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Quick Guide to Whole Grains

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quick guide to whole grains

I have always been a fan of baking. At the oh-so-mature age of 8, I saved my hard earned dollars, begged my mom to drive me to Toys R Us, and bought an Easy Bake Oven. There was even a $1 rebate on the side of the box that I cut out and mailed in. Have you ever received a check for $1? When it came in the mail, I felt like the richest kid on the cul-de-sac. That Easy Bake Oven, pumping out treats baked by a 100-watt bulb, is now sitting in my laundry room. It’s still in the original box with a square cut out of the side. And it’s a constant reminder, amid dirty laundry, of how long I have loved to bake.

When I eventually outgrew the small metal pans of the Easy Bake, my mom freely allowed me to use the “big” oven. And from the pages of my mom’s Southern Living cookbooks, I would find all kinds of treats to bake. Not all of these creations were keepers. But most consisted of some kind of enriched flour, butter, eggs, etc. And as I have grown older and eased into bread baking, I’ve learned that keeping grains as close to the original product as possible will revolutionize food as you know it. When left whole, grains are packed full of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber, all those things we know we should eat more of.

Quick Guide to Whole Grains

Many of the baking recipes here on The Kitchen Garten are whole grain. And by that, I mean I use freshly ground whole wheat flour, though another grain could be used if you prefer. We began using freshly ground whole grains about 8 years ago after a friend hosted a little workshop in her house. The information about using the entire grain changed my thinking about baking. I had been a big King Arthur unbleached flour user for years, but now I realized that even though it tasted great, it was not doing my body (or my family’s) any favors.

What’s in a Grain?

The most basic elements of what is in one single grain can be broken down into three parts:

  1. The Bran– (Bran Flakes, anyone?) This is the thick outer coating of the grain. It contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and as you could probably guess, fiber. In grocery store all-purpose flours (including bread and cake flour) , the bran has been completely removed.
  2. The Germ– This small part of the grain kernel is what would sprout if you were growing a new plant. For such a tiny part of the kernel, it has healthy fats, B vitamins, some protein, and minerals. The germ is also usually removed during the flour refining process.
  3. The Endosperm– The largest part of the kernel is the grain’s food supply. If this grain were going to be planted, the endosperm would provide the energy needed for roots and sprouts to grow. This part contains starchy carbohydrates, small amounts of vitamins minerals, and some proteins. This makes up most of the flour you’d find on grocery store shelves.

Grain Anatomy

What are you getting in your flour bag?

In a typical bag of all-purpose (non-whole wheat) flour from the grocery store, the bran and germ of the grain kernel has been stripped away. This isn’t a new process. Even wealthy ancient peoples had servants sift the bran and germ out of milled grains. Essentially taking out the goodness. But what our new flour production methods add are vitamins and minerals that were stripped away with the bran and germ. Companies are required to put a certain amount of these nutrients back into processed flour. This is why you read “Enriched” on your bag of flour. Sounds ok, right? Not really. What is put back in doesn’t nearly measure up to the nutritional goodness that was taken away.

And while store bought whole wheat flour is better than all-purpose, the bran and germ are still there, it’s still been sitting on a shelf for who-knows-how-long. Grains kept whole have an incredibly long shelf life. But once a grain is milled, it begins losing it’s vitamin value, and a large portion is gone with in 24 hours (40%). Another 50% is lost within the next 48 hours. Best case scenario, if the bagged whole wheat flour you bought was milled yesterday, then you still may be getting some of the fresh goodness from those grains. More than likely that won’t happen with travel time, packaging, etc.

Not just wheat

While most of my whole grain talk revolves around wheat, it’s not the only grain that isn’t kept whole. Rice is a common grain that is typically eaten with the germ and bran stripped away. White rice may cook up fluffier than its brown counterpart, but the fiber and nutrients from the bran and germ are missing. So stick with brown rice even though it takes a little longer to cook. (Alton Brown has a foolproof baked brown rice recipe that will change your life!)

The Mighty Oat

If you’ve been reading this and feeling like a whole grain failure, don’t! There is one common grain that is processed intact with bran and germ. It’s the mighty oat! Though it can be covered in sugar and flavorings in a small brown package, it’s still a whole grain! Rolled oats, which is what Quaker is famous for, is simply the entire oat groat steamed and flattened. This makes them cook faster and have a softer taste. Yes, tastes can be soft.

Gluten Free? No worries

Those of you who associate whole grain with wheat need not worry. There’s a long list of gluten free grains (and seeds) including:

  • millet
  • quinoa
  • oats
  • rice
  • sorghum
  • barley (try to avoid pearled)
  • amaranth
  • buckwheat

Many of these are typically found still whole, so you’ll be adding those nutritious whole grain benefits to your diet whenever you eat them. Some can even be milled into flour and used in recipes in place of wheat.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting more about how to get started using whole grains in your cooking and baking. This will include information about buying grains, using a grain mill, and storing grains. I’d love for you to be in on all of the info. If you aren’t already subscribed to The Kitchen Garten, go ahead and get on the list so you don’t miss out!

In the meantime, here’s some of our favorite whole grain recipes:

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

No-Knead Whole Grain Baguettes

Easy Glazed Lemon Scones

Whole Grain Cinnamon Raisin Bread

Skillet Peach Cobbler

For more information on whole grains, check out these sites:

Whole Grains Council

Bread Beckers