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Here are some important tips for baking with whole grain flour.

Whole Wheat Onion Bread (photo credit: courtesy)
Whole Wheat Onion Bread
(photo credit: courtesy)
Undoubtedly, breads made with whole grains are healthier than those made with white flour, but baking with whole grains can be challenging unless you understand their secrets. Here are some tips to help improve your whole grain bread baking.
First, let me tell you a story. When I began baking bread at age 13, I had little knowledge or experience. All I knew was that I wanted to bake healthful, whole wheat bread, just like my Talmud teacher and mentor did. My first efforts were undoubtedly healthy, but they were dense, heavy creations. While vacationing one summer in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, I tried to impress my family with my baking skills. Upon transporting a delicious, but weighty, loaf to the table, it slipped out of my hands and made a resounding thud on the wooden floorboards.
My uncle humorously quipped, “What was that, an earthquake?” First-time whole grain bakers often use recipes formulated for white flour and substitute whole grain flour for the white flour in the recipe, thinking the results will be similar. This usually results in disaster and will probably resemble the bread baking efforts of my youth – a candidate for “9” on the Richter scale. It is possible to achieve light, airy whole grain breads, but to do so requires a little more understanding of whole grains’ unique characteristics.
Whole grain flour is more hygroscopic than white flour, which means it absorbs more water. Unless you compensate for this by increasing the water content in the dough, the resulting bread will be very dense and heavy. It is possible to use white flour recipes and substitute whole grain flour - if you accordingly increase the water component in the recipe by 25%. For example, if a white flour recipe calls for 2 cups of water, when substituting whole grain flour you need 2½ cups of water. Whole grain flours, especially coarsely ground flours, absorb water more slowly than white flour does. For this reason, you should not mix the dough ingredients and immediately start kneading whole grain dough. Instead, mix the ingredients until fully incorporated, and then let the mixture sit for 10 minutes to fully absorb the water before you begin kneading. Premature kneading results in weak, watery dough.
The component that gives bread its structure is gluten. Whole grain flours are lower in gluten than white flour to begin with, and they also contain bran and wheat germ, which are abrasive and act like thousands of little knives that “cut” and weaken the gluten structure in the dough even further.
For this reason, whole grain dough must be handled more gently than white dough and kneaded for less time. If you knead white dough for 15 minutes (the recommended minimum for hand kneading), you should halve this time for whole grain flours – that is, around 8 minutes. Since whole grain dough has a weaker structure and less ability to hold its shape, help it along by placing it in a pan that supports its form rather than trying to make free form loaves, which will tend to sag and flatten.
Two natural additives will help strengthen the whole grain dough and result in lighter, more airy bread. The first is ascorbic acid (or vitamin C). I recommend grinding one 200 gr. vitamin C tablet into powder and adding it to the dough. The amount needed is minuscule – less than 1/8 tsp. per loaf. The second additive is granular lecithin, available in health stores, which should be added at a rate of 1% of the total flour content. For example, if the recipe calls for 4 cups of flour, add 1½ tsp. of granular lecithin. These two additives, in addition to making a lighter loaf, also make the bread more healthful.
Using the above tips will result in whole grain loaves so light, they almost float.
Whole Wheat Onion Bread
✔ 4½ cups finely ground whole wheat flour ✔ 1⅔ cups water ✔ 3½ tsp. salt ✔ 1 Tbsp. instant dry yeast ✔ 1 tsp. sugar ✔ ½ cup canola oil ✔ 3 medium sized onions, diced ✔ 1 Tbsp. canola oil (for onions)
Saute onions with 1 Tbsp. oil in a skillet until golden brown. Mix dough ingredients until fully incorporated. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Knead dough for 8 minutes by hand.
Mix the onions into the dough until fully incorporated. Leave to rise for 30 minutes.
Punch down. Shape into an oval loaf and place in pan. Leave to rise for 1 hour. Bake for 30 minutes at 180°.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is the owner of Saidels Bakery (http://www.saidels.com), specializing in hand-made, organic health breads and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.