Making the Transition to Whole Wheat Flour

At the end of my Afternoon Batard recipe, I added a section on using whole wheat flour. I didn’t write it just to satisfy readers’ curiosity. For health and dietary reasons – and to be completely transparent, a strong suggestion from my doctor – I have had to start using whole wheat flour in my bread – at least 50% of my flour is whole wheat flour.

I have to admit that it has been a rather frustrating experience making the transition to whole wheat flour. Up to this point, I’ve invested hours – almost daily – in becoming proficient in making bread with white bread flour. And then having to make an abrupt turn; well, it wasn’t smooth and I really felt like I was going all the way back to square one. The transition is akin to a painter who has mastered watercolor moving to acrylic or oil painting. The basic principles of color and shading are similar, but the change in medium forces adjustments to the technique.

Luckily for me, bread making has become a bit of an obsession so I wasn’t going to be deterred from this setback. Also, just within a few tries of making a few different types of loaves, I started to get a feel for it. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far (and mind you I’m still learning but these things have gotten my bread back “normal”):

The grind of the wheat flour – no matter what kind you use – is critical. I started out using course-ground wheat flour. It tasted okay, but the texture was way too gritty, and the crumb was really, really closed, even if I used a 90%+ hydration and used a gluten helper such as vital wheat gluten or psyllium fiber. Fine or extra-fine grind is the best.

As for the type of wheat flour, I absolutely love working with white whole wheat flour. It tastes much sweeter than red whole wheat. I’ve only made one batch using this flour, but I’m hooked! The taste and texture of the bread instantly hooked me! The loaves I just made used absolutely zero added sugar (which many whole wheat recipes include). The white whole wheat has a sweetness to it that doesn’t need fortification.

With any wheat flour dough, everything takes longer or you do things more. You have to do the initial knead longer. The amount of folding doubles at the very least (this first batch, I folded it 6 times before I got the right tension in the dough). Fermentation takes longer as well – at least a 3-4 hour bulk at room temperature, though I got better results with a slow, overnight fermentation (I baked half my dough the first day, then baked the second loaf the next morning).

I found that even more so than with white flour, shaping a loaf and creating surface tension with whole wheat dough is even more critical. Furthermore, final proofing takes quite a bit longer. Even with my early attempts, I didn’t proof my loaves long enough and they sprung up way too fast! You want oven spring, but you want it to be slow and gradual.

For instance, this morning, I shaped and proofed my second loaf fresh out of the refrigerator. When I’ve done a slow ferment with white bread, after an hour and half, the dough would be ready. But with this whole wheat loaf? After an hour and a half, it still needs another half hour to proof – at least (I’m proofing it while I write this). Even my loaf yesterday (shown above) – I barely proofed it enough. After it was finished baking, I realized I probably should’ve proofed it longer.

So as I said in my afternoon batard recipe, going to whole wheat makes the process at the very least, an all day affair. But to be realistic, it’s better as a two-day affair. Mind you, those days don’t have to be consecutive. The thing about cold fermentation is that you can let it go for a few days. Given that, my process will be mixing and doing the initial knead the first day, then putting the dough in the fridge for at least 18-24 hours. So I’ll mix in the morning the first day, and when I want to make a loaf, I’ll grab a piece out of the fridge then shape, proof and bake on the next.


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