Hard or soft wheat? Red or white wheat? Store-bought? Home-ground? So many questions, so little brain space! Getting started with whole wheat flour can be intimidating, I know. Believe me, I know. So come sit down with me for a few minutes and let’s take a look at some of the most basic decisions you will need to make as a whole wheat bread baker. This complete guide to baking with whole wheat flour will answer all your questions, plus a few you might not have thought to ask!
Complete Guide to Baking With Whole Wheat Flour:
Hard or Soft Wheat?
Now please don’t panic if you truly had no idea that there was such a thing as hard or soft wheat. There was a time when I didn’t know either. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but other times ignorance is a lot of money “wasted” on over 50 lbs. of the wrong flour (yep, that was me). So let’s get this clear right off the bat:
Hard Wheat is for Bread
Soft wheat is for pastries
Hard wheat = Structure
Soft Wheat = Fluffy/Crumbly
So what’s the difference? Hard wheat (white or red) has more gluten than soft wheat. Gluten provides structure.
Hard wheat baked goods can be baked easily without a pan because the gluten allows them to hold their shape while they rise, trapping the air inside like blowing up a balloon. The texture of these breads is chewier since the gluten resists crumbling.
Soft wheat (aka “Pastry” flour) baked goods, when baked without a pan will flatten out (like cookies and pancakes). They need reinforcement like eggs (which can help hold the mixture together) and baking pans to keep shape. Muffins, cakes and sweet breads (like banana or zucchini bread) all use both pans and eggs to give them their shape and texture. The texture of these breads tends to be more fluffy or spongy and crumble easily.
I have had so many people email me their frustrations with bread not rising only to discover that they had purchased soft white wheat instead of hard. One woman literally burst into tears because she had just bought an entire one-year food storage supply of SOFT white wheat for baking her bread. After she had her cry about not being able to bake bread for her kids, I smiled and said “Then let them eat cake!”
If you have made a similar mistake, or are just interested in the many uses for whole wheat pastry flour, here are some links that will give you a great idea of all the wonderful baked goods that taste even better with pastry flour:
Red or White Wheat?
Nutritionally, red and white wheat are identical. The differences are in the color and flavor, and genetics.
Color: When baked, red wheat is darker and looks more like what you think of when you think “whole wheat.” White wheat is lighter colored.
Flavor: Red wheat has a slightly stronger flavor. Some people say it is more bitter, but I don’t agree. To me, it just tastes “wheatier.” White wheat has a more subtle flavor.
Genetics: White wheat is basically Red wheat with a genetic face-lift. It has been hybridized (NOT genetically modified) to omit the genes responsible for darker color and stronger flavor.
While I love both equally, most of my bread is made with hard white wheat. My family (my hubby in particular) responds better to the color of white wheat and sometimes we bakers play mind games with our families so they will eat what is good for them :).
Want to know more about Red and White wheat? Check out these links!
King Arthur Flour: Learn More About our Wheat
Bob’s Red Mill: Hard Red Wheat vs. Hard White Wheat
The Fresh Loaf: Wheat: Red vs. White
Should I Buy Flour or Grains?
If you are going to baking all your own bread, and your living space is at all larger than a walk-in closet, you should be grinding your own flour. Folks, it is the easiest thing ever and will save you so much money and stress. Here are the top reasons why, plus a link to the blog post I did on this very topic a bit ago:
- Grinding is cheaper: Your grinder will quickly pay for itself in the money you save buying wheat instead of flour.
- Grains store longer: Ground wheat has a fairly short shelf life. Grains, on the other hand, can be stored for decades (even centuries!)
- Grains are more versatile: With flour all you can do is bake. With grains, you can bake, sprout, boil or roast!
- Grains can be self-perpetuating: Grains can be planted! Grains in your food storage are food that won’t run out in a time of need.
Need more reasons? Read this post: Top 5 Reasons to Grind Your Own Wheat
Here is another awesome post from Melissa K. Norris: Grinding Your Own Four +6 Fresh Flour Baking Tips
Tips for Purchasing Grains:
If my schpeel above has convinced you to buy your own grains, here are a few items you can check that will help you make wise grain purchases, and store those purchases the right way:
- How clean is the wheat? During harvesting, it is easy for dirt and rocks to be picked up right along with the grains. A good company will “Triple Clean” their wheat to remove rocks. I have seen wheat sold “cheap” because the rocks were left in. This requires sifting your wheat at home for rocks so they don’t break your grinder.
- Is the wheat “old/bad”? When stored properly, wheat is good for a very long time. If not stored properly, or in a bad crop, the gluten deteriorates and the wheat acts more like a pastry flour (if it will bake at all). One way to tell is to look at the grains themselves. Do they look plump or shriveled? Shriveled is bad. In any case, I always suggest buying a “tester” amount before purchasing large quantities of grains for storage.
- Caution with Craigslist: Sometimes people sell buckets of wheat on Craigslist. Ask if the buckets were stored away from extreme heat and moisture. I have known many people who purchased someone else’s food storage only to find out everything was inedible due to improper storage.
- How should I store my grains? With grains, your best value is in large purchases. Some local farms will do bulk co-op purchases that are a steal of a deal if you can get friends and neighbors to sign up too. But storing all that wheat the right way is critical. Here is a link to the absolute best post on storing your grains. It covers everything you need to know for short and long-term storage: USA Emergency Storage: Storage Life of Dry Foods
Tips for Purchasing Whole Wheat Flour
- Non-Bromated: Potassium Bromate is a flour additive that has been proven to cause cancer in lab animals and is banned pretty much everywhere except the US. I think I may do a whole post just on this, but for now let’s just not put it in our mouths. Okee Dokee? (Ok so I can’t leave you totally hanging- here are some links: The Truth About Potassium Bromate, Bromate Fact Sheet, Potassium Bromate Termed a Cancer Threat)
- Don’t buy too much: It’s tempting to want to stock up so you don’t have to buy more every month, but remember, whole wheat flour has a shelf life of only a few months. This can be even less if you live in a moist, humid climate. It is better to make a few extra purchases than have to toss out bad flour you paid good money for.
- Cold Storage! If you have the room, whole wheat flour is best stored at cold temperatures. A cold storage room or freezer will do wonders for prolonging the life of your flour.
Whole Wheat Baking tips & a RECIPE
- Resting periods: This is by far the tip that will make the most difference in your bread-making. Whole wheat flour takes longer than white flour to absorb moisture, which usually leads to novice whole wheat bakers adding way too much flour and drying out the loaf. There are two points before baking when a rest helps most: Just after mixing, and part way through kneading. After mixing your dough (but before kneading) cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes. Do this again part way through kneading. It will be much less work for you, and your bread will be lighter and fluffier too!
- Knead with water, not flour: Rather than flouring your kneading surface, lightly dampen your work surface. This will also prevent your dough from drying out from too much flour.
- Yogurt preserves whole wheat bread! If you do not bake with Natural Yeast (which acts as its own preservative), adding an acidic medium to the dough will act as an antimicrobial preservative (less mold!). This is especially important for whole wheat breads. My Yogurt Bread recipe below is the perfect place to start.
- Less yeast, longer rises: Whole wheat bread especially benefits from longer rises. You use less yeast to make this happen so the bread rises more slowly. Your bread will be much moister this way. If you bake with Natural Yeast, you already do this.