As you first start using whole wheat flour, you will find that it doesn’t quite “behave” like the flour you buy in the store. You may find the bread doesn’t rise as much as your white bread and you are left with a denser, heavier loaf of bread. What’s the problem and what can you do about it?
The biggest reason for this is that flour in the store has had all bran removed. Bran is the high fiber coating of the wheat kernel and it helps slow down how the body metabolizes the sugars in breads and pastries. One might attribute part of the rise in obesity and Type-2 diabetes to the modern practice of removing bran from flour. In addition to helping slow sugar absorption, bran is also a fiber that helps protect the body from certain kinds of cancer (colon cancer being the big one.)
So from a health perspective, we should want bran in all of our cooking. But from a cooking point of view, bran is an inert weight that makes dough heavier, drier and crumblier.
So what can you do about it?
You could remove some of the bran. Just sift the flour through a fine sieve. That will remove a good portion of the bran. But the home cook cannot get rid of all of the bran. To do that you would need a highly specialized mechanical sifter like flour factories use. And why would you want to get rid of all of the bran’s goodness anyway?
But sifting can be a lengthy process (depending on how much flour you need) and a bit messy. So I don’t sift the bran out very often unless I am making something that requires a very precise outcome.
Remember Your Wheat’s Anatomy
The bran is only a small part of the formula for light bread. Protein is really the major factor in creating light, fluffy bread. Remember the anatomy of wheat and why it matters. To get a nice, fluffy loaf of bread, what we want to do is increase the length and elasticity of the gluten strands so that, when filled with the gasses that yeast produces, filled with zillions of bubbles creating a dough that has lots of tiny pockets filled with yeast gas.
So, let’s talk about how we can get the most out of that protein.
Kneading is the first way to produce the gluten. The friction and impact of kneading makes the gluten strands start sticking together to create long, elastic strands. A nice, slow, steady knead for 10 minutes gives you the best results. But who has time for all that kneading, right? That’s why most of today’s cooks like to mix bread in mixers. The problem is that mixers can do too good a job. With mechanical kneading, it is easy to over knead, and the protein chains that you built up will start to break down and lose their elasticity.
But when you mix by hand you can feel the elasticity increase as the dough springs back in your hands. And you can tell when the dough starts to resist and feel hard. That’s when you stop to prevent over-kneading.
So the solution is, knead the dough by machine only half as much as the instructions say and take the dough out and knead it the rest of they way by hand. That way you get a good “feel” for how the doughiness and springiness is developing and when it’s time to stop.
Another way to increase the dough’s elasticity is to increase the acidity of dough. Acidity strengthens the protein and so the air pockets that form during the rising process are stronger. You can increase acidity by using buttermilk as your liquid. Or you can add ascorbic acid (vitamin C crystals) or vinegar (white or apple cider) to the recipe. Add an amount equal to the amount of yeast in the recipe. Sourdough starter also increases the acidity, which is one reason why sourdough makes a bread that we all love.
What about dough enhancers?
Many recipes will tell you to add a dough enhancer. Dough enhancer can be a tricky phrase, because anything that makes bread lighter and springier is a dough enhancer. Sugar and ascorbic acid are technically dough enhancers. So let’s look at all the additives that can “enhance” your dough.
Vital Wheat Gluten is probably the most effective dough enhancer. It is just what the name implies: a concentrated form of gluten, separated out from all the other components of wheat. Use 1 tablespoon for every 2-3 cups of flour in your recipe. Some grocery stores may carry Vital Wheat Gluten or there are several brands you can buy online.
Potato Flakes add protein to the mix and will also strengthen the walls of the bubbles that during raising. It also improves bread quality because it helps keep the bread moister longer. That means your day-old bread is not so dried out. Add 1/8 to 1/4 cup to every loaf of bread. (So, 1/4 – 1/2 cup for a recipe that makes two loaves.)
Dough Enhancers. Usually when a recipe calls for dough enhancer, they are referring to a specific brand or type of dough enhancer. These are mixes of several ingredients designed to, well, enhance your dough. You can buy dough enhancers from several online sources. Use according to package instructions. Or you can make your own mix:
- 1 cup nonfat dry milk powder (for protein and it keeps bread moisture longer)
- 2 cups wheat gluten (more protein)
- 2 teaspoons powdered ginger (powers up yeast activity. Trust me, you won’t taste it.)
- 4 tablespoons dry pectin (strengthens the walls of the bubbles)
- 4 tablespoons unflavored gelatin (increases moisture so bread stays fresher longer)
- 4 tablespoons lecithin granules (increases moisture so bread stays fresher longer)
- 1 tablespoon ascorbic acid, crystals (helps strengthen the protein)
Use one tablespoon for each cup of flour in the recipe.
If this wasn’t enough…
If I haven’t already overloaded you with bread science and you want to know more, I highly recommend the book The Bread Builders. This fascinating book tells you all the factors that go into a good loaf of bread and how to correct problems with your bread. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to become a “bread expert.”
As you experiment with using whole wheat in your cooking, try these techniques to find what works for you and gives you a nice, soft and chewy loaf of bread–one that everyone will enjoy eating.