Over the course of the 100 day challenge I did with my cooking group, I did a lot of experimenting with whole grain baking. I’ve finally reached a point where I feel comfortable doing most of my baking with whole grains, but I learned quite a few things along the way, including:
- Most whole grain recipes call for a mix of whole grain and refined flour, much like many store bought items that say “with whole grains” are a mix of whole grain and refined flours.
- A straight substitution of whole grain flour results in a very different texture, which can be much denser, with a thicker crumb.
- Whole grain pastry flour is a great alternative to heavier whole wheat and it’s worth it to learn when you like using each.
- If you are going gluten free, buckwheat, oats, rice flour, amaranth, almond and more are there to experiment with! Some give a nuttier flavor and denser feel while others are more cake-like.
As for specific recipes, here’s what I’ve found when making substitutions:
- Muffins and quick breads are extremely compatible with flour substitutions, especially moister breads (like banana or zucchini). For example, in my usual blueberry muffins, I subbed whole wheat pastry flour and used almond flour for the topping with great results. I had a lot of fun experimenting with banana bread, which might be the most forgiving quick bread of all. First, I used my family’s go-to recipe from The Settlement Cookbook and used half whole wheat and half rolled oats instead of regular flour. Then I tried Smitten Kitchen’s crackly banana bread and used a mix of buckwheat, flax meal and whole wheat flour (instead of millet, which I didn’t have on hand, I used a mix of chia hemp and buckwheat seeds (a cereal mix available at Outpost).
- Regular pancakes retain much of their texture with whole wheat pastry flour, but experimenting with variations like buckwheat crepes (flatter and nuttier) and oatmeal pancakes (much fluffier) is worth a try.
- It is a lot harder to blend a smooth pie crust with whole wheat pastry flour. It takes longer to get an even consistency and it cracks more easily when you roll it out and transfer it to the dish.
- Flour substitutions in cakes require more thought than anything else. I haven’t found a good substitute for cake flour. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent cakes that are designed around special flours, such as almond flour or corn meal. And for denser, richer cakes, like chocolate, using whole wheat pastry flour or another heavier flour might actually help the cake achieve the right texture without freezing (yes, some layer cake recipes suggest freezing the layers to achieve the desired texture).
As I mentioned above, I’ll probably continue to nix the refined flour for a lot of my baking — particularly muffins, scones and quick breads, because I prefer the texture with more natural flours. And, in fact, these are also the recipes that I’ve found to work best with natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and various raw sugars like date, coconut palm and sugar cane.
The one area where I might be inclined to “cheat” post-challenge would be with chiffon cakes and some sponge cakes. I haven’t been able to find a less-processed flour that achieves the right texture, and texture is important for these particular types of cake. Beaten egg whites just can’t hold up to the weight of some of these flours as well as others.
So that’s it: My findings on baking with whole grains. Of course, it’s very much based on my personal taste. Have you been baking with whole grains? What results have you seen?