Some opinionated notes about milling and baking with whole grain flours

I like sugary, buttery, and salty baked treats as much as the next person, but I also believe that whole grains are better nutritionally than their refined counterparts.  I prefer to try to sneak as much nutrition in as I can while still making tasty things that I enjoy eating. With baked goods, this is easily done by substituting whole grain flours into recipes written for white flours, because too many of those written for whole grains were made with virtue rather than taste as the number one priority.  And if you can get really good, fresh, fine whole wheat flours, they can be substituted cup for cup or gram for gram for white flours without much fudging. 

"All-purpose flour" isn't

Gluten is what makes bread dough springy and elastic, and allows it to rise.  But all that springiness becomes undesireable chewiness in a delicate pastry.  So ideally you'd like to use high-gluten flours for baking bread, and low gluten flours for making pastries, cookies, and cakes.  All-purpose flour is white flour made from a combination of different wheats to have a gluten content (10-11%) intermediate between high-gluten bread flour (12-14%) and low-gluten pastry flour (8%), so that it can make fair to middlin' sandwich bread and ok pastries.  Granted it's very convenient, if you don't do a lot of baking, to have one tub of flour that you use for everything, but don't kid yourself that it's going to give the best results.  (And let's not even get into the issue of lower-gluten European-style flowers for artisan breads.)

When it comes to whole wheat flour, the situation becomes even murkier, because you most often find a sack or a bulk bin labelled "whole wheat flour" without any hint of the type of wheat or the protein content.  And it is often fairly coarse, and if the store doesn't have good turnover of their stock, perhaps a little stale or frankly rancid.  While this situation is gradually improving, it's still much easier to get consistently good flour for a specific purpose if you mill it yourself.  Wheat berries are more easily identified than flours, and they keep without spoiling for years and years.  You can mill hard spring wheats for bread and soft winter wheats for cookies or cakes, or mix them for a softer bread or a sturdier construction-grade gingerbread.  And you can further play with refinements like adding 15-20% rice for crunchier crumblier shortbread or 30% oats for  especially delicate chiffon cakes.  But if you have access to good, fresh whole wheat pastry flour and whole wheat bread flour, you'll be halfway there even without a mill of your own.

More Notes on Wheats here.

An unexpectedly flavorsome benefit

When my father first bought a grain mill, I thought he was nuts.  He got it because he wanted the nutritional benefit of the whole wheat.  I gradually learned to love it for a different reason:  fresh ground spices.  It was an impact mill, which basically explodes or pulverizes the grain by running it through very high speed interlocking rotors.  These mills are designed only for grains, or non-oily beans, but you can get away with grinding small amounts of whole spices or dried herbs in them if the spices make up only a small fraction of the volume to be milled.  So milling a cup of nutmeg would probably cause the mill to have a meltdown, but milling a teaspoon of nutmeg stirred into 450g of wheat berries works just fine, and you end up with 3 cups of fabulously fragrant flour.  When I went away to college, I could easily find different types of whole wheat flours, but I missed the fresh-ground spices so much that I soon bought my own grain mill. 

I break up large spices by crushing gently between the bottom of the spice jar and the counter until pieces are about wheat-berry sized, and make sure the spice is never more than a teaspoon or so per 150 grams of grain.  I have had no problem milling these spices:

allspice (some larger berries need to be broken up gently)
anise seed
cardamom (whole pods or just the seeds)
cassia buds (cassia is a close cousin to cinnamon, and these are flower buds instead of the bark)
cinnamon (as chipped pieces or lightly crushed bits of bark)
coriander seeds
long peppers (a cousin of black pepper with elongated berries)
mace (whole mace pieces are available in indian groceries)
mahaleb or mahleb (adds an almond-extract or bitter-almond like flavor)
mustard seed
nutmeg (broken up into wheat-sized bits)
pepper (black or white peppercorns)
peppers (dried peppers, crushed and broken into little pieces, work great, but watch out if you mill seriously hot peppers; habanero dust can really be irritating to your eyes, nose and throat!)
star anise (broken up)
szechuan peppers
vanilla pods (cut into 1/4 inch lengths, using about 2 inches for each tsp of standard vanilla extract called for in the recipe)

And the following dried herbs  (always dried: the moisture in fresh herbs will gum up and destroy the mill):

curry leaves
lavender blossoms

But if you love your mill, DO NOT TRY chunks of dried ginger or galangal, as the fibrous stuff will slow your mill to an agonized standstill and quite possibly destroy it completely. 

If you don't have a mill, you can get much the same effect by grinding whole spices in an electric spice grinder, or a some hand-cranked pepper mills.  I particularly like the "good grips" brand pepper mill, because it is easy to load with a few teaspoons of whole spices, grinds everything but the ginger or galangal pieces, and the clear window means you can see how much you've got left to grind.

Substitutions for all-purpose flour

I generally use convert a recipe from cups of flour to weight of wheat berries using 150 grams (5 ounces) as approximately equivalent to 1 cup of flour.  That's probably a little high--I've seen other sources that use 130g or so per cup.  But 150 is what I've done for so long that it happens on autopilot now.  If your recipe already specifies grams of flour, just use 1:1 grams of wheat berries. 

If you want to add some crunch to a recipe, consider adding 10-20 percent rice in place of wheat.  To add softness, consider 20-30% oats (which have no gluten) with soft wheat berries to give an approximation of very-low-gluten cake flour.  Durum wheat can add a nutty flavor to hearty breads, but its gluten is better suited to pasta than bread, so add it carefully until you get a feel for how it handles.

And if your mill can make very fine flour, you can get away with these changes in cakes and cookies without picky eaters even noticing that they're eating whole grain stuff.  It is harder to do with breads, because the bran content more noticeably changes the flavor and texture, especially if you use red wheats (the new white wheats have less of the bitter-tasting pigment in the bran), and you will usually need a little extra water to hydrate the whole wheat flour.

Conversion examples:

Grandma's Cookies (icebox cookies)

3 C flour
1 tsp ground nutmeg
 450 grams of soft wheat berries (3C times 150 grams per C) or whole wheat pastry flour, or better yet, 375 grams soft wheat berries plus 75 grams of short brown rice for better crunch
1 tsp broken nutmeg bits
Spice Chiffon Cake

1 1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon 1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger

225 grams soft wheat berries (1 1/2 C times 150 grams per C) or 225g whole wheat pastry flour, or better yet, 150 grams soft wheat berries plus 75 grams of oat berries)
1/2 tsp cinnamon bits
about 6 whole cloves
but the 1/2 tsp ground ginger remains ground ginger, because grinding it kills your mill

And sifting the flour will remove some of the larger chunks of bran--this is one of the few times I sift my freshly milled flour.

Buttermilk Sandwich Bread

5 C bread flour

750 grams of hard spring wheat berries or 750 grams of whole wheat bread flour
French or Italian Bread
(which traditionally is not made with extremely high gluten flours)

3 C all-purpose flour
300 grams of hard spring wheat berries plus 150 grams of soft winter wheat berries, or 300 grams whole wheat bread flour plus 150 grams whole wheat pastry flour

Rice pudding

3/4 C rice flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
120 grams of short grain brown rice
1/2 tsp cinnamon bits
1/4 tsp nutmegs bits

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