Monday, October 18, 2010

Technique: Substituting Whole-Wheat Flour in Baked Goods (Without Making Them Suck)

Tweaking recipes to make food healthier is a noble endeavor, but all too often it is achieved at the expense of taste and texture. Case in point: substituting whole-wheat flour for all-purpose in baked goods. Whole-wheat flour has more nutrients such as fiber, because in white flour, those nutrients have been refined out. But those same qualities are what can make baking with whole-wheat flour result in leaden, tasteless, dense, gluey-yet-crumbly lumps that would function better as doorstops than as treats.

However, hot on the heels of my life-changing sandwich-packing innovation (okay, fine, let's say lukewarm on the heels—look, I've been busy), I have another technical kitchen breakthrough to share: how to use whole-wheat flour in baked goods without making them too dense or gluten-y.

You can try this technique for less-sweet baked goods like bread and flatbread; semisweet ones like muffins, biscuits or banana bread; and even—more cautiously—on sweet baked goods like cookies, doughnuts, and cakes, which are harder to incorporate whole-wheat flour into, because their texture is intended to be lighter and crumbier.

First and most importantly, don't try to substitute whole-wheat for ALL of the white flour in your recipe, unless you think that muffin-shaped doorstops would make lovely holiday gifts for acquaintances you secretly dislike. You want to swap out just a percentage of the flour. I would suggest starting with a quarter, and if the recipe turns out successfully, you could work your way up to a third, then maybe even a half, on subsequent attempts.

But here's the real trick: Balance out the whole-wheat flour with the equivalent amount of cake flour, which is finer than all-purpose flour, and has very little gluten (which is what can make whole-wheat baked goods gluey). So, for example, if your recipe calls for a cup of all-purpose flour, you would use 1/4 cup whole-wheat flour, 1/4 cup cake flour, and 1/2 cup all-purpose flour.

Note: It's not necessary that the wheat flour constitute EXACTLY 25 percent of the total flour, just that it be balanced by the cake flour and not too heavy in the overall context of the recipe. In other words, if your recipe calls for an amount of flour that isn't easily divisible, don't knock yourself out doing math; just accept having a slightly higher percentage of all-purpose.

Say, for example, your recipe calls for 2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour (which the cookie recipe on a 12-oz. package of Tollhouse semi-sweet chocolate chips might, although it's not like I know it by heart or anything). I would do 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour, 1/2 cup cake flour, and 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, rather than agonizing over how to divide up the extra 1/4 cup. (For the record, that would be 2 TBSP all-purpose, 1 TBSP wheat, and 1 TBSP cake flour, so you see why it's just not worth it.)

If you want to understand more about how various types of flours differ…well, Google it or something. What do I look like, Alton Brown? I told you I was busy. This concludes today's lesson.


  1. If you want to substitute at a healthier ratio, it's worth seeking out "whole wheat pastry flour." It's made from soft spring wheat berries (not the hard winter variety), so it's soft and fluffy like cake flour and still 100% whole grain. Even if you substitute all of the AP for WWPF, your results will be tender, with a lovely crumb, heartier yes, but in a good way! Not at all worthy of hockey puck or doorstep status.

  2. Thanks Theresa! I haven't worked w/WWPF but I'm excited to give it a try. They don't carry it @ my Met Foods of course but I assume Whole Foods & the like would?

  3. I've had good results too using whole wheat pastry flour as a substitute for all purpose white. It's definitely at Whole Foods.
    Another great experiment is Corn -Flour- substituted for all or just half of Corn Meal in corn bread. I don't like the gritty texture of Corn Meal.