During the past decade or so, bakers have learned that flour, the most important ingredient in their production process, does not need to be boring. Variety flours, which run the spectrum of whole grain white wheat flour to tropical specialties such as coconut flour, can add culinary interest as well as boost nutritional profiles. Variety flours present an opportunity to create product differentiation in the crowded marketplace.


Click for a slideshow of flour applications.


Such diversity in flours gets strong backing from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended making half or more of grains eaten daily whole grains. For everyone ages 9 and up, this means eating three to five servings or more of whole grains.

Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain kernel. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. Without the bran and germ, about 25% of a grain’s protein is lost, along with vital nutrients. Flour millers add back many of the vitamins and minerals to enrich the refined grains; however, whole grains are considered healthier because as they naturally provide more protein, more fiber and many important vitamins and minerals.

Wheat: the prime meridian

When exploring whole grain flours, don’t sail past wheat. To consumers, it’s the most familiar of the variety flours, and it’s recently been given an important makeover with the commercial advent of hard white wheat.

“Our white whole wheat flour is a perfect fit for anyone hoping to add whole grain nutrition with minimal changes to the taste, texture or appearance of baked goods,” said Elizabeth Arndt, PhD, director, R&D, ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. “We work directly with farmers to grow specially selected white wheat that we mill to a patented particle size similar to white flour. The resulting flour performs like or better than other whole wheat flours and has the same nutrition but without the visible bran and germ specks, darker color or stronger taste you’d expect with traditional whole wheat flour.”

This patented flour comes in hard and soft varieties, enabling use across the full spectrum of grain-based foods. Bakers have had success using it in challenging applications such as butter cookies and croissants.

The flour does have higher absorption than its white counterpart, so hydration levels, mix time and baking conditions might require adjusting. “We have found that this white whole wheat flour can be used in a number of baked good applications at up to 30% flour basis with no adjustments,” Dr. Arndt said.

The company recently introduced a high-­performance version that has strong gluten. It can reduce or eliminate the need to add vital wheat gluten in whole grain applications, helping reduce overall formula costs.

The difference in wheat type and particle size matters. “A coarse-granulation red wheat might be a good choice for a breakfast bread used for toast because it provides hearty flavor and texture,” said Brook Carson, director of R&D, ADM Milling, Overland Park, KS. “Because fine-granulation white wheat tends to have less impact on flavor and texture, it is ideal for delicate products such as whole grain blueberry muffins.

“Our soft white whole wheat graham flour allows use of whole grains in products such as cookies, cakes and crackers,” she added. “When formulators try to add hard wheat to products that would typically use soft wheat, the attributes of the finished product suffer. The product tends to dry out more quickly and does not maintain the desired soft texture.”

Some wheat flour choices improve on wheat’s benefits. “We offer a specialty functional wheat flour that acts as a fat mimetic, allowing for the reduction of fat in indulgent baked goods,” said Patrick O’Brien, bakery marketing manager, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, IL. “Some of our other variety flours are derived from rice and tapioca. They allow bakers to create high-quality gluten-free baked goods with taste, texture and product quality that is indistinguishable from wheat-containing alternatives.”

Off in new directions

There are many whole grain flours in the marketplace that make it possible to formulate all types of products with a world of goodness. Some fit gluten-free uses, too.

When working with whole grains, bakers should keep in mind that whole grains tend to have a shorter inventory life than refined flours because of the oils found in the bran and germ. “They should be handled carefully and kept in closed containers. Refrigeration will also extend shelf life,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling Co., Quincy, MA. “The more oil a grain has, the shorter its shelf life due to ­possible oxidation and rancidity.”

Bakers must remember that grains differ in their absorption level and hydration rate. “Proper dough hydration is critical to manufacturing and end-product quality,” Dr. Arndt said. “A common problem in making whole grain and multigrain doughs is the addition of too little water. Setting the right mix time is also critical. Whole grain and multigrain doughs generally require less mix time compared to wheat flour doughs.”

Ms. Zammer suggested identifying target consumers and determining what is important to them. “Is it flavor, nutrition, convenience or cost? Once you know these drivers, you can look across the palette of grains available to you and their unique characteristics and build your product accordingly,” she said.

“We offer a number of variety flours including a sprouted whole wheat,” Ms. Zammer continued. “The grain is sprouted enough to generate enzymatic activity and to release nutrients that improve the nutritional profile while still being controlled for baking performance.

“Bakers must remember nothing compares to conventional wheat flour in performance because gluten is a protein with a balance of elasticity and extensibility that no other single grain can match,” she said.

Barley, rice: familiar latitudes

Barley and oats are also sources of whole grain goodness, thanks to their natural content of soluble dietary fiber. “Our unique whole grain barley offers sustained energy and goes head-to-head with oats,” Dr. Arndt said. “Our all-natural barley is the highest-fiber whole grain with three times the dietary fiber of oats and 10 times the fiber of brown rice, another whole grain mainstay.

“This barley has 12% beta-glucan, qualifying for the Food and Drug Administration’s heart-healthy label claim for beta-glucan from oats and barley,” she added. “Not only that, but it has the lowest glycemic index of any commercially available grain, smoothing out spikes in blood glucose, which can help sustain energy.”

Available in flour and flakes, this high-fiber, l­ower-starch barley has a slightly sweet, malt-like flavor. Functionally, this barley helps with moisture retention in yeast and quick breads. Replacing up to 10% of formula flour with this barley flour has been shown to retain crumb softness in bread during storage, as well as help improve bread texture after microwave heating.

“Our whole grain barley doesn’t have functional gluten, so this must be considered when formulating breads and other baked goods,” Dr. Arndt said.

Rice flours, both brown and white, provide the foundation of many gluten-free formulations. “We specialize in rice-based products and offer a variety of rice flours to meet a baker’s needs,” said Tracy Scribbins, group marketing manager, PGP International Inc. (PGPI), Woodland, CA, an ABF Ingredients Co. “Rice flours and meals are made from different varieties of rice and are available in a wide range of different particle sizes.” The company has the ability to tailor the particle size from very coarse to very fine.

PGPI is one of the largest producers of glutinous short grain rice. “Glutinous” refers to the rice’s stickiness not the presence of gluten. “This rice has a very high ­amylopectin-to-amylose starch ratio,” Ms. Scribbins said. “Flours made from it provide optimum expansion and a more porous texture in baked and extruded products. This particular starch profile reduces breakage of baked snacks during packaging while also providing a crispy texture.”

Corn: New World grain

Another lodestar in the gluten-free firmament is yellow corn flour. It brings unique flavor and texture to baked goods, even those not traditionally made with corn flour, such as pancakes, cakes, muffin mixes and pies, according to Jeff Dillon, vice-president of sales and marketing, Didion Milling, Cambria, WI. “However, you have to be careful that the taste attributes fit what you are looking for,” he said. “You don’t want the corn flavor to be too strong in the blend. It works well to use multiple grains so corn brings sweetness and nutty flavor without being overpowering or too corny, like a corn dog.”

It also has a short texture. “If you only use corn flour in a recipe, the finished product will be crumbly because of the protein form,” Mr. Dillon said. “It will resemble a corn muffin or corn bread. When you formulate with corn, you will have a lower protein level than with wheat. Make sure the protein level is balanced correctly. This can be accomplished by blending the corn flour with grains that have higher protein.”

Didion offers a range of corn flours, including traditional, also known as degermed, plus whole grain corn flour. Both are fine granulation flours milled to a uniform, consistent granulation. They are made from whole ground yellow corn that is locally grown for easy traceability.

Variety flours can also be used to supply nutritional benefits. Such is the case with Ingredion’s whole grain corn flour that contains resistant starch, a naturally occurring form of dietary fiber found in legumes, seeds and partially milled grains. “This whole grain offers enticing eating qualities and appealing textures in rolls, cookies and cakes,” Mr. O’Brien said.

To formulate with “a horse of a different color,” consider ingredients derived from purple corn such as those made by Suntava, Inc., Afton, MN. “From these colorful kernels, we produce and supply both non-GMO and certified organic whole-grain purple corn flour, whole grain purple corn meal and whole grain purple corn grits,” said Terry Howell, the company’s vice-president, business development.

“Our purple corn is more than just a pretty color,” he explained. “Each of our ingredients is naturally packed with health-enhancing anthocyanins.” Giving the corn its deep purple hue, anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants and add a ­distinctive color to artisan breads, crackers, pizza crust and desserts.

Modern ancient mariners

Ancient grains add culinary adventure and whole grain nutrition to baked goods and snacks. These include amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. Each grain offers its own individual qualities.

According to Netherlands-based Innova Market Research, the increase in popularity of these grains reflects rising awareness of their nutritional properties, as well as the flavors and textures that they impart.

“Amaranth and quinoa are both great sources of protein while teff is unusually high in calcium,” Ms. Zammer said. “They can be milled to different granulations depending on application.”

From a sensory perspective, teff lends caramelized sugar notes, while amaranth is peppery, quinoa earthy and durum buttery, according to Ms. Zammer. “Rye has a flavor of its own, having nothing to do with the caraway seed it is often paired with. We have found when combined with whole wheat, whole rye can mask some of the bitter notes that are inherent to red wheat bran and create a delicate flavor profile that blends well with many other inclusions.

“Spelt is an ancient relative of wheat,” Ms. Zammer continued. “It has a mild flavor profile and does contain gluten, unlike most other ancient grains. But spelt has a different ratio of proteins, which creates a more extensible dough, preferable for flatbreads and tortillas. We work directly with growers to secure our spelt supply chain, which currently is predominantly organic.”

For a gluten-free, whole grain option, consider sorghum, an ancient grain with a modern following. “Sorghum works very well in cereal applications because it has a clean flavor profile and a crisp texture without being too fragile,” Ms. Carson said. “Sorghum’s flavor is less distinguishable than corn, and it provides better texture than rice.”

When formulating with sorghum flour, some formula and process modifications may be necessary. The hydration rate and capacity, plus the starch gelatinization temperature, are different compared with wheat flour.

“Our advice is to be creative and focus on ingredient functionality,” Ms. Zammer said. “Think of the specific functionality you were getting from wheat flour in that particular application, and look for ingredients that can replace that functionality. It may take three or four different ingredients to get to the desired result.”

Beyond the cereal horizon

Tubers, legumes and even fruit fibers can be milled into flours and used just like white flour. Cereal grains and legumes are naturally complementary, noted Mark Reuber, manager, R&D, Caremoli USA Inc., Ames, IA.

Many of these variety flours find use in gluten-free products. For example, the customized gluten-free flour systems offered by Penford Foods Ingredients, Centennial, CO, also enhance the nutritional profile of such foods, according to Jennifer Stephens, the company’s marketing manager. Clean-label and modified potato, rice and tapioca starches are used in the blends to improve cell structure, volume, moisture retention and shelf life of gluten-free products. Certain versions of the modified potato starch are a source of insoluble or soluble fiber.

“We offer a white corn protein that can be part of the blend,” Ms. Stephens added. “This vegetable-based protein contains about 50% protein and provides great texture and appearance to baked goods.”

Legume flours fit today’s better-for-you trend. “Legume flours, such as our garbanzo bean flour, are growing in popularity because they contain the amino acids that wheat flours are missing,” Ms. Zammer said. “So when the flours are combined in a baked good, that product becomes a source of complete protein.”

Tapioca, another popular ingredient for making ­gluten-free baked foods, is extracted from cassava roots. One company explored this application further. “We offer a patent-pending premium cassava flour,” said Carter Foss, technical sales director, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ. “For ­gluten-free baking, it is a better alternative to tapioca starch, the pure starch derivative from cassava roots. This ingredient is a bona fide flour.”

Cassava flour is composed of tapioca starch, some of which is gelatinized, and about 7% dietary fiber. “This composition provides good crumb structure, excellent crust and moistness in baked products,” Mr. Foss said. “We also offer arrowroot flour, derived from the root of a tropical plant. Its starch characteristics are similar to tapioca’s, but it gelatinizes at a lower temperature compared with conventional wheat and corn flours.” Arrowroot flour is about 3.1% fiber.

Premium cassava flour and arrowroot flour are similar to conventional white flour in terms of particle size distribution and long shelf life. But they are both predominantly carbohydrate in composition, unlike white flour that also contains protein. 

“These flours have a bland to neutral flavor profile,” Mr. Foss said. “When used in baking, they function similar to cake flour in that they form a thick batter rather than a dough. Both need to be complemented by other flours, starches, gums or other baking aids to achieve desired quality in bread-type applications.”

Coconut flour has emerged as a flavorful option for gluten-free baking because of its high fiber and low digestible carbohydrates. It also is a source of protein.

“Coconut flour has excellent water-absorption properties, which helps keep baked goods moist,” Mr. Foss said. “It has a strong coconut flavor and aroma profile. Some bakers are able to formulate recipes with coconut flour as the dominant flour. Most, however, will blend it with other flours and starches”

Bakers can use variety grains to deliver all expectations for adventure, simplicity, nutrition and great taste in bakery and snack foods. “No matter your formulation needs, there is likely a variety flour or blend that will meet a baker’s needs and provide just the product consumers are looking for,” Dr. Arndt concluded.