Flour is a basic component in all baking around the world, but what exactly is flour? Why are there so many varieties and what is the big distinction between whole wheat and white flour? And why is it important to pay attention to the flour we buy?
Looking at them you can automatically see that they are different colors, textures, and at the supermarket you often notice that whole wheat flour is more expensive and harder to find.
In addition to the visible differences between the two flours, there are actually a fair number of distinctions in how they are processed and where they can be found. Luckily, taste seems to be a consistent factor.
It is common knowledge that flour is made up of ground up wheat grains. Wheat has three parts to it—the bran which is packed with fiber, the endosperm—the largest part of the seed and made up of mostly starch, and the germ—the nutrient-rich embryo of the seed.
White and whole wheat flour both treat the wheat grain differently.
White flour is what you often grab first at the supermarket and is found in lots of baking and common breads. It is downright delicious but unfortunately white flour is made up of only the endosperm portion of the wheat, eliminating many of the grain's nutrients. This is because today's wheat roller milling machines are fast, tough, and built for mass production; it also allows white flour to be sold cheaply.
Additionally, white flour is often bleached with sa whitening agent, often chemical, to make it look clean and pure. The absence of the germ also increases the flour's self life which is why it is more commonly found.
Whole wheat flour includes the bran, endosperm, and germ of the wheat grain which gives it a slightly darker color and makes it more nutritious. It is often stone milled to protect the bran and germ, and the presence of the germ also decreases shelf life, which is why it can be harder to find.
"Wheat" flour can be confusing though. Some companies label their flour as "wheat flour" even though it is really just white flour because technically all flour comes from wheat. It's always good to check labels and nutrition facts too. If a flour has components that aren't wheat, salt, or other natural elements it is most likely white flour.
Can whole wheat flour replace white flour?
White flour is often used in baking, so I took matters in to my own hands and made two batches of chocolate chip blondies (shown below)—one with store-brand, all-purpose, enriched, pre-sifted, and bleached white flour (right), and one with organic whole wheat bread flour from a local natural foods store (left).
Everything about the recipes was the same except for the flour, but initial difference between the two batches was the the white flour blondies were a little lighter in color and "shinier" on top.
The Whole wheat blondies were a bit darker and a tad more crumbly. This is because the whole wheat shells and husks cut the gluten strands between the wheat; therefore, the gluten can't bond as well and it is less "doughy."
In my opinion, both blondies tasted delicious, but I decided to test it out on the masses.
All my taste-testing participants were asked to eat both blondies, and then they were told that one was made with white flour (Blondie A) and one was made with whole wheat flour (Blondie B). They had to guess which one was which and write a quick explanation as to why.
Out of the 10 participants, 6 people guessed which blondie used which flour correctly and 4 guessed wrong. People said that they could definitely tell a difference in texture between the two bars. The whole wheat bar was described as "crumbly," "less smooth," "fluffier," and "sweeter." The white flour bar was described as "sticky" and "doughy."
Interestingly, the participants interpreted these characteristics in different ways and associated them with different flours.
What remained the same was that both bars were "really good" and "delicious," and that whole wheat flour did not take away from the taste. However, the crumbly texture could prove problematic in some recipes. There are a few ways to combat this problem, one being use a mixture of both flours.
A 3:1 white to whole wheat flour ratio will give the gluten bonds you need, as well as the whole grain taste you love. Additionally, you can bake with whole wheat flour and add a preferment—a dough that is prepared earlier on and composed of white flour, water, and natural or commercial yeast.
In the end, whole wheat is equally if not more delicious than white flour, does not take away from the taste of baked goods, and is much more nutritious. Try incorporating whole wheat flour into your next baking adventure!