Baking with whole grains can be tricky, but changing consumer attitudes makes experimenting with formulations worthwhile.
The demand for whole grains continues to climb. Consumers have discovered the health benefits of whole grains, from whole wheat to ancient varieties. And, the rising popularity of gluten-free products has increased usage of non-gluten containing specialty grains.
As the name implies, whole grains are unprocessed grain that include the germ, bran and endosperm, in contrast to refined grains, which retain only the endosperm. Whole meal products are made from whole grain flour, says Bonnie Harry, field and bakery consultant at Great Harvest Franchising Inc., Dillon, Mont.
Foods made with whole grains are a source of several nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals, says Erin VanCamp, manager of product development and regulatory, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur, Ill.
While formulating with whole grains can boost bakers' bottom lines, working with these grains is not without its headaches. Bakers will need to make formulation changes to accommodate the grains and will have to take certain measures to improve flavor. Changes are not universal and are particular to the grain used and the product created, Harry says. “Baking with 100 percent whole grain has been challenging.”
To be clear, the terms whole grain and whole wheat can't be used interchangeably, though whole wheat products are included within the whole grain category.
“Whole wheat is like the Microsoft of whole grains because it has such a dominant share of the market,” says Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council, an Oldways educational program, Boston. “We do tend to be very wheat centric in this society. But different grains offer different nutritional profiles.
“To say, eat more whole grains, but then to only eat whole wheat, is the same as saying eat more vegetables, but then only eating carrots,” Harriman adds.
Other whole grains, such as spelt, buckwheat, bulgar, barley, quinoa and a multitude of other grains, also make up the sector. As the consumer spotlight turns to whole grain products, bakers are turning to the previously little-used ancient grains. ConAgra Mills, Omaha, Neb., for instance, introduced a new line of ancient grain flours, including amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff.
The main change to modern whole grain baked products is the upgraded flavor profile, Harry says. Whole grain products always will taste differently than those formulated with white flour, but consumers now recognize this and have trained their taste buds accordingly. They no longer shy away from whole grain products and even welcome them.
In part, that's because whole grain products simply taste better than they did 20 years ago, Harriman says. Flavor has improved as bakers have caught on to formulation and product development methods that complement foods baked with whole grains, she adds.
“A lot of whole grain products were [unpleasant] 20 years ago because bakers thought they could swap out white for wheat and put it out there without changes,” she adds. “But now we have a variety of products because the industry invested a lot in research and development into how to make whole grains work.”
One reason white flour originally came into use was because it keeps longer than wheat flour. When whole flour is milled, it becomes rancid in a much shorter period of time than white flour, Harry says.
“Because whole wheat would go bad, bakers decided to get rid of the germ and the bran, not knowing they were getting rid of the majority of the flour's nutritional value,” she adds.
The key to a great-tasting whole grain product is freshness, Harry says. But bakers do need to keep in mind that freshly milled whole grain flour tends to be harder to work with; aging strengthens it, she adds.
Great Harvest's more than 190 bakeries mill their own whole wheat flour at onsite or near-site mills and use it the next day. Most wholesale bakers don't have that luxury and need to maximize storage conditions. Exposure to oils, oxygen, light and heat will speed spoilage, Harry says. “A lot of companies will vacuum pack whole grain flours or store them really well and that definitely helps.”
Many bakers increase the amount of sugar in their baked products to improve flavor because whole grains tend to have bitter notes, Harriman says. Honey or other sweeteners can also be added.
Bakers who choose to work with whole grains need to make adjustments to their baking process to accommodate the grains, says Dave Kovacic, director of technical services, Bay State Milling, Quincy, Mass.
When baking with whole grains, mix times are longer but mix speeds are lower. This allows an extended hydration period that is gentler on the dough during gluten development, Kovacic says.
Bakers also need to make dough-to-pan adjustments, such as using smaller pans than used for white flour loaves. This is because the whole grain dough does not have as much volume as white flour dough. Particulates, such as bran and germ, have a shearing effect on the gluten, which limits gas retention.
One way to improve volume for all whole grain products is to boost yeast levels, Kovacic adds. Bakers also can add more wheat gluten or dough strengtheners, investigate new enzymatic strengthening methods or use oxidation techniques.
“When you go in with dough strengtheners or oxidation, you're mending protein strains to get goodvolume,” Kovacic adds.
Operators also need to make adjustments during baking. The baking temperature needs to be lower but the bake time longer due to the increased density of whole grain dough compared to white flour dough, Kovacic says.
“You're looking for more oven spring, which temperature reduction offers, but you'll still have to bake it out, so you'll need to bake it longer,” he says. “Also, your baking time will be longer because whole grain products have a higher water content.”
He advises bakers to experiment with baking times, temperatures and dough strengtheners to determine optimal processing for their products.
Products formulated with non-wheat whole grains rise less than those baked with wheat because gluten development can be poor, Harriman says. For this reason, whole grain baked products that don't need to rise much, such as crackers or cookies, are easier for bakers to produce, she adds.
“That's one of the tricky challenges of meeting the needs of the gluten-free market,” she says. “We have some wonderful gluten-free products out there now and many are low-rise products.”
Still, one unlikely product recently received the stamp of approval from the Whole Grains Council: a croissant made with whole wheat. This proves that bakers are discovering how to formulate even tricky, fluffy baked products with whole wheat and whole grains.
“That croissant was light, flaky and wonderful, and of course, it's made with a lot of butter,” Harriman says. “It's not something you want ten of each morning, but it is good for you, with the whole grain.”
For that reason, Kovacic advises bakers to keep experimenting as they seek to perfect their whole grain offerings.
“There are so many ways to approach baking with whole grains,” he says. “There's no one way and no right way to do this.”