Whole Grains: A Love Affair


There’s something about the chill in the air that just makes me want to brew a giant pot of coffee, put on leggings, and bake.  

whole grains even in whoopie pies
The Notorious P.I.E.

Bread, muffins, cakes, brownies, biscuits, scones… you name it, I’m baking it (I’m known for some pretty rockin’ whoopie pies, and guess what: they’re made with whole grain wheat flour!)  This cold-weather baking compulsion doesn’t always bode well for my daily caloric intake, though, so I do my best to make nutritionally positive adjustments; I swap out oil for applesauce or yogurt, I minimize added sugars, but most of all, I use whole grains.

It’s fairly common knowledge nowadays that whole grains are better for us than refined grains, but what does that even mean?  Here’s my layman’s explanation: whole grains are, well, whole.  A grain is made up of 3 parts, and if it’s refined, at least one of those parts is removed.  Whole grains have all their parts and pack a pretty powerful nutritional punch.

Some people hear “whole grains” and think of nothing but dense, seed-filled, crunchy, heavy bricks of bread.  Fear not, my friends!  You can make light and fluffy pancakes, high-rising loaves of bread, and tasty, sweet treats with a few tricks of the trade!

Note that my “trade”, in this case, is more of a hobby.  I have no formal baking education, and I’ve learned what I know about baking with whole grains from public television cooking shows, blogs, cookbooks, and lots of trial and error.  I’m a food nerd.

White whole wheat flour is a magical thing.  No, this is not a mix of regular all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour.  Traditional whole wheat flour is made from a red wheat berry; white whole wheat is made from a white wheat berry, which has a slightly milder flavor than red-berry wheat.  If you’ve never baked with whole wheat before, I’d definitely start here.

Accurate measuring is important.  Did you ever wonder why it seems impossible to replicate the fluffiness of a bakery muffin?  It’s because bakers use scales to weigh their flours, instead of measuring in cups, like most of us are accustomed to doing at home.  I never realized how much I was over-flouring my baked goods until I bought a kitchen scale.  Don’t have a scale?  Fluff up your flour with a fork, then spoon it into your measuring cup and level it with a knife.

whole grain muffins

Don’t be afraid to make substitutions… You don’t have to go on wild goose chases to find whole-grain recipes.  In fact, I swap out refined grains for whole grains all the time (like using rolled oats instead of instant oatmeal, or whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour!)  You just have to consider what you’re making.  Generally, things like muffins, pancakes, and quick breads handle whole grain substitutions pretty well; fragile cookies, light and airy cakes, and pie crusts are a bit more finicky.

…but don’t make too many substitutions.  I know, it’s exciting to get on the whole grain train, but be sure to take a good look at your recipe before going full-steam ahead.  If it’s a new recipe, or something really delicate, start slowly, with small substitutions.  Maybe try using 50% all-purpose flour, 50% white whole wheat flour, and see how that goes.   If that goes well, then try another substitution the next time you bake it, like using a higher percentage of whole wheat flour or minimizing added sugar.  Remember, baking is chemistry, so changing lots of ingredients will definitely have an effect on the end result.

Add moisture.  Whole grains can be drier than that refined stuff, so if you’re swapping in a whole grain in a recipe that uses a refined grain, you may need to add an extra tablespoon or two of liquid (milk, water, juice, or whatever you’re already using in the recipe will be fine).

Fear those whole grains no longer; go forth, friends, and bake!


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