Homemade Whole-Grain Bread: You Have to Try This Amazing Recipe

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Our exceptionally delicious Whole-Grain Bread recipe yields a surprisingly light loaf with deep flavor.
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Milling your own grain produces the ultimate fresh flour.
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Boost bread’s nutrition and flavor by mixing whole grains into a sponge (top) and a soaker (bottom).
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Adding baking stones and steam to your oven ensures a good rise and the best crust for homemade bread.
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A number of companies offer top-quality flours and unmilled grains.
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Whole-Wheat Flour vs. Unenriched White Flour Graph
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Whole grains, nuts and seeds add new flavors and nutrients to homemade breads.
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Allow freshly baked loaves to fully cool before slicing. For most breads, this means at least an hour of patient watching.

Most of us know that homemade loaves taste far better than supermarket fare. And we know that whole-grain breads are much more nutritious but sometimes suffer in the flavor and texture departments. With this versatile recipe, we’ll show you the best of both worlds: how to make breads that taste even better than white-flour homemade breads and are super-nutritious.

If you want to jump straight to the recipe, check out Homemade Whole-Grain Bread Recipe. When the editorial staff tested it, everyone was blown away that 100 percent whole-grain bread could taste this good. Not only does it have exceptional flavor and texture, but it delivers more fiber, vitamins and minerals than store-bought breads. After you’ve made the basic homemade whole-grain bread, try incorporating our sprouted grain and multigrain suggestions in Amp Up Your Bread With Sprouted Grains and Multigrains.

The Bread-Making Method

Our recipe uses time-tested techniques from bakers past and present, especially the methods of whole-grain baking expert Peter Reinhart, author of Whole Grain Breads. The method is made up of three parts: a sponge, a soaker and the final dough.

Sponge. Bakers around the world use sponges to start their breads. Many people have heard of the sourdough levain. The Italians favor a biga, which is 65 percent flour to 35 percent water by weight (our sponge is a biga). The French use a poolish, which is equal parts flour and water. The function of all of these sponges is to contribute flavor and superior texture to the finished bread. A small amount of yeast (wild yeast in sourdough, commercial yeast in bigas and poolishes) is given a long time to work, which allows enzymes in the flour to convert tasteless starches into flavorful sugars. These yeasted sponges are usually refrigerated to allow the yeast to ferment slowly.

Soaker. The soaker is a mixture of whole or coarsely ground grains or flour soaked in water, buttermilk or yogurt. Soaking softens grains and activates enzymes that release sugars. If the grains are left whole, the soaker helps germination begin. Whether made with milled or whole grains or flour, soakers sweeten dough and create a more satisfying crust.

Dough. The sponge and soaker are combined with additional flour and yeast in the final step. This is easiest if done using a stand mixer, fitted first with a paddle for about five minutes; then switched to a dough hook after the dough has begun to come together. A few minutes of hand-kneading will finish the dough.

Use Fresh, Whole-Grain Flours

To ensure you always have the freshest flour for the most memorable bread, buy whole-grain flours in quantities you’ll be able to store in the freezer. Whole-wheat flour includes nutritious oils that become rancid if not stored properly, lending a harsh flavor. Unmilled grains, on the other hand, can be stored for 20 to 30 years.

Milling your own grains produces the ultimate fresh flour. (Watch a video of  two MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors operating an innovative bicycle-powered grain mill in Grind Your Own Flour With a Bike-Powered Grain Mill.) Quality grain mills start at about $200, but they’re a smart investment if you’re serious about putting the best food on your table. The ingredients list for basic bread is short: flour, yeast, salt, water — so top-quality ingredients make their presence known. Yet, surprisingly, homemade loaves made with top-quality flour cost only about a buck each.

Homemade, Whole-Grain Bread: Not All Wheat Is Equal

With more than 30,000 varieties of wheat in existence, you’d think nutritious flours would be numerous, but that isn’t the case. Donald R. Davis, Ph.D., a retired nutrition scientist from the University of Texas, has studied how wheat varieties have declined nutritionally over the past 50 years as farmers have shifted to industrial methods.

“Beginning about 1960, selective breeding and modern production methods gradually increased wheat yields by about threefold,” Davis says. “Unfortunately, this famous Green Revolution is accompanied by an almost-unknown side effect of decreasing mineral concentrations in wheat. Measured declines in the range of 20 to 50 percent have been documented in modern wheats for magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, phosphorus and sulfur, and they probably apply to other minerals as well. They presumably affect the health of people everywhere in the world, because inadequate intakes of many of these minerals are well-documented both in developed and developing countries.”

Some of today’s varieties also have half as much protein as earlier varieties, Davis says, while old wheat varieties often have substantially higher amounts of valuable phytochemicals. Although some modern commercial flours are high in total protein, they do not necessarily contain the specific proteins important for good bread.

A few artisan companies are bucking this trend. Wheat Montana Farms is one company that sells wheat berries. According to Bo Maurer, the company’s marketing director, its two varieties — ‘Prairie Gold’ and ‘Bronze Chief’ — are high in bread-friendly protein.

Pleasant Hill Grain, The Urban Homemaker, Heartland Mill and Daisy Organic Flours also source high-quality grains free of genetic modification; many are organically raised. We are thrilled about the increasing availability of locally grown heirloom wheat varieties, such as ‘Turkey Red,’ ‘Red Fife’ and ‘Redeemer,’ which possess traits that make them good for both farmers and bakers. If a bakery near you turns out wonderful breads, ask where it buys its flour — many small mills will accommodate individual orders.

Our recipes were tested with King Arthur Traditional Whole-Wheat and Unbleached Bread flours, as well as with flour we ground ourselves from Wheat Montana’s ‘Bronze Chief’ and Pleasant Hill Grain’s hard red winter wheat berries. Each performed well for us.

Get to Know Bread Science

Giving dough extra time to relax and ripen actually saves you effort. In most bread recipes, dough is mixed and then kneaded to bring its gluten strands into alignment, creating elasticity and structure. It’s then allowed to rise fairly quickly before being baked.

In our method, we mix two portions of the dough to combine the ingredients thoroughly and begin developing flavor, but we don’t do much kneading. Early fermentation does most of the structural work. We also allow the dough (or portions of it) to rest quite a bit — sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes overnight. The overall time for mixing and kneading is reduced, and some nutrients are thus protected from the damages of incorporating too much oxygen through over-mixing.

“Extra fermentation time results in more flavor because there is more time for chemical reactions to occur, and these reactions produce the ‘flavor molecules,'” says Emily Buehler, an expert on bread flavors. Buehler holds a doctorate in chemistry, worked as a bread-baker for six years and is the author of Bread Science. “Fermentation basically converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol, credited with providing flavor,” she says. “In fact, the process is more complicated: Enzymes break the starch into complex sugars and then into simple sugars, and many steps are needed to convert the sugars into carbon dioxide and flavor. Side reactions occur that result in numerous organic flavor molecules, not just alcohol. The dough becomes more acidic. Because some enzymes work better in acidic conditions or are triggered by acid, the increasing acidity boosts the reactions. A longer fermentation time allows this process to really get going.”

Too much yeast can cause an over-fermented, dense crumb. Intuition may tell you that heavy, gummy whole-wheat bread would be improved by adding more yeast, but the reverse is actually true — you want less yeast and a longer fermentation for light, whole-grain loaves. To control yeast’s enthusiasm, we use cool water and refrigerate our sponges to slow them down.

Allowing each portion of pre-dough to develop for a long time permits maximum flavor and enzyme development in your homemade, whole-grain bread. The soaker, without yeast, ages at room temperature, and the sponge, with yeast, ages in the refrigerator.

The increased acidity that results from long fermentation also improves gluten development — allowing for good shape, texture and rise with less kneading — and creates moist bread that keeps longer than usual, without added preservatives. Our multigrain bread kept perfectly well wrapped in a kitchen towel on the counter for five days. Adding more yeast during the final mix allows for a relatively quick rise that maximizes structure and texture.

You can modify existing recipes to benefit from long fermentation. Begin your experiments by turning half of the flour, liquid and salt into a soaker, and the other half of the flour and liquid — plus about 10 percent of the yeast — into a sponge. If you have a wild yeast (sourdough) starter, substitute it for the sponge in our recipes; you may have to add more flour to the final dough if your starter is especially wet.

Build in Even More Nutrition

Another way to add nutrients and flavor to homemade whole-grain bread is to sprout some of the grains in the recipe. For how-to instructions, read Amp Up Your Bread With Sprouted Grains and Multigrains.

Soaking grains until they sprout jump-starts many chemical reactions. Enzyme activity — including enzymes that aid digestion of carbohydrates — increases as much as sixfold. Soluble fiber and omega fatty acids become more available, as do a number of vitamins and minerals, including A, B-complex, C and E, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium and selenium. Sprouting neutralizes acids that interfere with our ability to assimilate nutrients and unlocks other enzymes useful in dough development. Plus, eating whole-grain foods that contain more soluble fiber slows digestion so we may better absorb all of the other nutrients in the bread.

Modify your own bread recipes by substituting up to 100 percent of the flour content with sprouted grains. Because sprouted-grain breads can be dense, improve the rise by adding wheat gluten to your dough. Include an ounce of gluten per pound of dry wheat berries.

There’s more to nutritious bread than sprouted grains. You can also add nuts, seeds and whole grains to your favorite recipes, thereby boosting nutrition and flavor. Begin by substituting a combination of raw and cooked grains for about half the weight of the flour. Larger, harder grains should first be softened by precooking (see our Cooking Grains chart in Amp Up Your Bread With Sprouted Grains and Multigrains).

Don’t Rush a Good Thing

Enzymatic activity is incredibly high during the first stage of baking. As the raw dough heats in the oven, starches convert into sugars, and those on the surface of the bread begin to caramelize. Adding steam to your oven is a great way to delay the setting of the crust, which gives those compounds time to develop their fullest flavor potential.

In home ovens, the easiest way to add steam is to spritz your loaf with water just before it enters the oven; add hot water to a heated pan in the oven at approximately the same time. You can also spritz your oven walls with a mister during baking. Be quick and limit your spritzing to once or twice early on — the benefits of steam are exhausted about a third of the way through baking. Remember that you release heat each time you open the oven door, so try to spray the dough enough the first time and then keep the oven door closed. Avoid misting the light bulb and glass door because doing so may cause them to break.

Everyone has torn into a freshly baked loaf of warm bread. The aroma is almost too intoxicating to resist. But if you want your bread to develop its fullest flavor, don’t mess it up right at the end. A 30-minute to two-hour rest develops the final flavor. A rest is important for structure, too — the proteins are not quite stable until they cool.

Get in the Game

Human beings have been baking leavened bread for at least 6,000 years. Bread products have recently been maligned as a carb-loaded destructive force on Western waistlines, but as our Whole-Wheat Flour vs. Unenriched White Flour graph shows, whole-grain bread is immensely more nutritious than the white-flour stuff that passes as “bread.”

Amy Scherber of Amy’s Bread, an artisanal bakery in New York City, reminds us that “bread making is a noble profession because it is a way to serve people — to give pleasure, energy and sustenance.” Now that you’ve learned time-tested secrets to coax every last morsel of flavor from whole grains, isn’t it time you joined the ongoing legacy and service of baking homemade, whole-grain bread?

The yeast you can do: All you need is flour, salt, yeast and water to make this amazing Homemade Whole-Grain Bread Recipe.