In the Literalist Kitchen - Lesson One
November 7, 2011 11:52 AM   Subscribe

I want to bake some whole wheat bread. So, I bought this whole wheat bread flour. But that was apparently a dumb thing to do.

I want to make this recipe.

So, I very smartly purchased a metric ton (approximately) of whole wheat bread flour today at the grocery and realized upon arriving home that I might be about to make a giant wheat anvil rather than, say, a crusty, chewy, earthy loaf of bread-joy if I use it.

Can I use this whole wheat bread flour instead of whole wheat flour? I've searched around and the general consensus I've seen so far on the internets is that bread flour producers denser, chewier loaves and is best used in combination with AP white or wheat flours, but there is contradictory information about whether or not using vital wheat gluten is necessary if using bread flour. I am so confused.

So, can I use this bread flour in this recipe? Should I just use it as I would whole wheat flour? Should I omit the vital wheat gluten? Should I try a different recipe? I gladly will, but I'm still wondering about the vital wheat gluten question when using bread flour. I've read through the comments and the FAQ of the site but am not seeing an answer. I thought I'd ask the bakers around here if they had some advice before I write in ask the folks at Artisan Breads in Five.

For what it's worth, I have a lot of cooking experience and can bake but am not what you'd call an accomplished baker by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously. Thanks to all.
posted by TryTheTilapia to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My experience says that bread flour is exactly what you want. It has higher gluten content than all-purpose whole wheat flour, and gluten is what makes the dough elastic. Too low a gluten content will make your wheat bread ... grainy isn't quite the right word, but it's close. The bread will end up dense, crumbly, and generally unimpressive.

When I'm out of bread flour, I'll actually add straight wheat gluten to all-purpose wheat flour to get the baked consistency I want. I'll also do the same for certain brands of bread flour here which I've discovered, by trial and error, to not have enough. I'll also often cut even good wheat bread flour 50/50 with white bread flour, depending on the crowd I'm baking for. Some people just don't like super-wheaty breads, and going 50/50 seems to make even the pickiest of eaters love the stuff.

As always, your mileage may vary. Make a couple test loaves and see.
posted by introp at 12:01 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've never seen or heard of whole wheat bread flour. Usually (white) bread flour has a higher gluten content than regular white flour, which is probably why people are saying you don't need to use gluten with it. I don't know how you would find out the gluten content of the bread flour - does it say on the package? If not, you might be able to deduce something from the protein content...

Here's the thing, though - bread-baking (especially whole wheat baking) is a trial and error process. If I were you, I would just make the recipe as is (maybe using less or no gluten if the flour packaging gives you reason to believe that the gluten content is very high. Flour is variable, water is variable, yeast is variable... the slow rise and high water content of the Artisan Breads in Five method helps smooth out some of that, but you're probably going to have to adjust some after the first try.

And doorstop bread can be delicious!
posted by mskyle at 12:02 PM on November 7, 2011

I was actually just researching this over the weekend and found something that said you should mix 1 tablespoon of vital white gluten into each cup of all-purpose flour to make it equivalent to bread flour. So, I would just make the recipe with your bread flour and leave the wheat gluten out.
posted by something something at 12:05 PM on November 7, 2011

Best answer: Get the vital wheat gluten, it makes a big difference. Find it in the baking aisle in most big supermarkets. Keep in the freezer between uses; a bag will last quite a while unless you doing loaves every day.
posted by humanfont at 12:06 PM on November 7, 2011

Using a "no-knead" technique might help keep the gluten accumulation in check (overkneading can be especially dangerous with high-gluten flour). If the bread tastes too "wheaty" or bitter, try adding a couple of tablespoons of orange juice when you add the water - it really brightens up the flavor.
posted by dialetheia at 12:07 PM on November 7, 2011

I agree with interop an mskyle It might work it might not but the flour you have will work fine even if you produce a brick or two. You have a metric ton :) so mistakes will be cheap.

To give you an anecdote though of a happy failure Ms Groweler "made Bagels" a month or two ago the dough was way off really wet and unworkable she was about to through it out. I said lets put it as a round mass on the baking stone added some stone ground oats to the top... PERFECT crust perfect chewy middle, though not at all like a bagel, try as we might we can't screw it up the same way LOL.

Basically what I am saying is enjoy the process and laugh at bad failures BUT write down the good ones.
posted by mrgroweler at 12:07 PM on November 7, 2011

Not a dumb thing to do at all. Whole wheat bread flour is exactly what you want. Bread flour is generally higher in gluten than all purpose flour. Gluten is the stretchy stuff that allows bread dough to expand and thus produce light, chewy bread.

Of course, whole wheat bread dough will never rise as high as white bread dough because the bran (outside of the wheat kernel) prevents some of the formation and expansion of gas cells in the dough. This is probably what you are reading about online.

It looks like the recipe you are making probably uses lower gluten flour, so they have you add more gluten to compensate. If you use whole wheat and white bread flours, I would recommend trying the same recipe without the added gluten.
posted by ssg at 12:11 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that you're angsting out about something that can be solved by making a single loaf of bread. And, if it's not to your liking, you can then hit bread forums for advice on what you did wrong.

Relax. Make a loaf. Have some. Repeat.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:26 PM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You will be fine. As far as I know "whole wheat bread flour" is just "whole wheat flour." There are some whole wheat flours that use soft wheat and are more appropriate for pastries but lack the protein for proper bread structure. Neither has sufficient gluten to get a good rise. That is what the vital wheat gluten is for.
posted by caddis at 12:27 PM on November 7, 2011

Also, perhaps some confusion comes from the term"bread flour" which typically refers to white flour with a high protein content.
posted by caddis at 12:44 PM on November 7, 2011

A lot of the "whole-wheat bread" recipes I've read call for some mix of whole wheat flour and plain white flour, and that percentage also varies from recipe to recipe.

You could just conduct a series of experiements to vary the wheat-to-white content and see which gives you the best results.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:19 PM on November 7, 2011

Response by poster: I'm going to pick up some vital wheat gluten, butter and jam tomorrow and just go for it. I can always make bread pudding or croutons if things don't go as planned. :-)

Thanks again to everybody.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 1:28 PM on November 7, 2011

Yeah, you can use that flour, but you'll have to figure out what it does by trial and error. It's probably wheat flour with added vital wheat gluten (which is what your recipe calls for anyway). Honestly, VWG isn't strictly necessary for good wheat bread - I've never used it and my wheat bread tends to be pretty delicious and has good structure.

Basically, bread flour has higher gluten content than regular flour, and so it develops the right texture with less kneading/working of the dough. I've made bread with just all-purpose flour, and the difference is minute to the casual bread aficionado.

In fact, the recipe you link to is similar to the one I use (Peter Reinhardt's recipe for Light Wheat Bread). It's basically (this is from memory, so forgive me if it's missing something):

11.25 oz bread flour
6.75 oz wheat/spelt/whatever flour
1.5 tsp yeast
1.5 tsp salt
2 Tb melted butter
3 Tb powdered milk
cold water (I do it entirely by instinct, but it should incorporate all the flour and keep a fairly dry stiff dough)
He adds some sugar too, but I leave it out - it's sweet enough as it is.

Mix, then knead until windowpane is achieved.

Cover in an oiled bowl and let rise until doubled.

Put the dough in a loaf pan. Let proof until the dough is springy to the touch, but has risen by about 1/2 the original volume.

Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes.

It keeps for about 5 days if stored in a bread box.

It's really an amazing recipe, and I'd encourage you to try it once you've gotten your feet wet with your current flour. I bet you could just use 18 oz of that flour instead of the using both bread and wheat flours together. If you find that you don't like the texture of your bread when it's made with just the wheat bread flour, you could try an autolyse first - basically mix up all the ingredients, except for the salt and yeast, and then let it sit for 45 minutes to an hour. It lets the gluten develop slowly, making the kneading process easier and giving the bread an awesome texture.

Good luck! Memail me if you want - I bake a lot and am always happy to help!
posted by guster4lovers at 3:45 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My experience with whole wheat breads is that using 100% whole wheat flour gives you a very dense loaf. Very dense. The recipes I had better luck with used 50/50 whole wheat and white flour or at least a proportion of white flour in the mix.
posted by plinth at 4:54 PM on November 7, 2011

Best answer: By the way, what brand is the flour you bought?

Many have suggested using a combo of white and whole wheat flours. That is the traditional home baker's method for making whole wheat bread. It makes a bread which is only slightly more dense than regular white bread, but it doesn't have as much fiber as 100% whole wheat bread. Making bread with only whole wheat flour can be a challenge, but the key is using copious amounts of vital wheat gluten. Your recipe has 1/4 cup for 5 cups or so of flour which is a decent amount.
posted by caddis at 7:28 PM on November 7, 2011

Response by poster: More great info and advice. Thanks so much. I plan to use AP white flour in addition to the whole wheat bread flour. Thanks for the recipe, guster4lovers, that's great to have on hand.

caddis, the flour I have is from the bulk section of my food co-op. It's not branded, per se, but the bin is labeled "whole wheat bread flour" and it sits next to the "whole wheat flour" on one side and the "whole wheat pastry flour" on the other. So given the info I've gotten from everyone here, I'm guessing that this flour does, indeed, have a higher gluten content.

I'm still planning on getting the vital wheat gluten but will do a test loaf at some point without it just to see how it turns out.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:05 PM on November 7, 2011

To kind of break it down simply, since I think nobody's done that so far –

The difference between "flour" (all-purpose, etc) and "bread flour" (wheat, white, etc) is the grind. "Bread flour" is ground a bit finer than "flour." This makes it much, much better for making bread with. (In addition, some bread flours have higher gluten, but not always.)

It's largely my own preference – I've been baking two loaves a week for a year or two – but I would avoid using all-purpose flour for bread. All-purpose flour is less fine, and therefore makes a heaver, less light loaf of bread. If you're at a lower elevation, that might not matter, and the all-purpose flour might add some heft to the bread if that's what you're after.

However – and I think this is important – bread flour (wheat or otherwise) is at the heart of good bread. No matter where you are, bread based on all-purpose flour just isn't that great; it's very hard to make the dough tacky and smooth enough to build a good loaf out of it. When I make my own wheat bread, I start with bread flour (mine is white, yours may be wheat, i don't know) to form the base of the dough, getting it a bit sticky and tacky, and then gradually add in a coarser-ground wheat flour. My measures are about 2:1 bread flour to wheat flour – a bit of coarser wheat flour goes a long way.

Lastly, though you didn't mention this, I want to say it:

Probably the most important thing about baking bread is slow rise. Three to five hours is not too long to let bread rise, especially at lower altitudes. Lots of bread books will tell you to let stuff rise 45 minutes or an hour or whatever; I suggest ignoring that. Take out as much sugar as you can and let the bread rise for a long time. It will be better bread.
posted by koeselitz at 10:15 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

No need (knead?) for trial and error when you're combining flours. has a conversion calculator that tells you exactly what proportions to use. For example, my bialy recipe calls for 300g of flour. Instead of buying the expensive King Arthur Sir Lancelot high-gluten flour I use 293g of KA bread flour and 7g of Bob's Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten and that brings the bread flour up to the 14.2% protein of the Lancelot.

There are all different types and brands of flours (including semolina and 00), and different brands of vital wheat gluten so you can mix and match to get precisely what you want. It's really cool!

There's also a neat mass --> volume calculator that lets you choose exactly what type of substance you're converting, so instead of just converting "oil" you choose which type of oil you're using.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:04 AM on November 8, 2011

Response by poster: Hi all.

So, for future reference, I made the linked recipe and it turned out BEAUTIFULLY. I followed the recipe exactly using my whole wheat bread flour and the results are pretty great.

It dawned on me after all was said and done that, regardless of the gluten content of the bread flour, the vital wheat gluten is essential in this recipe because the point of Artisan Bread in Five is that you do not have to knead the bread. You mix it up, let it rise for at least two hours outside the fridge, and then put it in the fridge to use over the next two weeks to bake fresh bread every few days. It works like a charm.

The crust turned out amazingly well despite my not having a bread stone; I just used a regular baking sheet and, of course, the pan full of water to create steam. A word of caution if you use a baking sheet - oil it well and use coarse cornmeal. I used a nonstick baking sheet without any oil and finely ground cornmeal and experienced some stickage. Still, all in all, great recipe and thanks again for all the helpful, thoughtful advice!
posted by TryTheTilapia at 6:43 AM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

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