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Whole grains: Easy baking guide for beginners

Are you new to baking with whole grains? I was too! Understanding the basics of grains, the differences between all-purpose flour and whole grain flour, and some simple science principles can help set you up for success.

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I started out wanting to make bread, mastered (through a lot of failure) my 5-Ingredient basic bread recipe using all-purpose flour … And then started figuring out how to take it to the next level and start on whole grains.

So, what are whole grains? Where do you start?

Whole grains are simply the husked berries of grain-bearing plants that have been dried and left whole, sprouted, cracked and/or rolled, or milled into flour. Their main characteristic is their “wholeness,” meaning nothing is removed or added to the grains during processing.

If you’re also new to baking with whole grains, you’ll find that it can bring a wide range of flavors and textures to your favorite recipes. Plus, using whole grain flour instead of refined flour adds nutritional value to your baked goods, including more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. So, not only will your creations taste delicious, but they’ll also be healthier for you and your loved ones. Trust me, it’s definitely worth experimenting with whole grains in your baking!

Getting started with whole grains

Understanding whole grains

When I first started baking with whole grains, I learned that they are simply the husked berries of grain-bearing plants that are dried and left whole, or processed in a way that retains all parts of the seed, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. This “wholeness” contributes to their signature characteristics and nutritional benefits, such as being rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Compared to refined grains like white flour, whole grains offer more health benefits and have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

Exploring different types of grains

When it comes to baking with whole grains, there are a variety of options to choose from. Some of the most popular and widely available types include:

  • Wheat: One of the most commonly used grains in baking, whole wheat flour is made by grinding whole wheat kernels and retains all the nutritional benefits. It offers a nuttier flavor and denser texture compared to white flour, making it great for hearty bread and other baked goods.
  • Barley: Rich in protein and fiber, barley can be used in its whole form, as flour, or as malted barley syrup. Though it contains gluten, it offers a unique flavor and texture to bread, cookies, and more.
  • Rye: A popular choice for bread, rye offers a distinct, earthy flavor, and is known for its dense, dark loaves. Rye flour contains less gluten compared to wheat flour, which results in a denser, more compact texture – perfect for those who like hearty, filling bread.
  • Buckwheat: Despite its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat and is completely gluten-free. It has a strong, earthy flavor and is often used in pancakes, crepes, and gluten-free baked goods.
  • Millet: Another gluten-free option, millet has a light, mild flavor, and can be used to create delicate, tender crumb in gluten-free baked goods.
  • Oats: Whole or rolled oats can be used in baking for texture and flavor. Oat flour, made from ground oats, is a great option for pancakes, muffins, or as a partial replacement for wheat flour in a variety of recipes.

Of course, these are just a few examples, and there are many more types of whole grains out there to explore. I have enjoyed experimenting with different combinations and baking techniques to create delicious, healthier alternatives to traditional baked goods!

Choosing the right whole-grain ingredients

When I first started baking with whole grains, I was surprised by the variety of ingredients available. Each whole grain offers unique flavors and textures. Let me share my experience with some of the whole grains I’ve tried:

  • Wheat berries: These are whole kernels from the wheat plant. I learned that using them in breads and other baked goods adds a chewy texture and nutty flavor. You can also cook them and use them in salads or grain bowls. (I cover more on the basics of wheat here.)
  • Millet: A small, round, gluten-free grain, I found that millet can be added to breads, muffins, and even cookies. Its mild, slightly sweet flavor works well with other whole grains as well.
  • Oats: One of my favorites, oats add a soft, moist texture to baked goods. I love using them in breads, muffins, and granola bars. Be sure to use whole-grain oats (such as rolled or steel-cut oats) and not instant oats.
  • Spelt, Barley, and Einkorn: These are ancient grains with wonderful flavors. Spelt has a slightly nutty taste and works well in breads and cookies. Barley adds a chewy texture to breads, while einkorn has a delicate flavor that shines in pastries and cakes.
  • Rice and Corn: Whole-grain brown rice and cornmeal can be used in various baked goods too. I’ve used brown rice flour in gluten-free recipes, and cornmeal is perfect for making cornbread or adding texture to other baked goods.
  • Quinoa, Sorghum, and Amaranth: As gluten-free grains, these add unique flavors and textures to your baking repertoire. I like using quinoa flour for a nutty flavor, sorghum flour for a mild taste, and amaranth flour for its earthy, slightly peppery notes.
  • Emmer (Farro), Buckwheat, and Rye: Emmer is an ancient wheat grain with a pleasant chewiness. I’ve used Buckwheat flour to create gluten-free baked goods with a distinct, robust flavor. Rye is perfect for adding a slightly tangy taste to breads and crackers.

There are so many possibilities when it comes to choosing whole-grain ingredients for baking. I suggest experimenting with different grains to find the combination that works best for your taste buds and the recipes you love.

Fluid management in whole grain baking

When I first started baking with whole grains, I quickly noticed that managing the liquid content was crucial for successful results.

Whole grain flours typically contain more germ and bran compared to refined flours, which can affect dough hydration and yeast activity. Here are some tips:

  • Whole grain doughs usually need more liquid because the germ and bran absorb water. I often start by adding an extra 10-15% liquid compared to regular dough recipes, but it’s important to keep an eye on the dough consistency and adjust as needed
  • Use slightly yes instant yeast. Since whole grains contain more natural sugars, the instant yeast can be more active, causing the dough to rise faster. To accommodate this, I’ve found that reducing the instant yeast amount or using a slower fermentation method, like a longer, cooler rise, can result in a better texture and improved shelf life
  • Whole grain baked goods can go stale more quickly due to the presence of the germ and bran. To extend the freshness of my whole grain breads and pastries, I like to store them in airtight containers or bags
  • Whole grain flours contain less endosperm, so the gluten development might be weaker. I often do some extra kneading or use a dough conditioner to strengthen the gluten network and improve the final product’s texture.

Managing liquid content, yeast activity, and considering the unique properties of germ, bran, and endosperm are essential for successful whole grain baking. As a friendly reminder, don’t be afraid to experiment and adjust your recipes as you gain more experience as so much of cooking and baking with whole grains is about making small changes due to weather, grain type, and where your grains were sourced.

Nutritious benefits of whole grains

Whole grains are packed with fiber. Fiber has a multitude of advantages, such as aiding in digestion, helping with weight management, and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. According to Mayo Clinic, whole grain foods can help control cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and even lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Apart from fiber, whole grains also offer a good amount of protein. Protein is an essential nutrient for our bodies to build and maintain muscles, hair, skin, and nails. Incorporating whole grains in your baking means adding a valuable protein source to your diet.

When my kids are grumpy, the first thing I do is get them some protein! It makes such a difference in our diets and whole grains offer protein that refined grains cannot.

Whole grains are rich in nutrition. Unlike refined grains, which lose some valuable nutrients during the refining process, whole grains provide a “complete package” of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components, according to Harvard. This includes B-vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber.

Moreover, whole grains can play an essential role in maintaining overall health. As mentioned earlier, incorporating whole grains into your diet can help with weight management, controlling blood pressure, and reducing the risk of developing heart diseases and diabetes. These health advantages make whole grains a great choice for anyone looking to improve their eating habits.

Whole grains offer numerous nutritional benefits, making them a must-have ingredient in baking. By including them in your recipes, you are not only adding flavor and texture, but also providing you and your family a healthier and more balanced meal.

Comparing traditional and whole grain flours

Understanding flour types: Hard and soft wheat

Not all wheat is the same, which I had to learn when first baking with whole grains. Hard wheat has a higher protein content and is typically used for making bread, while soft wheat has a lower protein content and is better suited for pastries and cakes. Whole wheat flour is milled from hard red wheat berries, giving it a rich color, hearty taste, and coarse texture that many of us associate with whole grains.

White whole wheat is another interesting option. This flour is made from whole white wheat berries, which are a variation of the hard red wheat. It contains all the nutrients of whole wheat flour but has a milder flavor and lighter color, making it a more approachable choice for those new to whole grains.

For a comparison, all-purpose flour is one we all might be familiar with. It’s a blend of both hard and soft wheat, often bleached and stripped of the bran and germ to yield a softer texture and longer shelf life.

Working with different protein content

As I mentioned earlier, the protein content is an essential factor that differentiates flours. Protein affects the gluten development and overall structure of baked goods. Typically, whole wheat flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour, making it more suitable for making bread and other sturdy baked goods.

In general, I’ve found these guidelines helpful:

  • For bread: Opt for higher protein flours like whole wheat or bread flour for a better rise and structure.
  • For cakes and pastries: Lower protein flours like cake flour or all-purpose flour provide a tender crumb and delicate texture.

Keep in mind that whole grain flours, especially whole wheat flour, may require a few adjustments in your recipes such as increasing the liquid content, as they tend to absorb more moisture than their refined counterparts. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different flour types and combinations – the more you practice, the more familiar you will become with working with whole grains in your baking.

Adjusting recipes for whole grain baking

I have always been a fan of whole grains, and when I started baking with them, I discovered that a few adjustments were needed to achieve those perfect loaves and treats. In this section, I’ll share some tips on how to adjust recipes when using whole grain ingredients like Oatmeal, Brown rice, Rye flour, and Spelt flour.

Tip #1: Add more liquid

My first tip is to remember that whole grain flours tend to absorb more liquid compared to white flours. So when I bake with them, I like to add a little extra liquid to the recipe to avoid a dry outcome. Of course, the amount of liquid needed may vary depending on the kind of whole grain flour used and the desired consistency. Remember, you can always add more liquid but you can’t take liquid out. So add slowly!

Tip #2: Let it rest for at least 15-minutes to absorb liquid

When using whole grain flours, I also find it beneficial to allow the dough or batter to rest for a bit before baking, which helps in hydrating the grains. For example, when making oatmeal cookies, I let the batter sit for around 20 minutes to ensure the oats have absorbed enough liquid. And for quick or yeast breads I’ll let it rest at least 15 minutes, but preferably 30-45 minutes.

If it’s too dry, I’ll add a bit more water or milk, and if it’s too sticky, I’ll sprinkle in a little more flour.

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to mix grains

I’ve also experimented with different whole grains in my recipes and discovered that some whole grain flours, like Spelt and Rye, have a stronger flavor than others. In these instances, I sometimes mix them with milder tasting grains like White wheat flour to achieve a balance in taste and texture.

Another go-to of mine is to substitute 25% of wheat with Buckwheat, especially if I’m making biscuits or a quick bread. It will make the bread darker, due to Buckwheat’s black hull, but it makes baked goods much lighter and fluffier.

Keep in mind that each whole grain flour has its unique characteristics, and you might need to do some taste tests to find the perfect combination for your recipe.

Tip #4: Change your expectations for rising

Finally, when baking bread with whole grains, your rise won’t be as high as making bread with all-purpose flour. Additional leavening agents like baking powder or yeast might be required for a better rise or you can embrace the lack of rise of whole grains, especially Einkorn.

Tip #5: Don’t overmix

Fold in your ingredients gently when working with whole grains. It’s to prevent overmixing, which can result in a dense and tough baked good. A light touch is best when combining the wet and dry ingredients to encourage a tender and fluffy outcome.

What to be aware of: Creating delicious whole grain bakes

Here are a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way that can help you create delicious whole grain bakes.

  • One of the first things I noticed was the difference in color when baking with whole grains. Whole grain flours tend to produce darker-colored baked goods compared to their refined counterparts. Don’t be alarmed – this is perfectly normal and a sign that you’re genuinely using whole grains!
  • Next up is the flavor. Baking with whole grains can yield a richer, more robust taste in your baked goods. Each grain contributes its unique taste, so feel free to experiment and find your favorites.
  • A crucial aspect to consider when working with whole grains is texture. Whole grain bakes can be denser and more substantial than those made with refined flours. However, you can always adjust the proportions to suit your preferences. For example, try using a mix of different flours, like 10% whole wheat flour and 20% spelt flour, along with a cracked spelt soaker, in a spelt sourdough bread.
  • Not all grains are grains. For those of you looking for gluten-free options, you can find a variety of pseudo-grains to incorporate into your baking adventures. Pseudo-grains are not grains but are used like grains. Cornmeal, buckwheat, and quinoa flour are excellent alternatives for gluten-free baking that still pack in all the whole “grain” goodness.

Frequently asked questions

What are some basic baking tips for whole grain recipes?

When I first started baking with whole grains, I found that it’s essential to start by adding extra moisture to the dough or batter. Whole grain flours often absorb more water than refined flours. I also learned that mixing the dough gently and not overworking it helps create a tender and soft texture in the final product. Additionally, I’ve found that using a lighter hand when measuring flours and ingredients helps to avoid making the baked goods too dense.

Which whole grain flours are best for beginners?

For beginners, I recommend starting with whole wheat flour, whole grain spelt flour, or whole grain oat flour as they have milder flavors and more familiar textures compared to other whole grain flours. These flours are versatile and can be used in a wide range of recipes, making them excellent options for those who are new to whole grain baking.

How do I properly measure whole grain ingredients for baking?

When measuring whole grain flours, I always use the “spoon and level” method, which means gently spooning the flour into a measuring cup and then leveling it off with a straight edge, like the back of a knife. Avoid scooping the measuring cup directly into the flour as this can lead to overpacking and ultimately make your baked goods dense.

Can I substitute whole grains in my regular baking recipes?

Yes, I often substitute whole grains in my regular baking recipes. Generally, I start by replacing half of the refined flour with whole grain flour and then adjust the liquid in the recipe as needed. It’s important not to substitute 100% of the flour right away since it may affect the texture and taste. Gradually increase the whole grain flour amount as you become familiar with its characteristics and how it interacts with other ingredients.

What are the health benefits of using whole grains in baking?

Baking with whole grains provides numerous health benefits. I’ve learned that whole grains are rich in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals that may help lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Whole grains also promote healthy digestion, weight management, and can make you feel fuller for longer periods.

Are there any special tools or equipment needed for whole grain baking?

In my experience, no special tools or equipment are necessary for whole grain baking. You can use your usual mixing bowls, measuring cups, and baking pans for whole grain recipes too. However, you may find that using a kitchen scale to accurately measure your ingredients can help ensure consistent results, especially when adapting recipes to incorporate whole grains.