If you had asked me what kind of wheat I used two years ago, I would have said “whole wheat, sometimes unbleached white flour.” I thought I was pretty hot stuff because I knew to get unbleached flour and how to substitute part whole wheat in my quick bread and cookie recipes.
Guess what happened when I was presented with this daunting list?
- pastry flour
- hard red winter wheat
- white spring wheat
- soft spring wheat
- spelt berries
- And, uh…what’s a wheat berry? Is it a fruit?
Yikes! I had no idea what to do. Ever been there?
Here’s my super quick and easy primer on what wheat to use for what purpose.
What’s the Nutrient Difference?
The first point to make is that all whole wheats have about the same nutrient profile. They’re all fiber-rich, have healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. If you want to know more details, here’s the breakdown on the nutrients in a whole wheat berry. That post also explains how to read a bread bag to decipher all the marketing foo-foo you’ll find trying to trick you into buying not-so-healthy bread, if you’re not at the point of making your own yet.
When I first started talking about white whole wheat flour a year and a half ago on Kitchen Stewardship, many readers were concerned it wasn’t as healthy as “regular” whole wheat flour. That word “white” throws people off because we’re so used to avoiding refined baked goods as we seek a healthy lifestyle. White whole wheat is just a different variety of wheat berry. It’s from the hard white spring wheat. Other than having slightly less gluten, which affects the protein count, white whole wheat is just as nutritious as standard whole wheat flour, which comes from hard red wheat berries (spring or winter).
As long as you’re using the whole wheat berry in your grain grinder, your baked goods are 100% whole grain, and you only have to worry about whether that’s the nutritious choice or not. Are whole grains good or bad for you?
A wheat berry is just the whole kernel of wheat, bran + germ + endosperm, the way it grows in the field minus the husk. The top photo shows wheat berries and flour.
The List: How to Use Different Whole Grains
I’m far from an expert, but this will give you a place to start if you are perhaps the lucky winner of the Nutrimill grain mill (coming Friday) or are ready to diversify your flours or get your own grain grinder.
- Hard red wheat (spring or winter): what you recognize as traditional whole wheat. Nutty and hearty in breads, plenty of gluten for a good rise, but can be dense in many baked goods for most people’s palates. Most whole wheat recipes fit great with hard red wheat, including pancakes, crackers, and bread.
- Hard white wheat (spring or winter): can be used very similarly to red wheat. White wheat is a bit lighter, which makes it a great choice for transitioning from white flour to whole wheat. You can often substitute white whole wheat for refined flour (white flour) at least 50/50 in quick breads (above), cookies, pancakes, crackers and even yeast breads. Many people love white whole wheat in yeast breads, but I actually prefer the heartiness and the bit of extra gluten in red wheat for breads and pizza dough.
- Soft wheat: This is the same as pastry flour, which has the right profile for the flakiness needed for pie crusts, cakes and biscuits, and it gives muffins, pancakes and crackers an amazing boost. When I used to substitute half the white flour in my biscuits recipe with whole wheat, they were very dense (but still good). Now with 100% whole wheat pastry flour (soft wheat berries), the biscuits (above) have more fluff and taste less “healthy” even though they’re a big step up. It’s tough to make a good whole wheat pie crust, but if you start experimenting, always use pastry flour.
- Whole Spelt: Sold as whole berries or flour, spelt is an ancient cousin of wheat. It is a gluten-containing grain but has less stable gluten than modern traditional wheat. Spelt also has more protein, but less fiber and fewer calories. Some people find spelt easier to digest if they struggle with whole wheat. (source)
I find spelt to be sweeter than wheat, which makes it quite incredible for reducing the sweetener in these cookies (above). Many people describe spelt as nuttier. A lot of people love spelt for their daily bread, but I haven’t experimented with it enough. If you try it and like it, you can often sub spelt for wheat in many recipes, but you may have to add up to a quarter more flour or reduce the liquid by a quarter. If you’re making bread, knead no more than 4 minutes, because spelt’s gluten breaks down more easily than wheat. (source)
- Gluten flour or vital wheat gluten: You won’t find whole wheat berries with this name, but it’s another confusing one for beginning bread makers. Gluten is a protein in wheat and spelt that, when kneaded to organize the gluten strands, gives bread dough its stretchiness and bread its ability to rise and have air pockets. Adding extra gluten to a whole wheat recipe is very common to achieve a fluffier, lighter bread with a higher rise.
However, taking gluten out of flour is ceasing to eat “whole” foods, is it not? With all the gluten intolerance in our modern times, I’m hesitant to use vital wheat gluten and try to avoid it whenever possible. If you wish to find some, it’s often in the baking aisle of a major grocery store in a smaller bag from somewhere like Bob’s Red Mill.
What am I Missing?
As I said, I am far from an expert (and my toddler has been sick for 7 days now, so I’m getting a little behind on life!). I’m pretty sure I covered everything in my basement, but I’m guessing my horizons could be broadened further yet.
Am I missing any common whole wheat varieties? What’s your favorite? How do you use them?
See my full disclosure statement here.