The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Whole Grain Breads

agres's picture

Whole Grain Breads

I was never, and am not now, a big fan of commercial whole wheat flour. Over the last couple of years, have become a huge fan of the whole wheat flours that I mill fresh.

I admit that there has been a long, and sometimes steep learning curve to producing whole grain breads that I really like. Much of that I attribute to the assumptions of the authors of most books on baking. In part that is because the authors think whatever professional bakers do, must be the best way to bake. However, bakers bake for their profit – not their customer’s health and well being. 

Americans and their bakers are infatuated with breads made from white flour.  I admit that the French with their baguettes also have the disease (and may have been the source of the American infection).  It is America where supermarkets have shelves and shelves of cottony white bread, just as advertised on Saturday morning TV along with Coco Pops and Captain Crunch breakfast cereal.  White bread and sugary cereal are staples in the bottom lines of America’s food industry.  Artisan breads made from white flour at your local bakery are more expensive, but do not have much more nutrition.  

Assuredly, Artisan Bakers producing breads for conspicuous consumption are likely to add a bit of rye and a smidgen of spelt to their wares, but their bread is still mostly white flour for the convenience and profit of the baker.  The customer gets bland bread with little nutrition.  The customers accept bland bread because they have been told (by bakers) that “bland bread” is sophisticated, elegant, and high status.

Overall, we have seen the flavors of our food decline toward industrially produced insipid sweet, oily and salty.  Even where we have fresh herbs from the supermarket, they tend to be from plants that have been irrigated and fertilized until they lack the flavor of herbs gathered from dry hillsides.  

The herbs I grow, pick, and dry are full of flavor. The olives I cure are full of flavor. We go to the bother of keeping fruit trees because we like ripe fruit from cultivars selected for the flavor of their fruit rather than the fruit’s transport and keeping qualities. We like tomatoes picked full ripe so they are full of flavor, even if the fruit is too fragile transport to market.

I like breads with rich flavors and textures. The path to such delights is whole grain. It is not an easy path, but the paths to many worthwhile things are not easy.  Some paths, we follow because they lead to worth while results, and some paths we follow because they are hard. I follow the path to full flavored bread because I like the results. I wandered in a nutritional wasteland of white flour for a long time.  I produced breads that were much admired. Now, I produce better breads.

I assert that while there are many recipes for good whole wheat bread, they all assume you have good fresh flour.  Whole wheat flour can get bitter quickly. And, many commercial whole wheat flours do not have all the nutrients or more importantly all the enzymes in the original wheat.  This very much affects how fast yeast or sourdough will ferment and raise the dough.  Also, flour loses “strength” with extended storage.  That said, I see four different effective techniques for good whole wheat breads.

  1. American – This is a classic, raised with yeast; where the liquid is about 2/3 scalded whole milk and 1/3 water with honey at a baker’s percentage of 2%. The milk provides additional fat, and the honey provides acids that help keep the bran from interfering with gluten development yielding a more open crumb.  All in all, this is the right bread for a peanut butter and jam sandwich with a crumb that will keep the jam from leaking. The form factor will be different from Wonder Bread, but it will be much more satisfying – in part because it will leak less jam.
  2. Kosher – Like the American, except using olive oil /water instead of milk (olive oil Baker’s Percentage = 3%). The extra proteins in the milk make the American style, a richer and more satisfying bread.
  3. Sourdough – Flour, water, and salt. Good fresh whole wheat flour allows the sourdough process to go much faster than it can with white flour, and faster than it can with most commercial whole wheat flours. Baking book authors may grind their own flour, but they do not assume you will have similar flour – so their times for dough fermentation will not work for someone that grinds their own flour. In a 70F kitchen, and fermenting/rising on the counter, I make the dough for supper breads in the morning. Where some Parisian baker would use mostly white bread flour and some spelt, with a 24 -hour retard, I can use my fresh whole wheat instead of spelt because my whole wheat is less bitter.  And, because my flour has more nutrients and enzymes, the whole fermentation process goes much faster. Using fresh whole wheat, you need to watch the dough, not the clock. Hydration is very important. For full flavor, I bring the wheat berries up to ~15% moisture content a few days before milling. Then, I use a 66% bakers percentage hydration - the dough needs to autolyze before adjusting hydration - Initially the dough will seem very dry. These are the breads to eat with rich, full flavored foods, served with rich, full flavored beverages.  This is bread for meals that you savor.  This is the basis for the best steak sandwich you ever ate. (You can also roll the dough thin, and use a cast iron skillet to make pita bread on the grill to fill with grilled stuff .  Or, you can make a pizza. : )
  4. Sourdough with rye – Like a full-flavored cake.

A detail – hard red winter and hard red spring wheat both have plenty of protein for good bread, but they have different proteins that respond differently to mixing and kneading.  The hard red winter wheat has better “extensibility” which many artisan bakers like, while the hard red spring wheat tends to spring back and tolerate more mechanical mixing.  Milling your own fresh flour may be as difficult a path as any path in the world of baking.

I was trained to plan the menu based on what was available in the garden and market. Today, I simply add the wheat berries that I have on hand to that menu planning.  I treat the vegetables from the garden, the meats from the butcher, and the grain from the pantry with respect. I tend to buy grain in bulk via mail order because folks like Montana Flour & Grain (  or Pleasant Hill Grain tend to provide better quality than my local suppliers.   (If one has a stock of grain in the pantry, it is important to keep all bugs out of the pantry.)


Justanoldguy's picture

Amen Brother! - or Sister as the case may be. You have hit the nail on the head and I look forward to exploring your blog.