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Wheat or White?
On the complicated question of using 100% whole grain flours in breads
Is white flour “junk food”? Or is there more to it than that? Is it more useful to us, even if it has a lot of the things we consider nutrition taken out of it? Does it have more value than a bag of chips does relative to a bowl of brown rice? I want to get at the question of how we can support the idea of whole grains, whole grain flours, and quote-unquote “ethical flours,” whatever that means, without without denigrating white flour or without denigrating the people that choose to use white flour, or don't have the option to use anything other than white flour, whether it's because they live in Puerto Rico, or because they don't have the resources to buy flour from a boutique mill.
As I mentioned on Monday, I wanted to dig a little deeper into my own feelings and thoughts about the white/refined vs. whole wheat flour debate, since I don’t even think all the words I spilled during my flour conversation with Alicia and Amy last week begin to cover it.
There are a few people in the bread world for whom the idea of 100% whole grain baking is paramount. These people—braniacs, if you will—believe that flours should never be sifted, ever. Needless to say, I am not a braniac. To me, making ethical choices about flour has far more to do with where, how, and by whom the grains were grown, milled, and processed than whether or not they are left unsifted by the end user. Here is what I wrote last year, in my post about “ethical flour”:
For a flour to be ethical, it must be made from grain that is grown in a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way; that the farmer who grew it be given a fair price for their grain; and that the workers who farmed it are treated fairly and given a living wage. Ditto for the miller who converted that grain into flour, who should be fairly compensated and able to pay their employees a living wage.
There might well be valid reasons to avoid sifting, but none of them have any bearing on what I describe above: You can make ethical choices about the flours you use, while still opting to sift some or all of the bran they contain. That leaves flavor, baking performance, and nutrition as other reasons to choose to use 100% whole grain flours (or not).
In case it is not clear from anything I’ve said previously, I love baking with whole grain flours, whether as a portion of the total flour used, or even sometimes 100% whole grain. The vast majority of my “white flour” recipes include at least some percentage of whole grain flour, to add color and flavor to the bread. And (as I also mentioned on Monday), I am working on a 100% whole wheat sandwich bread recipe right now (pictured above), the first of what will eventually be a collection of unsifted flour bread recipes. That said, when it comes to bread recipes, my preference is for sifted flour formulas, whether they use high-extraction flours—meaning stone-ground flours that have most, but not all, of the bran removed—or refined/white flour, for a few reasons.
One: Bran is anathema to the sorts of things bread bakers try to achieve on any given day. For a long time, the theory was that bran acted like microscopic razors in the dough, cutting gluten webs to reduce the strength of the gluten network, causing the loaves to end up more dense and compact compared to those made with refined flours. But recent testing done by the Modernist Bread team seems to suggest otherwise. (They replaced the bran with sand, which should have had a similar effect, but the sand-containing loaves actually rose higher than those containing bran.) If the influence of bran on gluten strength is not mechanical, then perhaps, the Modernist team argues, it might be enzymatic. (Their testing seems to confirm this idea.) Whatever the actual reasons, the effect is real.
There are ways to reduce the gluten-degrading effects of bran in breads, of course. There are many professional bakers doing amazing things with whole grain flours in bread and pastry, and eventually those techniques will trickle down to home bakers (maybe even here!) But there is no getting around the fact that the presence of bran in doughs makes work more complicated for the baker, requiring advanced skills. These are not impossible to learn, but they make life unnecessarily complicated for beginning bakers just dipping their toes into bread baking, something that is already not simple and straightforward. One of my goals in teaching is to coax people into being comfortable doing something that is unfamiliar and initially complicated, and in part this requires the results to be rewarding, so that people keep at it, rather than throw up their hands in frustration, never to try again.
Two: Bran changes the texture of breads, no matter how sophisticated your approach to making them. Even if you could create a loaf that was as tall and open-crumbed as one using sifted flour, I’d argue you could never achieve the same texture as one with the bran included. Bran has a texture of its own, and it is always going to lend that to a baked good. In some cases, such as in products like cookies and crackers that do not get their structure from gluten, the bran’s texture matches that of the rest of the matrix, so it is barely noticeable, if at all. (My Edible Boston rye cookies are a great example of this.) And of course when it is noticeable, as it is in many breads, it can be nice!
However, in countless cases, the textural pleasure of flour-based foods comes from their having an uninterrupted gluten network—either soft and tender or strong and chewy—something that the presence of bran would undermine completely. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but so far I do not believe you can achieve the texture you get in a refined-flour NYC-style pizza made using whole wheat flour. Ditto for the wrapper in a soup dumpling, a ramen noodle, a banh mi roll, or a fluffy shokupan.
Here’s Alicia, from our chat:
If flour from wheat is a thing that has basically been brought everywhere through colonization, and people get so used to it and make things out of it, then what are we supposed to do with that? Because when people say, “Oh, you should only use whole grains, blah, blah, blah,” they're basically saying most of the planet doesn't get to eat a baguette ever again. And that's that's the challenging idea for me, because I don't think that that's fair. Of course we need to be conscious of where things come from and how much of them we use. But you can't just say that huge swaths of the planet that have become accustomed to making European-style breads because of colonization don't get to ever eat them again. Or even if they're not eating them because of colonization, and they're just eating them because this is the culinary culture that has colonized the world.
I’m all for the use of more whole grain flours in baking, but not at the expense of our enjoyment of the foods that require refined flours for their texture. And more importantly, not at the expense of those cultures for whom those foods are central to their cuisine. It’s one thing to say we ought to make and eat more recipes that are already whole grain—like German rye breads, for example—and another to suggest we need to convert white-flour-based recipes to whole grain, or stop eating them entirely because it’s not possible to do so without destroying their very essence.
Three: Bran changes the flavor of breads, particularly sourdoughs, and not necessarily in a good way (to me). The presence of high amounts of bran in formulas tends to increase the production of acids during fermentation, which means that 100% whole grain breads tend to be far more sour than those made from sifted flours. Now you might like a sour sourdough, in which case the bran’s influence on flavor is a welcome thing. I generally do not, especially in the case of those recipes that do not normally have a strong acidic flavor. (One of the issues I am trying to “fix” in that whole wheat sandwich loaf is the too-intense sourness it has.) There are ways to avoid this acidity, but it’s yet another challenge to overcome.
Four: You can take most of the bran out of a flour while still retaining most of the flavor, nutrition, and baking performance found in the wheat berry. The “extraction rate” of white flours is around 75%, meaning 75% of the weight of the whole grain is retained; with high-extraction flours, it’s closer to 85%. That extra 10 percent might not seem like much on paper, but in practice it adds a ton more flavor, aroma, and color to a loaf, without much in the way of compromise in terms of baking performance. You will need to adjust the hydration and maybe the method to make the formula perform like a white flour one, but these are relatively minor shifts, easily accommodated with a little experimentation. Moreover, the use of high-extraction flours opens up a wide variety of flours to a baker, each of which has its own flavor, color, and origin. To me, high-extraction flours represent the best of both worlds: A flours that perform structurally much like more refined flours, but with far more character, along with the possibility of their being ethically produced.
As to whether whole grain flours are radically more nutritious than refined flours, the answer is not as cut and dry as you might think. White flour is refined, but, unlike white sugar, it is not a purified compound; it does contain protein, vitamins, and minerals alongside all that starch. And wheat starch, unlike sucrose, is a complex carbohydrate, not a simple one. Yes, white flour is lacking in fiber, but you can get fiber elsewhere in your diet, and, more importantly, the health benefits of fiber are not incontrovertible. I’m going to have to save a longer discussion of the nutritional benefits of whole grain vs. refined flours for another day, for space reasons and because I’d like to do more research, but I’ll mention one interesting factoid here for now: Since 1979, when the idea that diets high in fiber could prevent the occurrence of colorectal cancer was first introduced, scientific consensus has actually gone back and forth about whether or not this is in fact true. (The American Cancer Society has reversed its position on fiber and colon cancer at least twice during that time.)
White flours are utilitarian in nature—neutral in flavor, they serve only to provide necessary structure in a baked good and energy in the form of carbohydrates. And they are neutral in valence as well; whether or not white flour is “good” or “bad” for you is entirely context-dependent. To answer my own question from earlier: White flour is not junk food unless it is used to make junk food.
Yes, the flour will be without the fiber-rich bran, but you can get your fiber elsewhere pretty easily. And if you sift your own flour, you can just use the bran you sift off in other recipes.