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The Whole Story on Whole-Wheat Flours

I’m a bit of Jane-come-lately to the whole-wheat-flour party. While I’ve always enjoyed the heartiness of a great loaf of whole-wheat bread, other baked goods made with whole-wheat flour always brought to mind hockey pucks rather than delicate treats. But, thanks to better availability of all kinds of specialty flours, including different types of whole-wheat flours, those old assumptions are falling by the wayside.

Of course, there’s a nutritional advantage to using whole-wheat flour. It’s a whole grain, because the flour is milled for the entire wheat kernel and includes:

  • The bran, a source of fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and protein
  • The germ, which is also high in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fats. Because whole-wheat flours have some fat in them, they can turn rancid; store them in the freezer.
  • The endosperm, which is the white, starchy portion of the kernel. Refined white flours, like all-purpose, bread flour, pastry flour, or cake flour, are milled from the endosperm and have been stripped of the nutrient-rich bran and germ.

These days, you’ll find a range of whole wheat flours at health-food stores (especially in the bulk bins) and even at your local supermarket. To learn more about the differences between these flours, I talked to Suzanne Cote, a spokeswoman for King Arthur Flour. Here are the different types you’ll find:

  • Whole-wheat flour. This is milled from hard red spring wheat, which gives it a characteristic dark color and assertive flavor (some call it nutty, others find it bitter). It’s a “strong” flour, meaning it’s high in protein. That gives baked goods structure, which is great for a hearty whole-wheat bread but can make more delicate items like muffins or cookies tough.
  • White whole-wheat flour. Milled from hard white spring wheat, this flour has a creamier color, softer texture, and milder flavor than regular whole-wheat flour. Yet, “the fiber and nutrition are very similar,” says Cote. It’s also a high-protein flour, so it’s a good candidate for breads and doughs. It has become my go-to whole-wheat flour, and I love using it in pizza dough.
  • Whole-wheat pastry flour. Also called graham flour, this is made from soft white winter wheat, so it has less protein than regular or white whole-wheat flour. Use this for tender baked goods, including cookies, muffins, brownies, and snack cakes.

But you don’t have to banish all-purpose flour from your kitchen. “Depending on what your application is, you can play with different wheat flours,” says Cote. “There’s nothing wrong with blending.”

If you’re adapting an existing recipe, start by substituting a whole-wheat flour for one-quarter to three-quarters of all-purpose, Cote suggests.

“The thing to remember about whole-wheat flour is that it’s a really thirsty flour compared to all-purpose,” she adds. If your batter or dough looks a bit dry, add a little more liquid.

Armed with this knowledge, I’m happy to use whole-wheat flour in a lot more baked goods. Is it ideal for everything? No. You’d still want to use highly refined cake flour, for example, to make a lighter-than-air angel food cake. But for everyday baking—cookies, quick breads, and these muffins—I’ll turn to whole wheat.

Want to give it a try? Whip up a batch of these luscious muffins:

Blackberry-Ginger Muffins with Hazelnut Streusel

Bake a batch of these muffins on the weekend, and you’ll have no excuse for skipping breakfast during the week. Whole-wheat pastry flour is milled from a soft white winter wheat that makes it a great go-to flour for everyday baking. As with any muffin batter, whisk the dry and wet ingredients together until just combined. Don’t overmix, or your muffins will be tough. You can substitute different berries for the blackberries, or even use frozen berries.

2 tablespoons whole-wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped toasted hazelnuts (almonds, walnuts or pecans will do the trick, too)
1 tablespoon butter, softened
Pinch of sea salt

1-1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup 1-percent low-fat milk
2/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Two large eggs
1 cup chopped blackberries (see note)


Preheat oven to 400°F. Line sixteen muffin cups with paper liners.

To make streusel, combine the first five ingredients in a small bowl, rubbing them together with your fingers until crumbly.

To prepare muffins, combine 1-1/2 cups flour, granulated sugar, wheat germ, baking powder, ginger, and salt in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk. Whisk together milk, oil, vanilla, and eggs in a separate bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, stirring with a whisk until just combined (the batter will be lumpy). Fold in the blackberries. Divide batter evenly among prepared muffin cups. Top muffins evenly with the streusel.

Bake at 400°F for twenty minutes or until the muffins spring back when you touch them lightly in the center.

Cool in pan five minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely on a wire rack.

Note: My blackberries were large, so I ended up quartering them. Smaller berries may just need to halved or even left whole.

Serves sixteen.