Tips for Baking with Alternative Grains

Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François are the authors of several baking books, most recently The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes A Day. They joined the Clever Cookstr to talk about baking with ancient and alternative grains, whole grains, and heirloom flours like spelt, sprouted wheat, and khorasan. 

Kara Rota,
November 29, 2016
Episode #128

“Ancient” Grains and Other Alternative Wheat Varieties

Why the quotation marks around the word “ancient”? Well, it turns out that there’s not much evidence in science, botany, or history to suggest that what are being called ancient grains have actually been cultivated for longer than ordinary wheat. The first known cultivation of wheat coincides with the start of recorded history—which is as far back as you can go. All wheat varieties have ancient origins, but some of them didn’t have a high yield or didn’t store or travel well, so they haven’t been widely cultivated for a long time. They’re delicious and subtly different from standard wheat. All of these wheat varieties have gluten (though often they have less), so they’re not for people with celiac disease.

Spelt flour: A variety of wheat that is high in protein, but slightly lower in glu- ten than standard wheat. It has a delicious flavor, and is noticeably less bitter than regular whole wheat. Look for whole grain varieties.

Emmer flour: Closely related to spelt, emmer is another lesser-known wheat variant. Confusing the picture is that both grains are sometimes called farro, especially when left in whole-kernel form and served as a side dish like rice. But emmer is higher in protein than spelt, and some of our diabetic readers are using it in the hope that it might be slower to raise blood sugar than other wheats (the jury is still out on that one). The germ and bran make up a larger portion of the emmer grain than they do in spelt, and while this is a very nutritious package, it can create a dense bread if used in high proportion in recipes. We’ve found a whole grain version in the U.S., grown by Bluebird Grain Farms.

Kamut (khorasan) flour: Strictly speaking, this wheat variety should be called by its generic name, khorasan, but most bakers have heard of it by its registered trademark, Kamut, which is the name owned by the company that has successfully marketed it. We tested with an organic version from Bob’s Red Mill. It’s less bitter than ordinary whole wheat, and it bakes up with a lighter color. Of all the whole wheat flours we’ve tested, this makes the closest approximation of white bread that we’ve experienced.

Sprouted wheat flour: You’ll hear health claims about sprouted wheat flour, made from wheat kernels that are allowed to sprout before being kiln-dried and ground. The newly formed wheat plant begins to digest some of the starch and gluten in the wheat kernel, and that has prompted the health claims—in theory, this means a lower-carbohydrate and lower-gluten flour. While we don’t think there’s convincing medical evidence to support any health claims here, and we don’t know whether the decreases in carbs or gluten have health significance, what we can tell you is that this flour makes a delicious and very moist whole wheat bread—in fact, the moistest we’ve ever baked. If whole grains have turned you off because the results seem dry, this is the flour for you. We tested with an organic version from Arrow- head Mills, and natural food co-ops are your best bet to find it in a store rather than online. Be sure to fully bake bread made with this flour, or you may find it gummy.


Double-check with your doctor before consuming any new grain if you are al- lergic or intolerant of wheat or wheat gluten—all wheats and wheat variants contain gluten. We use some gluten-free ingredients listed below in wheat-based breads throughout the book, but those recipes are not gluten-free overall and can’t be eaten by celiacs. We tested our gluten-free recipes using Bob’s Red Mill products, because they’re the only widely distributed gluten-free baking ingredients in U.S. supermarkets. If you swap for a different brand, you’ll probably have to make significant water adjustments. Measuring gluten-free flours: If you measure gluten-free flours by volume, be sure to pack them firmly into the measuring cup (as if you were measuring brown sugar). Otherwise, you’ll get inconsistent results.

Buckwheat: Buckwheat is actually a cousin to the rhubarb plant, and not wheat at all, but its seeds behave and taste like a grain when ground into flour. The unground kernels are called groats. It is high in antioxidants and protein.

Cornmeal and corn masa: Look for whole grain varieties and avoid cornmeal products labeled as “degerminated”; this process strips away the germ, which contains most of the nutrients (though degerminated cornmeal has a longer shelf life). Yellow cornmeal is higher in vitamin A than the white variety. In Latin American cultures, corn is treated with alkali to create masa (also known as masa harina); this releases niacin, an essential B vitamin. Untreated corn is a poor source of niacin because it remains bound to indigestible parts of the kernel.

Cornstarch: Cornstarch is often found in gluten-free recipes. It has very little nutritional value, but helps to create a nice smooth texture and acts as a binder in the dough.

Mesquite flour: Mesquite is a woody plant native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Many people have had Southwestern specialties grilled over the plant’s fragrant branches, but less well-known are the edible pod and seed, which can be ground into a high-protein and nutritious flour. It makes a fabulous and unusual bread or focaccia. It has a naturally sweet flavor that goes well with agave syrup. It’s not easy to find; we got ours by mail order from Native Seeds/SEARCH, where it’s sold as “mesquite bean flour.” Note that our mequite bread recipe has wheat flour in it, so it’s not for celiacs.

Millet: This tiny grain is high in protein and vitamin B. Unground, it has a mild flavor that becomes nutty when toasted, and it creates a terrific texture in our Toasted Millet and Fruit Bread. That loaf is not gluten-free, but we do have a gluten-free millet loaf in Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (2014).

Quinoa (keen-wah): Quinoa is a relative of Swiss chard and beets. It has a lovely flavor, cooks quickly, and has lots of high-quality protein, which means it contains all the essential amino acids. It is also high in calcium, iron, and B vitamins. Like the millet bread, the quinoa loaf we included on page 192 is not gluten-free.

Rice and rice flours: Rice is one of the world’s great food staples—all the cultures of the Far East depended on it to develop their civilizations. Brown rice flour has its external bran left in place, and it’s higher in nutrients than white rice flour. It’s much higher in fiber than white rice flour, but has half the fiber content of whole wheat. In our gluten-free chapter, we only used brown rice flour where we call for rice, and tested with the Bob’s Red Mill product. Avoid “glutinous” rice flour, Asian market flours, “superfine rice flour,” or “sweet” rice flour, all of which will give you completely different results.

Sorghum: Sorghum is a very popular cooking grain related to sugarcane. It is used around the world, but has just recently found its way into American kitchens.

Soy flour: This flour is milled from soy beans, which are very high in protein. They are also one of the few foods that contain all of the essential amino acids.

Soy flour is an excellent way to boost the protein in gluten-free bread, and it can also be used in wheat breads the same way.

Tapioca flour/Tapioca starch: Tapioca is made from a root that’s known by many names: cassava, manioc, or yuca. It is extracted and ground into a flour that is high in calcium and vitamin C, but low in protein. It has traditionally been used for its starchy thickening properties, but it is now frequently used in gluten-free baking. It is sold as both tapioca flour and tapioca starch, and the most popular product has both of those names on the label.

Teff: An indispensable grain in Ethiopia, teff has been virtually unheard of in the rest of the world until recently. It is a type of millet that is very small but packed with iron and calcium. It is a wonderful sweet grain that is gluten-free and therefore gaining in popularity. When combined with caraway seeds in a bread, it’s a dead ringer for a traditional German or Eastern European caraway rye loaf.

Wild rice: Although technically an aquatic grass like plain rice, wild rice from North America distinguishes itself from its Asian counterpart by its distinct flavor and texture. It has long been prized in traditional Native American cultures, and more recently its nutritional profile and flavor have attracted interest from health-conscious eaters. 

Xanthan gum: This powdered additive, a naturally derived gum that creates gas- trapping structure in gluten-free dough, is used in gluten-free baking to replace the stretchiness and chew that breads would otherwise get from gluten in wheat. It’s a tried-and-true ingredient that’s been around for years.

Ground psyllium husk: When some of our readers reported sensitivities to xanthan gum, we began testing ground psyllium husk as a substitute, and it works well. This product, milled from the outer coating of an edible seed, has been used as a natural fiber supplement for years. It’s available at your local pharmacy, food co-op, or online, and is sometimes labeled “powdered” psyllium husk.

Excerpted from The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D., and Zoë François Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan Publishers.

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