Whole-Grain Flour Glossary

Whole-grain flour doesn't just mean wheat anymore. A variety of grains and grain-like seeds are available for the whole-grain baker, each with its own special qualities and flavors.

Whole grain varieties

A staggering number of flavors, nutrients, colors and textures can be incorporated into recipes for more healthful baking.

Photo courtesy Voyageur Press

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Baking successfully with whole-grain flours requires putting them at the center of each recipe, rather than thinking of them as add-ons, and Tabitha Alterman shows you how to do just that in Whole Grain Baking Made Easy (Voyageur Press, 2014). From mainstays, such as wheat and rye, to less-common choices, such as amaranth and teff, learn how to craft more than 50 mouthwatering recipes by following the simple instructions and beautiful full-color photography throughout this guide. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “Whole Grain Buyer’s Guide.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Whole Grain Baking Made Easy.

The following whole grains make exceptionally nutritious flours. To reap the biggest dietary benefits, try to incorporate a number of them into your cooking rotation.

Amaranth

Amaranth is not actually a grain. But it behaves like one and is equally nutritious. Amaranth seeds are especially high in protein, healthy fats, calcium, iron, and other minerals. They also contain the amino acid lysine, which is lacking in most grains. Lysine makes the proteins in amaranth more useful to our bodies.

• Flavor: Amaranth has a bold flavor some describe as woody, grassy, or malty. The aroma is noticeably grassy, too. Try using amaranth flour in recipes calling for other bold ingredients, such as chilies, chocolate, coffee, molasses, dark sugars, and pungent spices.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Amaranth flour can lengthen baking time somewhat and make baked goods dark. When added raw to baked goods, it adds crunch. Amaranth can also be popped in a hot, dry pan. When cooked into a porridge, it gets sticky.
• Home Milling Notes
: Because amaranth seeds are so small, pour them slowly into your grain mill’s hopper while the mill is running, and sift out any seeds that slipped through whole into the flour. Amaranth can also be ground in a grain blender or coffee grinder.

Barley

Barley has traditionally been used for making beer and whiskey but also has a history of showing up in breads. It was once the main bread grain in Europe. Barley comes “hulled” (meaning its outer hull has been removed), “hull-less” (meaning that variety doesn’t have the outer hull in the first place), and “pearled” (meaning the hull and much of the nutritious bran have been removed).
Of all whole grains, barley has the lowest rating on the glycemic index, meaning it provides perhaps the longest burning energy of any grain. (This is not true of pearled barley.) Barley is also especially high in fiber, protein, and antiaging antioxidants.

• Flavor: Barley is creamy, fatty, and nutty with a complex, malty sweetness that has a slightly tart backbone. Barley plays nicely with many sweet and savory ingredients.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Barley has a tenderizing effect on baked goods, which makes it useful in any food you’d like to be soft. Its flavor is mild enough that people probably won’t notice if it has replaced some wheat in a recipe.
• Home Milling Notes
: Barley can be ground in a grain mill or grain blender. Barley can also be flattened into cereal flakes in a roller mill.

Buckwheat

Whole buckwheat behaves like a grain but is actually a seed high in healthy fats, minerals, and vitamins. It has been shown to help control blood pressure. Triangular buckwheat groats are often toasted and sold as kasha, or they are toasted and cracked and sold as buckwheat grits.

• Flavor: Buckwheat has a strong flavor you might describe as earthy, savory, or umami. Most people either love it or hate it. Pair buckwheat with other assertive flavors or balance it with strong-flavored sweeteners.
• Unique Baking Personality:
The unmistakable flavor of buckwheat is definitely best when freshly ground. It can get gummy, so be careful not to overcook it if making it into a porridge. Slow fermentation helps mellow buckwheat’s flavor in breads.
• Home Milling Notes
: Buckwheat, raw or toasted, can be ground in a grain mill, grain blender, or coffee grinder.

Corn

Corn classification gets tricky, yet many types of corn are interchangeable. If one is too coarse for your purpose, give it a spin in a food processor before use. Cornmeal, made from whole kernels of dried grain corn or from popcorn, is ground into varying degrees of coarseness, with fine corn flour at one end of the spectrum and coarse polenta at the other. Sometimes corn is processed with lye into hominy. If hominy is finely ground, it’s called masa harina or masa flour. If hominy is medium-coarse to coarsely ground, it’s called grits. If it’s barely broken or cracked, it’s called samp.

• Flavor: What you’re looking for in baking is corn’s sweet undertone. The best way to get this desirable flavor—and there are no exceptions—is to grind your own fresh cornmeal—the crème de la crème of homemade grain products. It’s worth seeking out heirloom corns that are known to be especially flavorful. Culinary historian and author of 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From William Woys Weaver favors Delaware Indian Puhwem corn for flour.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Keep degree of coarseness in mind when using any ground corn in a recipe.
• Home Milling Notes
: Buy the best-quality dried heirloom grain corn you can find, or use popcorn, which is easier to find. Process to grain mill or blender’s finest setting for corn flour and medium or coarse for cornmeal and polenta.

Millet

Usually used as birdseed in North America, millet is one of the most nutrient-dense foods in Africa, where the seeds are commonly eaten. Millet can be up to 22 percent protein and is also high in fiber, healthy fats, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, lysine, and vitamins, especially B vitamins.

• Flavor: Though flavor depends on the variety, millet typically has a mild, nutty, cornlike flavor.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Tiny millet seeds can be cooked into softness if they have not been toasted first. If they are toasted in a hot pan first, they retain a good deal of crunch and have a deeper flavor. Millet can add a coarse texture, much like cornmeal, to baked goods.
• Home Milling Notes
: Millet is best ground in a grain mill or grain blender. You can grind small batches in a coffee grinder, but be sure to sift any whole seeds out of the flour.

Oats

Superfood oats are high in protein (twice that of wheat), healthy fats, antiaging antioxidants, and a type of fiber that sweeps cholesterol out of our bodies and boosts immune function. Whole oats are called groats. When chopped (similar to cracked wheat), they’re called steel-cut oats, Irish oats, or Scottish oats. Most people are familiar with rolled or “old-fashioned” oats, which have been pressed into flakes. I avoid using quick oats, which are rolled oats that have been further chopped and processed, with the result that they cause more dramatic spikes in blood sugar.

• Flavor: Oats are mild and nutty. Often the flavor recedes into the background.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Oats are moisture-loving, tenderizing, and thickening; they have a chewy, creamy quality that comes through in baked goods. Oats can be used to create various textures. Left whole, rolled oats add chewiness or crunchiness, depending on how long they’re cooked. Chop them in a food processor, and you’ll have the familiar texture of your grandma’s oatmeal cookies. Pulverize them completely, and you’ll have moist, fine-textured oat flour.
• Home Milling Notes
: Rolled oats can be turned into flour in a food processor, coffee grinder, or regular blender. Steel-cut oats and whole groats must be processed in a grain mill or grain blender. Oat flour is best freshly ground. Groats can also be flattened into rolled oats in a roller mill.

Quinoa

Related to amaranth, quinoa is another nongrain acting like a grain. The ancient Incas, who were crazy about this seed, called it the mother grain. Quinoa is a complete protein and is high in calcium, potassium, healthy fats, iron, and vitamins, especially B and E. Its white circles are its nutrient-dense germ. Like amaranth, quinoa is high in lysine, which is absent from most grains.

• Flavor: Quinoa is as strongly flavored (and scented) as amaranth, with a good deal of nuttiness and a touch of bitterness. Try it in recipes that will also feature savory ingredients such as nuts, soy sauce, and meat. When paired with sweet ingredients, quinoa’s nuttiness becomes more pronounced.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Quinoa is naturally coated in a bitter substance that can be removed if it’s rinsed off before use (rinse in cool water until water runs clear). This should already have been washed off of commercial quinoa flour. There are numerous varieties of quinoa. Quinoa flour can lend an appealing, fatty mouthfeel and heartiness to baked goods. If you want to add something crunchy to a pastry, pop quinoa in a dry pan with steep sides over medium-high heat until most of it has popped and you notice a toasty aroma.
• Home Milling Notes
: You can grind quinoa, raw or popped, into flour in a food processor, regular or grain blender, coffee grinder, or grain mill. If you have rinsed it to remove the bitter saponins, let it dry before grinding.

Rice

Most of the rice sold in the United States is highly refined white rice that has had much of its nutrition polished off. Brown rice (and other colored varieties), on the other hand, is whole in the same way wheat can be whole—it still contains its fiber-rich bran and germ. Many people bake with rice flour because it is unlikely to be an allergen.

• Flavor: Whole-grain brown rice is nutty and mild, making it versatile. Different varieties have subtle flavor differences.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Flour made from short-grain sweet rice makes stickier batters and doughs than long-grain rice flours—and thus, fluffier, spongier baked goods. This is a useful property when making baked goods with little or no gluten. The less-starchy flours from long-grain rice behave more like wheat flour, yet with the specific flavors of the type of rice. Rice flour lends a somewhat sandy quality to baked goods.
• Home Milling Notes
: Rice can be ground into flour in a grain mill or grain blender.

Rye

Rye is most often associated with northern and eastern Europe, where it is the stuff of bread legend. In the grocery store, you’ll find light, medium, and dark rye, and pumpernickel, which is whole-grain dark rye. Light rye tastes like a lot of nothing. Medium (and sometimes dark) rye has had some of its flavorful bran removed. If you grind rye berries at home, you’ll have whole pumpernickel rye—and you won’t be sorry. This delicious grain is in the same category as raw vegetables on some Weight Watchers indexes; that means it’s OK as an anytime snack. Rye is high in antioxidants, fiber, iron, and a number of minerals. Rye is able to absorb a ton of water. The extra moisture in rye breads lends to longer keeping quality and an ability to make you feel fuller than other breads do.

• Flavor: Rye has a dark, heavy, sweet flavor that is part grassy, part fruity. Many people who think they hate the flavor of rye have never had rye bread made with fresh flour. Many people also think the flavor of caraway seed or sourdough is actually the flavor of rye, since they are so often paired, but rye is sweet on its own.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Rye needs more moisture than other grains, because it has more bran and fiber to soak it up. If you are swapping rye for other whole-grain flours, be sure to increase the liquid. Adding a little liquid at a time is usually the best method, but be sure to give flour time to absorb moisture so you’ll know if it’s enough. Because of all that moisture and the potential for chewiness and gumminess, rye breads are often better the day after baking.
Rye does not like to be overworked, so be careful not to overknead, especially if using a stand mixer. Beware that rye mixtures may be gummier and tackier than if using other flours.
Rye has fast-acting enzymes that quickly convert starches into sugars. This can ruin bread dough if not kept in check. These amylase enzymes are usually balanced with some kind of acid, which could be from a sourdough culture or from an ingredient like buttermilk. Other ways to control the enzymatic action include limiting rising time and using a higher initial baking temperature.
• Home Milling Notes
: Rye berries should be ground in a grain mill or grain blender. Rye berries can also be flattened into cereal flakes in a roller mill. Rye flakes can be ground into flour in a coffee grinder or food processor.

Sorghum

Sorghum (also known as milo) is a staple around the world, but most of what is grown in the United States ends up in animal feed, sorghum syrup, or more recently, ethanol production. Sorghum does not need to be hulled, which means when you eat it, you get more nutrients than with other grains. Some varieties are especially high in antioxidants. Sorghum is currently being studied for its potential to reduce cholesterol, lower the risk of cancer, and improve cardiac health.

• Flavor: Sorghum flour tastes much like wheat, but a bit sweeter.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Sorghum can be popped like popcorn, and the flour can be used like wheat in nonbread recipes.
• Home Milling Notes
: Sorghum can be ground in a grain mill or grain blender.

Teff

This Ethiopian grass seed is most commonly used to make the sour, spongy bread injera, which provides the majority of nutrients in the Ethiopian diet. That doesn’t mean your experimentation with teff has to stop there. Teff pairs well with meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and chocolate. The tiny seeds are rich in protein and minerals, especially calcium and iron.

• Flavor: Teff is strong flavored and malty. Some say chocolaty. It is usually fermented briefly before use, which adds an intense sourness. It obviously works well when soured, but can also be used fresh in sweet recipes, where its rich flavor comes through a bit like molasses.
• Unique Baking Personality
: Teff has its own yeast strain living on it. If you mix it with water and let it ferment, it will produce a special kind of sourdough batter.
• Home Milling Notes
: Teff can be ground in a grain mill, grain blender, or coffee grinder. The seeds are so tiny that they can be difficult to grind. When milling your own, pour them very slowly into the hopper with the mill running and sift the flour after grinding.

Wheat

Like corn, the classification of whole wheat is complicated.

Wheat flour can be classified by protein content: Whole-wheat flour most often refers to flour ground from high-protein hard red or hard white wheat, depending on the pigments in the bran layer. Either of these could be spring wheat (planted in spring, harvested in summer) or winter wheat (planted in fall, harvested in spring). High-protein wheat is ideal for breads. Spring wheat has the highest levels. Whole-wheat pastry flour refers to a lower-protein wheat, also known as soft wheat. Soft wheat is ideal for pastries.

Whole wheat can also be classified based on how it is processed: Whole-wheat flour is ground from the entire wheat berry. Graham flour is coarsely ground. Cracked wheat refers to wheat that has been chopped, similar to steel-cut oats or rye chops. Bulgur wheat refers to wheat berries that have been steamed, dried, and cracked. Couscous is made from coarsely ground durum wheat that has been mixed with water, rolled into bits of varying sizes, and dried. Wheat flakes have been pressed from whole berries, similar to rolled oats. The most nutritious parts of the wheat berry, wheat bran and wheat germ, can be mechanically removed from the whole berry (in factories, not so easy to do at home) and sold separately to add texture and nutrients to baked goods. If you are using whole-wheat flour ground at home, you are getting all of the bran and germ already. Vital wheat gluten is a processed additive that can be combined with low-gluten bread doughs to increase rise. A tablespoon per loaf is usually sufficient.

Finally, wheat can be sorted by variety:

Durum is an especially hard variety of wheat that is usually ground into coarse semolina (after its nutritious bran and germ have been removed), and sometimes into couscous. Its combination of high protein and low gluten is perfect for pasta and pizza. To retain the nutrients of whole durum, you can grind whole berries into a flour much silkier than commercially available semolina or into a medium-coarse texture just like refined semolina.

Ancient varieties of wheat that are the progenitors of modern wheat are becoming more popular for their health benefits, and thus, more widely available. These include einkorn, emmer, and spelt, which are often confused for one another. This may be because they are so closely related, or because they are all called farro. Be sure you are getting the one you want as there are some differences, though they are all generally more nutritious than common wheat, and for many people, easier to digest. These old varieties also have better disease resistance than other kinds of wheat, which makes them attractive to farmers who don’t want to use chemical pesticides—and thus, attractive to conscientious consumers. The reason these may have fallen out of favor over the last hundred years is that they have a hull that is difficult to remove, which makes them more expensive to produce.

Kamut, actually a brand name for organically grown Khorasan wheat, is a more recent type of wheat developed by an organic farming family in Montana. It is related to durum but higher in protein. Its gluten is more tolerable to some people with gluten sensitivity.

• Flavor: Whole wheat is sweet and nutty, and goes well with a wide range of ingredients from chicken to chocolate. There is often a touch of tannic bitterness, but the bitterness is virtually absent in freshly ground wheat. Durum tastes like wheat with a deeper, nuttier character. Einkorn has a mild flavor similar to regular wheat. Emmer is sweeter and chewier than wheat. For this reason, emmer is one of culinary historian William Woys Weaver’s favorite flours to bake with. Spelt is nutty, sweet, and milder than regular wheat, with none of its bitterness. Kamut is buttery and sweeter than wheat. Spelt and Kamut have become my favorite wheats for baking.
• Unique Baking Personalities
: For breads, use regular whole-wheat flour made from high-protein hard wheat, or try flour made from durum, spelt, and Kamut. For cakes, cookies, moist breads, and pastries, use whole-wheat pastry flour made from low-protein soft wheat or try one of the ancient wheats, especially einkorn. For pizza and pasta, durum flour is excellent for its golden color and chewy quality. If you’re after a sandy quality, as in graham crackers, go with graham flour.
For its extra nutrition and deeper flavor, einkorn can replace some wheat flour in breads but will not help as much with rise. It needs plenty of time to absorb liquids and can sometimes use a little extra. Emmer has a somewhat coarse texture, even when finely ground. Give spelt batters and doughs plenty of time to absorb moisture and reduce liquid somewhat—add more as needed after it has had a chance to rest. Spelt has the ability to make more gluten than regular wheat, but it is also more fragile. Be careful not to overknead. It’s a good idea to combine spelt with regular wheat if your bread will ferment a long time. Kamut has more and stronger gluten than regular wheat. It makes amazingly tall, 100 percent whole-grain breads.
• Home Milling Notes
: All types of wheat are best ground in a grain mill or grain blender. The softer berries, including emmer, Kamut, spelt, and soft regular wheat, can be ground in small batches in an electric coffee grinder. All types of wheat berries can be cracked or flaked.

More from Whole Grain Baking Made Easy:

How to Make Homemade Flour
Basic Whole-Wheat Bread Recipe


Reprinted with permission from Whole Grain Baking Made Easy: Craft Delicious, Healthful Breads, Pastries, Desserts, and More by Tabitha Alterman and published by Voyageur Press, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Whole Grain Baking Made Easy.