Unprocessed FAQ: Flours & Grains

Flour & Grains Frequently Asked Questions

In today’s October Unprocessed FAQ, I’m going to try to clear up some confusion surrounding one of our most common ingredients: Flours and grains.

“Intact” Grains

Although you probably won’t hear “intact” very often when it comes to grains (it’s not common on labels), it’s the best word I’ve found to describe them. The idea is that it’s the whole grain, completely intact as nature made it — it hasn’t been cut, ground, or pulverized in any way. When you buy a bag of whole kernels of barley, wheat, rye, farro, kamut, spelt, teff… all that’s been done to it is that it’s been harvested, cleaned, and dried (and, if it’s not organic, probably sprayed with pesticides). You could do all that at home (though it’s probably not worth the effort!), so those totally pass the kitchen test.

“Whole” Grain

Anything that includes the entirety of the grain — the bran, germ, and endosperm — can be called “whole grain,” even if it’s been ground up (or even separated and put back together). Steel-cut oats, for example, would be whole grain, since they start with intact oats, and then cut them with steel blades. (Here’s more on oats and oatmeals.)

Here are some of the things to watch out for on labels when you’re shopping for whole grain products.

“Whole Grain Flour”

This is really just taking the grain and grinding it down even more, until it’s a fine powder. For it to be called “whole,” it still needs the bran, germ, and endosperm — though technically, it’s legal to separate all the components and then put them back together.

In a previous October, Cassidy from Bob’s Red Mill shared a very informative post about flour — it’s well worth the read.

Jars of Whole Grains

Refined Flours, or simply: “Flour”

It’s safe to assume that anything called “flour” without the word “whole” preceding it has been refined — it’s lacking the nutrient-rich germ and bran. It might be called “All Purpose Flour,” or “Unbleached Flour” or simply, “Wheat Flour.”

By law in the United States, unless it’s certified organic, manufacturers are required to add back in some vitamins, because the refining process strips them out. In Canada, even organic flour must be enriched.

Theoretically, you could grind your own grains at home, and then take the resulting whole grain flour and pass it through finer and finer sieves, until you’ve sifted out all the bran and germ, leaving just the light endosperm. You’d probably never do it, but in theory you could.

To bring this back to the Kitchen Test, then: Strictly speaking, “unbleached, unenriched flour” will pass the test. (That does not mean I’m suggesting you eat it.)  But if it’s been bleached or enriched — two things you wouldn’t do at home — it doesn’t pass the test.

Watch out for the “Wheat Bread” trick that many companies and restaurants play, trying to make you think it’s healthier than any other bread. All it means is that it’s made with wheat flour, which is most likely refined. Your best bet is to get “100% Whole Wheat Bread,” and short of that, seek out “Whole Wheat Bread.”

White Whole Wheat Flour

“White Flour” and “White Whole Wheat Flour”

This is very confusing. Most flour (whole or refined) these days comes from a species of wheat called “red wheat.” If you buy a bag of white flour, it’s probably been milled and refined (and bleached) from red wheat. However, “White Whole Wheat” refers to whole wheat flour that comes from “white wheat,” a different species.

So regular wheat flour probably comes from red wheat.  “White Whole Wheat Flour” actually comes from white wheat.  Got it?  (If not, check out this on Wikipedia.)

Recently, Bob’s Red Mill rebranded their “Organic Hard White Whole Wheat Flour” (pictured above) as “Organic Ivory Wheat Flour” – I’m guessing to help reduce some of this confusion.

Matty and I prefer using White (Ivory) Whole Wheat Flour at home, because it’s a little bit less dense than the red wheat, so it makes a slightly lighter loaf of bread (or pizza crust!).  Both Red Wheat and White Wheat have effectively the same nutrition, so that’s not really a concern.

Sprouted Wheat Berries

“Sprouted” Grains

Grain kernels are actually the seeds of a plant–so sprouted grains are simply seeds that are starting to grow (nowadays, that means they’ve been deliberately germinated). They’ve become popular recently because they’re more easily digestible and nutritious. I’m not convinced there’s a huge health benefit–but I also don’t think they will hurt, and may indeed provide at least some benefits. I’ve also found that store-bought breads that promote the fact that they’re made with sprouted grains are more likely to be healthier overall and pass the kitchen test (such as Ezekiel 4:9 and Alvarado Street Bakery), so I usually pick those up from the shelf first.

(Sidenote: Watch out for raw alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts, like you’d find on a salad bar – unfortunately they’re now a common source of food poisoning. That’s not an issue with grains, which you’re going to cook anyway.)

White Rice and Pearl Barley

White rice is a common question — it’s basically brown rice that has had the outer layers of the grain removed, or “polished.” The question then becomes, can this be done at home, at least in theory? I found this forum post that shows someone doing it at home, and you can even buy a countertop rice polisher on Amazon (looks like they all ship directly from Japan, which sounds about right). I think the process is similar for pearl barley. So I’d say that this does pass the test… of course, from a nutritional perspective, I think we’re better off eating brown rice instead.

Quinoa

While technically not a grain (it’s a “pseudocereal” since it’s not a member of the grass family), for our purposes it might as well be. Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is great stuff: high in nutrition; a wonderful, nutty flavor; and great hot or cold. Here’s how to make fluffy quinoa.

Gluten-Free Flours

Carrie Vitt wrote a guest post during a previous challenge, outlining many of the gluten-free flours and grain-free flours that have flooded the market in recent years, so definitely go check that out if you’re wondering about those.

Applying This Info for the Challenge

100% Whole Grain Flour and unbleached, unenriched flour both pass the kitchen test. Bleached and/or enriched flours do not.  So read the labels, and eat accordingly!

Did I miss anything? Let us know in the comments section below.

If you haven’t taken the October Unprocessed pledge yet, please do!  And then encourage your friends to join in — it’s a lot more fun that way!

October Unprocessed 2016

Photos used under Creative Commons License:
Wheat © 2014 Brad Higham.
Jars of Whole Grains
 © 2014 Annie Corrigan/WFIU Public Radio.
Bobs Red Mill Organic White Whole Wheat Flour © 2009 Sarah Gilbert.
Sprouted Wheat Berries © 2010 Veganbaking.net.

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66 Comments on "Unprocessed FAQ: Flours & Grains"

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Kait Nolan
Guest

Can we talk about gluten free flours? Like brown rice flour, white rice flour, corn starch, tapioca starch, etc. that those of us who don’t eat wheat would be using?

Kate
Guest

Interesting, as all of the gluten free products are far more highly processed than most wheat & grains. Curious to see the response to this.

d\'Arci
Guest

ditto, kate! i just began learning about that, myself, much to my dismay. what is a person to do?!

Sara
Guest

We love White Whole Wheat Flour. It works as well as all-purpose. Apparently, Trader Joes has the best price.

Sarah
Guest

Out here in Wa state, TJ’s sells it for $3.49 a 5 lb bag. Not bad pricewise.

Lp johnson
Guest

I have ground & sifted my own wheat. The resulting bread was inedible. The birds wouldn’t even eat it!!!

Andrea Omgard
Guest

Have you ever tried baking bread with self made sourdough?
Whole Wheat Flour, water, salt, one teaspoon honey – the most natural way to get delicious bread. Since I tried first, I stopped buying bread. But be careful! It`s infecting! Everybody, who tasted once, started baking sourdough bread afterwards – my neighbour, her sister, my daughter, all the students`flat-sharing communities in her house, my former boy-friend…
It`s true sourdough bread takes some time, but not your time.
Sourdough is a bit of a loner, concerned with his own interests.
So just leave him alone. Things will turn out perfect.
Everybody, who is interested:
I could send you a recipe, that works 100%
(just write here, or send me a note to facebook)

Traci
Guest

Hi Andrea! I’m a big fan of sourdough, and have been nurturing a culture for just over a year now. I’d love your recipe for bread that works 100%. Thanks!

Katie
Guest

Andrea,
I’m doubtful you’ll get this message since it is years after your original post. But if by some chance you do receive it, I’d love to get this bread recipe if you’re still willing to share it.
Katie

Kate
Guest

When I ate grains; I would have to regrind the grains until they were very fine and make & use a sourdough starter. The bread was still dense but it was yummy.

d\'Arci
Guest

i’m so sorry, lp j, but i laughed me head off @ your comment! x^D

Sarah
Guest

I was finally won over to whole wheat when I found the white wheat. It is so much better tasting and delicate. I grind mine from the berries 🙂 Excellent article!

HANNA
Guest

thank you for this printed and in a folder waiting for more info :)))))))

Lacey Wilcox
Guest

Any suggestions on your favorite brand of flour?

Annie
Guest

What about grains that aren’t whole, but aren’t in flour form? For example, what about pearl barley? Or white rice? It seems like refined flour is technically okay (unbleached, but sifted to only the endosperm), but I’m not sure if the lack of bran and germ is okay when you aren’t in flour form. Does this make sense?

elena
Guest

Hello Andrew,

I am allergic to gluten and use quinoa, coconut, brown rice flour, are these acceptable for the challenge?

Sarah
Guest

You can grind all those at home! 🙂 I’d say they count without an issue. They are whole “whole-grain” flours.

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