Perhaps the most important ingredient to a proper baked good is the choice of flour. Choosing flour seems like a simple task, but with so many different brands and types of flour on the market, a trip down the baking aisle can get overwhelming in a hurry. The last Food Dork Friday post focused on the types of flour that I often use and are commonplace in baking. This week, I thought it might be helpful to cover other types of flour and whole grains that can appear in whole grain baking. This list is far from inclusive of all of the whole grain flours available—I’m focusing on the most common flours other than the usual wheat varieties that are used for baking. Other whole grains will be covered in a future post.
Rye: Legend has it that rye was first discovered as a weed in wheat fields, which is further supported by its tenacious growing habits. Rye can thrive in fields that have been exhausted by overproduction, survive sub-zero temperatures, and grow and/or germinate in near-freezing temperatures. As a baking ingredient, rye usually falls into one of two categories: Love It or Hate It.
Rye is high in sugars, giving it a sweet, somewhat grassy flavor. The high sugars coupled with low gluten content can give rye breads a denser feel with a moist, almost gummy texture. The gummy texture is caused by the sugars which link to form fragile bonds that hold rye bread together as it bakes. The trick to making a good loaf of rye bread is to not knead the dough as vigorously as a you would for wheat bread, because the once the fragile sugar bonds are broken, the dough begins to disintegrate, losing both shape and texture. Most often, rye bread contains a form of sourdough starter which will help to preserve the structure and delay the disintegration of the dough. From a nutritional stand point, rye retains much more of its nutrients after milling than wheat because the germ and bran are not as easily separated from the endosperm.
Rye flour is typically sold as light, medium, or dark, with the coarsest grained whole rye flour sold as Pumpernickel. The color classifications depend on how much of the bran and germ are left in the flour. The darker the color, the more germ and bran it contains. Darker rye flours are not usually found in stores, but can be ordered directly from (my favorite) King Arthur Flour, Hodgson Mill, and Bob’s Red Mill.
Storage: Rye flour can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, if it will be used within a few months. However rye flour is extremely susceptible to fungus and rancidity; both conditions can cause harm when ingested. Your best bet—always store rye flour in the freezer.
Semolina Flour: Having the texture of medium cornmeal, semolina refers to the coarse granules created when milling Durham wheat berries. A finer milling will produce Durham Flour, which is an almost powdery flour made from the Durham wheat berries. Semolina is a major component in Italian style breads and some types of pasta, giving them a yellowish hue; the high gluten content gives the breads and pasta a good “chew.”
Storage: Semolina should be stored in an airtight container and used within a month. For longer storage, store in the freezer.
Oats: Different processing yields different oat products, but all oats start as oat seeds on an oat stalk. Once the oat seeds are cleaned of their thick outer husk, they become oat groats. When groats are rolled and steamed, they become rolled (or old-fashioned) oats. When the oat groats are neither steamed nor rolled, but simply cut into pieces, they are called steel-cut oats. When steel cut oats are steamed and rolled thin, they become quick oats. All of the above forms of oats can be used as additions in baking, if properly prepared. Instant oats are made from cut oat groats that are steamed and dried. I don’t recommend baking with instant oats, as they quickly become mushy and disintegrate when moistened.
Oat Flour is made from ground oats, and contains absolutely no gluten so it should be used in small amounts with wheat flour being the primary flour in the recipe. Oat flour is incredibly moist, and adds great flavor and moisture retention to baked goods.
Storage: oats and oat flour should be stored in an airtight container.
Barley: One of civilization’s oldest crops, barley is an extremely hardy grain, able to grow in areas that are too dry, too cold, or too salty for wheat, or even rye. Barley has a tough, double-coated husk and an additional coating of bran between the husk and endosperm, making it incredibly robust and resistant to insects. Those attributes combined with it being ready for harvest a mere three months after planting make barley a staple crop in many regions, and the fourth largest cereal grain crop in the world. In the US, barley is commonly grown to feed livestock, or to make malt, which is then used as a sweetener or flavoring.
Barley flour is characterized as having a slightly nutty taste like other whole grains, but with a finer grind and milder flavor–making it a great addition to whole grain baked goods for those that don’t prefer the taste of many whole grains. When cooked, the fiber in barley becomes sticky, giving a rich or buttery feeling in your mouth. Barley flour has a high protein content, but the gluten it produces is weak and incapable of holding structure on its own in a baked good. Although barley flour mixes beautifully and appears to mimic the characteristics of wheat flour in dough, it behaves very differently. The weak gluten structure and viscosity when cooked will cause baked goods made with high amounts of barley flour to fall apart in the oven.
Believe me when I tell you that you that you will Rue the Day that you decided to make a pastry crust primarily out of barley flour in order to incorporate more whole grains into your family’s diet. A quiche that goes into the oven looking beautiful and perfect will end up with most of the dough “melting” off the pie plate; thus leaving you with scrambled eggs in the plate, and a giant, charred mess on the bottom of the oven.
But don’t let that experience scare you away from barley flour! Learn from it and always use proportionately more wheat flour to barley flour because the sweet, buttery, crispness it lends to baked goods is unparalleled—an excellent addition to cookies and crackers. Due to the structural issues, I do not recommend using barley flour in yeast breads.
Storage: barley flour should be stored in an airtight container in the freezer and used within 6 months.
Spelt: Considered to be one of the founding members of the wheat family, spelt has a lighter, nuttier flavor than wheat. As a pure, “ancestral wheat,” spelt has a higher nutrition content than common wheat varieties because it not been hybridized, as modern wheat has, for higher yields and easier threshing. Spelt is considered a hearty grain due to its ultra-thick husk. However, it is that husk that makes the spelt berry quite small and threshing difficult, giving it a poor yield-per-acre. Whole spelt flour is higher in protein and contains up to four times the fiber of whole wheat flour. Spelt’s higher protein content also makes it capable of producing more gluten than whole wheat. Spelt has the characteristic nutty taste of whole wheat, but a much milder flavor. Spelt flour is pretty widely available at health food stores and/or natural foods markets.
When using spelt flour in cakes, cookies, muffins, or quick-breads made with baking powder, the batter/dough should rest overnight to give it a chance to stabilize. (Otherwise the dough will “spread” too much.) Due to the overnight rest period, spelt flour should not be used in recipes calling for baking soda, as the baking soda in a prepared batter will “lose power” over night.
Storage: Spelt flour should be stored in an airtight container in the freezer and used within 6 months.
Useless Trivia Alert: The German name for spelt is “dinkle.” As previously noted, spelt has a smaller berry proportionate to a wheat berry and a lesser yield-per-acre as compared to wheat. Spelt’s thicker husk also made harvesting it much more difficult than wheat. The smaller yield coupled with the increased amount of effort required to harvest made spelt quickly fall out of fashion in 1920’s America. The term Dinkle-Berry became a slang term applied to someone of lesser intelligence (or thick-headed) based on the comparative less than parameters of spelt to wheat.
My BFF Megan over at CountryCleaver.com does great work with a version of America’s Test Kitchen Multigrain Bread. Once you’ve got your alternative whole grain flours in order, I highly recommend baking this bread.