Baking and Whole Grains: A Love Story

I feel so much better having gotten that off my chest about my new ugly parent policy that I’m going to write something light, flaky and delicious. Oh, wait… that’s my pie crust. This post is light, though!

I have always had more than a passing interest in baking. Cooking has just never been my thing. But watching dough rise, pie crust smooth out under a rolling pin or cookies fatten in the oven has always fascinated me. When I was teeny tiny, my mom and sister would use extra pie crust dough to make a little flat circle that browned in the oven and sparkled with cinnamon and sugar. It was just for me, and it was ready hours before we could eat the pie. I learned later that they were following in my maternal grandmother’s footsteps; she did the same for the little kids when she made pie. And there were always little kids–she had fifteen of her own! If she were alive today, she would have 52 grandchildren and no one knows how many great-grandchildren.

I made my first pie crust from scratch when I was still in elementary school. It was awesome, and I didn’t know why everyone made such a big deal out of it having turned out so well. The pecan pie filling was from a box, after all. It wasn’t hard–I just followed the directions! Okay, I’m bragging, but I get to, because my first ever pie was amazing and memorable. I now know that pie crust is hard to get just right, so that’s something to brag about. Also in elementary school, I bought a cookie press at a garage sale that hadn’t been opened since it was purchased in 1965. I taught myself how to use it and we had beautiful, tiny, star-shaped Christmas cookies in July. When I found a little counter-top deep-fryer at another garage sale, I begged until Mom bought it and spent an entire day with me making doughnuts. I invited friends. It was a whole day of fun. Thanks, Mom!

So that’s why I love to bake (and leave the cooking to Nathan) and why I’m still determined to do so, even though I’m trying not to bake with white flour. Once I stopped to think about it, I understood why less processed ingredients like whole grain flour require a bit more thought and add richer flavor. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Slow. Down. Baking does not cooperate with your need to hurry. When I hurry, I spill things, skip ingredients and generally make a mess of everything.
  • Follow the chemistry. Essentially, all baked goods come down to what Kim Boyce calls “wet mix” and “dry mix.” Keep them separate until you’re ready to mix it all up! The interaction between your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients starts the chemistry that transforms a batter or dough into flaky crust, fluffy muffins or moist cookies. If you’re using honey or agave instead of sugar in a recipe, but the honey in with the eggs and other wet ingredients, even if the recipe says to add the sugar to the flour in an earlier step. Sugar is dry. Honey is wet.
  • Stir, mix or process only as much as you need to, no more! Once you get flour wet, you start to activate the gluten. Gluten comes from the latin word for “glue” for a reason–mix that batter too much, and you’ll end up with hyper-active gluten gluey, chewy muffins, cardboard cookies or rock-hard bread. Even brownie mixes tell you to stop mixing after a minute or two, even if you still see little lumps of flour.
  • Temperature matters. If it says “at room temperature” then make sure it is at room temperature before you add it! Heat and cold make a huge difference. Melted and slightly cooled butter added to muffins means less mixing, and less mixing means that less risk of agitating gluten in your flour too much. Yeast goes crazy in the heat, which is why bread dough doubles in size and then doubles again during rising and then again during baking. Making a yeasted bread takes me half the time in the summer because our apartment isn’t air conditioned and heat makes yeast super active, causing the dough to rise a lot faster. Did you know that the key to making a good pie crust or biscuit dough is cold butter? Dough is flour, liquid and fat in varying quantities. Flaky crust happens when those little pieces of butter melt in the oven inside little pockets surrounded by flour. It all sticks together because of the liquid, which could be anything from orange juice to water to eggs to milk. So if it’s hot, I’ll mix in the fats as fast as possible and then put the dough in the freezer for five minutes to make sure they stay solid. Otherwise, it all melts together, becomes too uniform a texture and turns into cardboard in your oven.
  • Know your ingredients. I promise, you will have better results if you know that shortening is made of vegetable oil and less fat means a different chemistry from butter (or lard!) not just a lower calorie count. Whole grains are especially important to get to know because they complicate the chemistry much more than, say, switching to a different type of sweetener.
Which brings me to the section of this post on whole grains and why I am so in love with them. How they taste, how they work, how they grow, how we make them into flour, it’s all totally fascinating to me. The (illustrated!) basics:

This is a wheat kernel.

All-purpose flour is made from just the endosperm part of the wheat kernel. Why? It’s easier to grind into flour. If you were milling your own, you’d want an easier path from grain to flour, too! After centuries of choosing the wheat that’s easiest to make into food, we’ve actually created strains that are easier to thresh, which means that the outside parts come away more easily from that kernel of carbs in the middle. Unfortunately, as you can see in the chart above, that means we also got good at taking out the nutrition. Look at all the protein, fiber and iron we’re taking out!
Protein and iron complicate baking chemistry. And if you’ve ever had raisin bran cereal, you’ll know that bran has a unique taste. Wheat germ can be purchased on its own, and I have the toasted variety in my fridge right now, so I can tell you that it most definitely has a taste all its own. And keep in mind that we’re just talking about wheat. Good to the Grain covers whole wheat, including wheat graham (can someone explain graham flour to me? I haven’t gotten around to researching that yet), amaranth,  barley, buckwheat (which is not wheat and is actually more closely related to rhubarb), corn, kamut, oat, quinoa, rye, spelt and teff. Each has it’s own distinct flavor and, in my desire to learn everything all at once, I was overwhelmed at first. I quite like this wikipedia page for its thorough but not overwhelming coverage of whole grains.
I started baking with spelt flour, which has a tangy flavor reminiscent of a sourdough. Last night, I made muffins with oat flour, which is soft and nutty and, has a taste reminiscent of, well, oatmeal. I’ve used a lot of whole wheat flour in my time. I have recently fallen in love with injera, an Ethiopian spongey bread made from teff, but put off playing with teff flour in my own kitchen when I discovered that it is really, really expensive. So my collection now includes spelt, oat, rye, whole wheat and whole wheat graham flours, in addition to my (unbleached! never buy bleached flour! why would you want your food bleached?!) all-purpose and white flours. One can also buy cake flour, pastry flour, whole grain pastry flour, bread four and whole grain bread flour. All of these have different textures and flavors and all for good reasons. But unless you’re really, really serious about this, buy the flour you need for that recipe only. Store your beautiful flours in glass jars that seal tightly (to keep out crawly things). You can get really neat vintage-looking jars at Ikea for as little as $3 a piece. My mom stores her bags of flour in the freezer, which serves the same purpose of sealing them away from bugs and other things that find flour as nutritious as we do, but you know how I feel about temperatures. Flour must be at room temperature before I will use it. And once I get all those jars cleaned and labelled, you will see just how pretty they look on display!
Back to baking: here’s a really simple rule to remember about whole grains–because they are whole, and have all those parts listed in that picture above, they are heavier. They fill you up and stick to your ribs in a way that refined flours never can. (Try steel cut aka “Irish” oatmeal, if you haven’t, and tell me it’s not better than plain old Quaker oatmeal!) But remember, baking is all about chemistry. And heavier flour and you get heavier muffins. Not good. Unfortunately, we can’t just add extra baking powder or yeast to give it the same boost. That’s why Good to the Grain‘s recipes almost always contain some all-purpose flour. As does Heidi Swanson’s amazing Greek Yogurt Biscuit recipe. You can use only whole grain flour, but you end up with a heavier baked good and a wheatier taste. Even butter and baking soda just can’t make whole grain flour light and fluffy. But when I made Swanson’s biscuits (from Super-Natural Every Day), I used a little more spelt, a little more whole wheat and a little less all purpose and the result was delicious, light and beautiful. I probably compromised a little height and a little flakiness, but three of us finished off about 15 of those things (I ate more than Nathan or our guest… I admit it) so I’m calling it a success.
There’s one more increasingly popular way around using refined flour–use leftover cooked grains like oatmeal and quinoa. I adore healthychild.org, and my nutritionist contributes regularly. There are many recipes under the “Eat Healthy” section, and most are tailored to kids. If a kid likes it, you can bet it’s tasty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *