havoc on gluten structure.
But never fear: Up to a certain point, these effects are hardly worth worrying about. Results will vary depending upon the recipe in question, but generally speaking, you can usually get away with up to a 25% flour substitution without drastic consequences on the overall structure of a loaf. And even amounts more modest than that can still provide dramatic benefits in terms of the flavor and appearance of your breads. (I routinely add a stealthy 5% rye flour to my “white” flour loaves, which lends them nuttier flavor and a buff, flecked appearance to their crumb.)
For an extremely helpful guide to dancing the whole grain flour shuffle, take a look at Charlotte's post on baking with ancient grains. Another simple method to finding a ratio you like: turn to the breakfast table.
The pancake test
In her guide mentioned above, Charlotte talks about creating Easy Amaranth Pancakes by merely swapping 25% of the all-purpose flour in Simply Perfect Pancakes with 25% amaranth flour. This is a wonderfully accessible test for any baker: Pancakes present a perfect opportunity for a low-lift and near-immediate “pilot study” to try at home for yourself to determine how using a whole grain flour will alter the flavor, texture, and appearance of your bread.
Once you land on a pancake formula you like, you can then give it a go in your loaves with a good idea of what to expect. (Plus, you get pancakes out of the deal, so what’s not to like?) And if you want to push the envelope, you can; you just need to understand what effect it'll have.
Take it a step further: bumping up the percentage
Going above 25% whole grain flour in a recipe that calls for 100% white flour is possible too, but doing so tends to require modifications to the recipe formula and/or technique. Whole grain flours are, as a rule, thirstier than refined ones, so that usually means adding more water to the dough to achieve a similar consistency. And while you can certainly live with the effects of gluten dilution (more water = less gluten overall) and increased bran on the structure of the loaf — a dense, compact crumb is often a nice thing — you can also counteract them by working in additional kneading or folds to the mixing and bulk proofing steps.
You can also sift your whole grain flour to remove some of the bran. A tightly-woven fine-meshed sieve will remove a decent amount of it (mine takes off about 10% of the total weight of the flour), which can make a big difference in the structure of your loaves. And while removing some bran through sifting reduces the nutritional content and flavor of a whole grain flour, it’ll still be far more nutritious and flavorful than white flour. (Taking off the coarsest 10% of your whole wheat flour amounts to a 90% “extraction rate”; by comparison, the extraction rate of most white flours is around 70%.) And you can save the sifted bran to use elsewhere (bran muffins anyone?).
Advanced whole grain techniques
Though using whole grain flours in place of all-purpose flour can definitely compromise crumb structure and loaf height, there are numerous strategies that expert bakers employ to counteract the negative effects of all that bran on gluten development, especially when working with 100% whole grain breads.
The first is to increase the water content of the dough significantly; there are some instances where dough hydration can even exceed 100%. All that extra water serves to both soften the bran and let the gluten more easily link up to form ordered networks capable of holding gases.
But extra water alone makes for a loose, sloppy dough, which is why high hydration is usually combined with a more sophisticated approach to building dough structure through folding. Periodically folding the dough during the bulk fermentation allows a baker to make the most of the nascent gluten structure present. (“Lamination” folding, where the dough is poured onto the work surface and stretched into a thin sheet before being folded back up, can be especially effective here.)
Extending the autolyse can serve similar goals as well. In a standard autolyse, you hold back the salt and preferment from your dough in order to give the flour time to hydrate and the gluten in it to get a head start on linking up. With white flours, 30 minutes or so is usually sufficient; in whole grain doughs, however, it’s not uncommon for bakers to extend the autolyse to several hours (or even overnight), to give the water-phobic bran more time to soften, and to eke as much structure as possible out of the technique.
Other approaches to maximizing gluten structure when working with whole grain flours include doing a short final levain build before mixing a dough and/or using a small amount of levain in a dough, both of which can extend bulk fermentation to allow maximum development of strength.
Bonus: super soakers and potent porridges
Flours aren’t the only way to utilize whole grains in your breads. You can also add them to your loaves unmilled, in the form of a soaker — a quantity of grains or seeds that have been soaked in water for a few hours or overnight to fully hydrate them. This treatment serves to moisten them prior to their addition to a dough, so they won’t pull water from the dough and mess with your overall hydration. It also makes them more tender and more digestible. Many bakers also like to toast grains before soaking them to further intensify their flavor. For the skinny on soakers and how to use them, once again, Martin has you covered with his post: 3 ways to switch up your bread baking.
You can also cook the grains, rather than just soak them, before adding them to a dough. If the grains are easily broken down (such as rolled oats) or cooked long enough, you get a porridge, which — when used in a dough — gives you a porridge bread. Cooked grains and porridges perform similarly to soakers, but with a few key differences. Because the grains in porridge are cooked, their flavor profile is altered and often more intense. They contain much more water, which makes them even more tender and digestible. And because the starches they contain are gelatinized — a chemical transformation that occurs when starch and water are heated above about 140˚F — they hold onto that water more tenaciously, resulting in a noticeably more moist crumb and a bread that's especially resistant to staling.
Can't find whole grain flours? Grind yer own!
When whole grain flours are unavailable, another option is to mill your own. Tabletop stone mills for home bakers are increasingly more effective and affordable these days than ever before. (I own one, and use it all the time.) One advantage to milling your own whole grain flour is that whole grains are far less perishable than flours milled from them, so there’s far less concern about “using it or losing it” — simply grind as much flour as you need for immediate use.
Milling your own flour at home is easy to do, but it’s too big a subject to tackle here, so I’ll just refer you to Martin's excellent and extensive guide to milling your own flour, if it's something you decide to delve into.
Whole grain recipe roundup
Perhaps the easiest way to get into whole grain bread baking is to start with reliable, tried-and-tested recipes. Here are a few King Arthur favorites:
Jeffrey’s Black Bread: Another dark and dense bread, this one containing a 50/50 mixture of rye and bread flours, along with an “altus” — a type of soaker made from toasted and moistened old bread — scented with ground coffee and charnushka ("black caraway") seeds.
These are excellent entry points into the world of whole grain baking, which is endlessly rich for experimentation. Stay tuned for more explorations of whole grain bread this month! If you're curious about whole grain baking, we'd love to hear more about what questions you have; leave a comment below!
Photos by Martin Philip, unless otherwise noted