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When can I substitute whole wheat flour in baking?

February 9, 2011

NB: I realize that part of this is one giant paragraph; that is not supposed to happen. I think there is a bug. I will try to fix it again tomorrow, but I couldn’t tonight. Please press through!

Last week, a friend of mine emailed me asking the following question:

How do you find baking with white whole wheat flour has affected your recipes that call for other flours?   (I haven’t actually seen a recipe yet that calls for white whole wheat flour, but I primarily use older recipes.) We started experimenting with white whole wheat (www) flour last year sometime, and since the summer have been using it exclusively for flour in our recipes.  Tonight my husband made focaccia bread, which tasted wonderful, but he said wasn’t fluffy enough.  I’ve noticed that the products of our baking have been a lot more dense.  When we used whole wheat flour on its own or in combination with white all-purpose flour I found I needed to adjust the liquid amounts, but that hasn’t seemed necessary in using www on its own.  I wondered if you change the way/amount of kneading or the length/degree of temperature at which you bake.

This is a great question and one I will try to answer as best I can from experience. Hopefully, I can lead you to some other resources that may have more scientific knowledge about whole wheat flour than I do.

In order to understand whole wheat flour, we first need to understand the different types of wheat from which flour is made. There are two primary types of flour. Guess what they are. Did you guess “whole wheat” and “white”? Well if you did, that was a trick question. The correct answer is “high gluten” and “low gluten” flour. High gluten flour is made from hard wheat (such as hard red spring wheat, hard red winter wheat, and hard white wheat) and it is what we call bread flour. You can buy whole-wheat or white bread flour, but what makes this flour work for bread (as in yeast bread) baking is the high gluten content. When you work with dough you can see gluten forming–it’s the strings that appear once you’ve kneaded a dough for awhile.


Low gluten flour, such as all-purpose, pastry or cake flour (white or whole wheat, again) doesn’t make good yeast bread because the gluten strands don’t form as easily and the bread does not rise because it can’t stretch.


Does this make sense so far?


So, if you want to start substituting flours in your baking, you need to use the correct kind of flour for what you’re making. If it’s a yeast bread, use whole wheat bread flour. If it’s a quick bread, use whole wheat pastry flour. (I can’t find whole wheat pastry flour at most supermarkets; I get it at a health food store for a pretty good price.)


My friend asked about white whole wheat flour. I don’t think this is anything new, but King Arthur now markets a white whole wheat flour made from hard white wheat which, I have read, is an albino wheat variety. King Arthur’s flour is very finely ground and King Arthur claims that it can be substituted for up to 50% of all-purpose flour a recipe calls for. Their website also encourages bakers to use the flour for yeast bread, quick bread, and other baking. An online forum discussed how, because the flour has bran, it does need a little extra water or liquid added to recipes. You can read about that here.


I have used this flour, but mostly for quick breads, and have had good results without changing the liquid ingredients. My oven bakes to the beat of its own drum, so it’s hard for me to gauge the differences of that.


The main thing to remember, especially if you’re making whole wheat yeast bread, is to knead the dough long enough. Because whole wheat flour–even white whole wheat flour–has other stuff besides the endosperm (the carbohydrate portion of the grain.) Whole wheat also has the germ (protein) and the bran (the grain covering/fiber). These get in the way a little of gluten formation, so you have to knead breads with whole wheat flour in them longer than white breads.


To quote Laurel Robertson in The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking, “From the baker’s point of view, added bran cuts into the gluten, reducing its rising strength.” This is one reason your whole wheat bread is more dense. That pesky bran is cutting the gluten strands!


In the first chapter of this book, “A Loaf for Learning,” Laurel describes how the gluten will form in the kneading process: “Halfway through kneading you can gently tug and pull the dough out flabby-thin. The surface will still be plenty rough, with little craters all over; the dough will tear easily.” Later, she explains how the dough will look when you are finished kneading. “When the dough is fully developed, it will pull into a paper-thin, smooth and bright. When you hold it to the light, you can see the webbing of the gluten strands in the sheet.”


(Actually, if you want to learn how to make 100% whole wheat bread, the best source is The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book. It’s based on years of practical experience and is very helpful in teaching the techniques needed to make truly whole grain loaves. You can also find an excellent bread-baking community on where a lot of readers comment about The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book and how they have used/changed the recipes.)

Because of the bran and the germ in whole wheat flour, your whole grain baking will never be as fluffy as it was when you used white flour. I’ve gotten used to tasty, but flat-ish, biscuits and rustic loaves of bread. (You can call them “rustic” when they’re not fluffy.) Maybe I’m giving up by not trying to make whole-wheat fluffier, but I don’t mind a toothsome loaf.

Let me know what kinds of successes (and failures) you’ve had in substituting whole wheat flours for white!


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