It's about more than nutritional benefits
Selecting whole grains over refined ones has long been said to be more nutritional. With more fiber, iron, minerals, and other nutrients than refined grains, there’s no doubt that whole grains are a healthier choice. But that’s not the main reason many bakers prefer them.
“Baking with whole grains is very important in bread baking for flavor and gluten structure,” Leah Morrow, Executive Pastry Chef at Brooklyn Bread Lab in Williamsburg, told me in an email. Morrow explained that whole grains have much more flavor than white flour, which add nutty notes to bread. “Additionally, whole grain flour is high in gluten and high gluten flour is always necessary for making artisanal breads, making it the perfect flour to use.”
Since whole grains leave the bran and germ of the plant in tact before grind, while they’re removed before making white flour, Morrow told me that baking with whole grain flour can be a bit harder at first, as it’s not as absorbent as white flour. “Whole grain flour can take on more water then you would think,” she said.
There are many different types of whole grains that can be milled into whole grain flour. Whole grain flours can be made with heirloom wheat products like einkorn, emmer, and durum in addition to hard whole wheat, which Morrow told me is the most common grain used in the bread at Brooklyn Bread Lab. “The flour’s high gluten content is great for sourdough.” Morrow also notes that when she wants to create a bread that’s a bit more complex in flavor, she’ll implement other whole grains, like low-gluten cereal grain rye, low-gluten wheat spelt, or gluten-free pseudocereal buckwheat, all of which can be incorporated into a bread along with hard wheat flour.
The simplest way to get a dose of whole grains might be be find the nearest bakery with a system like Morrow’s and chow down, but for those who want to take it a step further and make their own bread, Morrow has some advice: “A great tip I have for home bakers is to autolyze!” Morrow said that the autolyze process, also known as the autolyse method, is a baking practice of mixing just flour and water together first, then letting the mixture rest for while (Morrow waits 30 minutes) before mixing in salt and yeast. “The autolyze process does a lot of the work for you, as it gives the flour time to absorb the water and build gluten,” Morrow said.
Morrow’s final tip might take a bit more effort than pre-mixing flour and water, but seems well worth the trouble. “Fresh flour makes all the difference in flavor. If you can get a hold of fresh flour, it’s a must!” Head to your local farmer’s market or bakery to see if any of the bakers or farmers are using freshly-milled flour. If you’re lucky, they might sell you some.