Bakers are taking whole grains in new directions

Bakers are taking whole grains in new directions

May 5, 2010

May 5, 2010

If you've ever baked with whole-wheat flour and ended up with something nearly inedible, take heart. That is not unusual, even for professional bakers.

Kim Boyce, a talented Los Angeles pastry chef with a new cookbook on whole-grain baking, remembers the first time she tried making whole-grain muffins at home for her kids. "It was just dreadful. They were heavy, almost leaden," Boyce says.

When Peter Reinhart, a well-known baker, author and teacher, baked his first whole-grain bread, the effort yielded "a thick, dark, leathery crust surrounding an inedible wad of spongy, glutinous paste. It was awful," he wrote in "Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads," which is devoted to rectifying such problems.

Granted, Reinhart's initial whole-grain foray was circa 1970, and the bread included no yeast. Still, for decades, bakers have been tugged between the mounting knowledge that whole grains are nutritious, even essential to good health, and the age-old notion that they taste like dull, earnest bricks.

Thankfully, he and Boyce did not give up. They attacked a common problem: How do you temper the weight of whole grains while letting the full range of flavors and textures shine through? If you can manage that, you can win over the most jaded cookie lover.

"It's a genuinely exciting palate of ingredients," says Heidi Swanson, the author of "Super Natural Cooking" and the popular blog 101 Cookbooks. Just as farmers markets have introduced consumers to a wider range of fresh ingredients, "whole grains kind of bring that ethos of the farmers market into the kitchen pantry," she says.

Mark Furstenberg, who formerly owned the BreadLine in the District, agrees. Although he loves a well-made baguette, "almost all the breads I make at home these days are with whole grains," he says. He is planning to bring that emphasis to his own new bakery and breakfast restaurant, which will offer a line of wood-fired breads made with organic whole grains.

In this shift, a relatively recent crop of cookbooks has proved to be groundbreaking. Reinhart's bread book appeared in 2007. A year earlier, Lorna Sass released "Whole Grains Every Day Every Way," a highly informative book that explored whole grains in salads and main courses as well as baked goods. That same year, King Arthur Flour delivered its "Whole Grain Baking," a 600-page tome.

Now Boyce, 35, who worked as a pastry chef at Spago and Campanile in Los Angeles, has produced "Good to the Grain: Baking With Whole-Grain Flours" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) with Amy Scattergood. The book takes waffles, scones, cookies and muffins in new directions, using a dozen grains including amaranth and teff. Among the friends, relatives and neighbors who scarfed up the goods I tested, not one mentioned the word "healthy." In short, by coaxing out the flavors of whole grains in new ways, Boyce managed to turn the stereotype on its head.

When you think about it, Boyce's approach isn't entirely new. After all, the culture of cooking with whole grains dates back thousands of years. Think of staples such as Scandinavian rye crackers, French pain de campagne loaves (white, whole-wheat and rye flours), Italian farro risotto (emmer wheat, an ancient grain), Middle Eastern tabbouleh (bulgur wheat), Japanese soba noodles (buckwheat), Indian roti (whole wheat) and Ethiopian injera (teff).

In fact, grains such as barley, with its distinctive nutty note, and spelt, another ancient relative of wheat that has a sweeter and milder taste, were once far more common than white flour. No wonder the famous French baker Lionel Poilâne described his signature dark whole-grain sourdough miche that he developed in the 1980s as a "retro-innovation" -- that is, going forward in new ways by learning from the past.

But if the past was about whole grains, they largely became a footnote as methods and tastes shifted to white flour.

What makes whole grains whole? The grain is made up of three parts: the bran, a fibrous coat that surrounds and protects the seed; the nutritionally rich germ; and the protein- and starch-filled endosperm that feeds the plant and springs from the germ.

In white flour, the germ and bran are sifted out, which means many of the grain's natural vitamins, antioxidants and minerals are lost. The refined flour is later enriched with a handful of nutrients.

But enriched flour does not equal whole grains, which have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and reduce rates of diabetes. They have also been associated with lower weight in people who eat them over a long time.

Barley and oats also are distinguished by their soluble fiber, which reduces cholesterol. Spelt is high in protein and packs four times as much fiber as whole wheat. Buckwheat has twice the B vitamins of wheat. The list of whole grain benefits is so long it could easily fill a book.

Given that knowledge, the government recommended in 2005 that Americans consume half of their grains as whole grains in at least three or four servings a day, depending on age and gender. (A serving amounts to about one slice of whole-grain bread or one cup of dry cereal.) Companies responded by rolling out new whole-grain products, boosting consumption by 20 percent by 2008. But whole grains still amounted to just 11 percent of all grains consumed rather than the 50 percent recommended, according to a survey by NDP Group, a market research firm.

One reason might be that whole grains throw a wrench into our acquired taste for white flour -- and the recipes for cookies, breads and cookies made with it.

"If you're just looking to substitute whole-wheat flour for white flour in a recipe, it's not going to work," Reinhart says.

Whole grains absorb much more liquid than white flour does. The fibrous bran cuts through strands of gluten, making breads denser. The lack of gluten in grains such as barley and buckwheat may enhance the lightness of quick breads, but another agent such as all-purpose flour is needed to add structure. And the grains can have bitter notes from tannins. Because of their oils, they can also quickly turn rancid. (See "How to store whole-grain flours.")

"A common mistake is to use whole grains for classic kinds of baking for which they're not suited," Furstenberg says. "We need to use them in a way that enhances the food we're making."

Boyce takes on the challenge, saying she resolved that her whole-grain baked goods had to be on a par with what would be sold in a bakery. Though she often uses brown sugar and molasses, which pair well with the grains' assertive flavors, she also relies on white sugar, butter, whole milk and/or cream. When a muffin batter was too heavy as she experimented, she would add all-purpose flour to balance things out.

She also takes chances. Although she toyed with adding white flour to a whole-wheat chocolate chip cookie dough, she went with 100 percent whole-wheat flour instead. The resulting cookie doesn't taste like a whole-wheat cookie; it tastes like a dynamite chocolate chip cookie with bold flavor and texture. Boyce pairs barley and coconut flour in another cookie; blends spelt flour with oat bran to create a moist, flavorful carrot muffin; and makes a poppy seed wafer with buckwheat flour. Her go-to rustic rye dough for tarts builds up flakiness through folding, in a technique reminiscent of that for croissants.

In short, she brings Poilâne's "retro-innovation" to whole-grain baked goods and coaxes out their inherent flavors. Although purists might bristle at her use of white flour, butter and sugar, it's important to remember that Boyce is not aiming for low-fat and sugar-free. She is aiming for taste: a new kind of taste arising from these under-used grains.

Given the dearth of chefs working in whole grains, she theorizes that professional bakers and chefs are in the early stages of rediscovering them.

"This is really a new direction that hasn't been fully explored," Boyce says. "I think there are endless possibilities."


Carrot Muffins

Strawberry Barley Scones

Whole-Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Molasses Bran Muffins