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Quick Guide to Whole Grains for Baking

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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 gotten 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.

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.

whole grain bread

Using Whole Grains at Home

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 15 years ago after a friend hosted a little workshop at 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.

I do still bake with all-purpose unbleached flour as you can see from my Cheddar Jalapeno Dutch Oven Bread recipe and my No- Knead Rosemary Olive Oil bread recipe. Typically when I’m just trying to get a loaf together quickly, and I’m short on time, so remember, moderation in all things and use what you have.

What’s in a Whole Grain?

If you’re considering diving into the world of whole-grain foods, including whole grain baking, then here is just some basic info to get you started. The most basic elements of what is in an entire grain kernel can be broken down into three parts:

  1. The Bran– (Bran Flakes, anyone?) This is the thick outer coating of the grain. It contains antioxidantsB 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 fatsB vitamins (such as Vitamin E), 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. 

However the “new” flour production methods add back 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 may 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.

Whole wheat berries and other unground whole grains 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. unless you buy from a local mill and freeze it. 

And while most of my whole grain baking 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!)

Whole Grains are More than Wheat

When people hear about whole grains, most immediately think about whole wheat bread (which does not have to taste like cardboard). White flour, white bread, and other white pasta options are typically seen as the opposite of whole grains, and I believe that to be true.

But the truth is, whole grains are so much more than just replacing your white bread with a wheat bread option. You can add whole grains into your diet without eating bread. It’s true!

Here are some common whole grains that you can use as part of a healthy diet that can be found at most grocery stores or ordered online. See my video below for where I buy grains in bulk

  • Brown rice and Wild Rice
  • Quinoa (great protein option as well and has all 9 essential amino acids)
  • Oats (including steel-cut oats, rolled oats, and oat groats)
  • Whole wheat (wheat berries can be milled for flour or cooked on the stovetop)
  • Barley (Skinnytaste has a delicious Beef and Barley soup recipe!)
  • Spelt (similar to wheat but with a nutty flavor; it’s delicious!)
  • Rye
  • Einkorn

There are more, but these are easy to find and are in many whole grain products. Many are a good source of fiber, and I’m always looking for ways to increase that. But what if you’re intolerant to gluten? Can you still use whole grains?

Gluten Free Whole Grains

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.

If you’ve never heard of amaranth grain, be sure to check out this post.

How to Add in More Grains Daily

For our family, a few things have helped in adding in more whole grains each week. Here are some useful options:

  • Using freshly milled wheat for muffins and bread. I bake a loaf of bread each week or so made from whole grain flour (See the Honey Whole Wheat recipe below). My kids also love homemade muffins (especially these Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins) for breakfasts and snacks, and I make them with freshly milled flour as well. 
  • At least once a week, I bake brown rice to have with some of our favorite recipes like Thai Basil Beef and other quick stir fry dishes.
  • Add homemade granola made with whole grain oats to the top of Greek yogurt for a protein-rich and easy breakfast.
  • Swap out your regular white pasta for whole grain pasta. (I know our Aldi has delicious whole wheat spaghetti noodles.)

​Buying processed whole grain foods

While milling whole grain flour at home is wonderful, what if you just don’t have time for that or don’t want to make the investment for a grain mill just yet? You can certainly buy whole-grain products at your local store or from local bakeries. Here are some suggestions when looking for whole grain food products:

  • Check the ingredient list. You want to see whole-wheat flour or other whole grain as the first ingredient on the list. 
  • See if there are any bakeries or home bakers in your area who make freshly baked whole-grain bread for purchase. (I was surprised at a local cafe who I heard milling grain one day when I was there. I found out all of their breads and cookies were made with whole grain flour!)
  • If your local store doesn’t carry good whole grain options, consider ordering online and storing in the freezer until you’re ready to use. 

I hope this helps explain about what whole grains are and how I use them in baking. Check out the resources below for whole grain recipes and other helps for whole grain cooking!

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

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