To keep health-and-wellness aficionados interested in shopping the baked goods aisles, many bakers now incorporate specialty flours into their formulations. These flours often offer improved nutrition, digestibility and even shelf life. Many provide unique flavors and textures, appealing to the increasing sense of adventure among today’s consumers.

Bakers must take note that these flours vary in performance and by application. Before swapping such flours about, it is important to identify the desired function and end result. Only then can you start mixing flours and other ingredients to create a unique spin on what would otherwise be an ordinary baked item.

“Specialty flours don’t have a standard definition,” said Colleen Zammer, director of product marketing, Bay State Milling, Quincy, MA. “At Bay State Milling, we define them as anything beyond traditional wheat flours.”

This definition includes flours such as rye and spelt, which are milled using equipment and technology similar to that of wheat flour. It also includes the emerging categories of flours based on sprouted grains, ancient grains, pseudocereals and even legumes, many of which use different milling methods or other processing technologies.

“The applications for these specialty flours are as varied as the original grains,” Ms. Zammer noted. “Generally speaking, any sprouted or specialty grain flour can be used in the majority of grain-based foods applications but may vary in terms of use level.”

For example, gluten-free flours may need to be blended to fully replace a formula’s wheat flour component and to balance their flavor profile. “Our recommendation is to use ancient grain flours that do not contain gluten in items that don’t require a lot of gas entrapment or volume, such as flatbreads, crackers, crisps and bars,” Ms. Zammer said. “Each flour has its own unique flavor, such as peppery for amaranth or earthy for buckwheat. Rather than trying to mask the flavor, you should leverage it into a unique flavor profile that says something different on the store shelf.”

Some specialty flours, such as those based on sprouted wheat, can be a 100% direct replacement for conventional wheat flour in certain applications; however, formulas typically do need adjustments.

Understanding sprouted grains

What exactly are sprouted grains? As the name suggests, they are grains that have sprouted. All grains used in the food industry are actually mature, dormant seeds of cereal grasses. Like other seeds, under the right conditions of temperature and moisture, grains can germinate, sprout and eventually develop into full-grown plants. To produce stable sprouted grain flour, this natural process is controlled and terminated after limited growth.

“This only happens under the right conditions of temperature and moisture,” said Gang Guo, PhD, director of wheat research and quality, Ardent Mills, Minnetonka, MN. “Sprouting only takes place for a brief period of time because the grain is only allowed to sprout, not to develop fully into a new plant.”

Sprouts have long been consumed as fresh produce. Some bread manufacturers have been making sprouted grain breads for years, primarily by sprouting them in-house and using a wet mash. The process of commercially sprouting grains, halting their growth and then drying and milling them into flour is a relatively new.

Indeed, the category of packaged foods manufactured using sprouted grains is in its infancy. Don Trouba, director of marketing, Ardent Mills, Denver, cited data from Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, to describe the market’s potential. “The sprouted food market emerged in the US in 2004 with about 35 products,” he said. “This grew to 188 sprouted food products in 2013. It’s clearly poised for continued growth.”

Sprouted grains are true whole grains. In February 2008, AACC International’s board of directors approved the following statement on sprouted grains: “Malted or sprouted grains containing all of the original bran, germ and endosperm shall be considered whole grains as long as sprout growth does not exceed kernel length and nutrient values have not diminished. These grains should be labeled as malted or sprouted whole grain.”

As implied by this definition, during sprouting, the outer bran layer of the seed splits open, and the beginnings of a young shoot peek out. This growth is then stopped by a mild heat treatment but not before the seed has undergone some transformations.

Changes for the good

All living things change as they grow and so do grains. “Sprouted grain flours undergo biochemical changes as a new plant starts to emerge from the traditional seed,” Ms. Zammer said. “Enzymes are released that start to break down components such as starch into sugars to provide food for the new plant to grow.

“Starch is important in leavened bread because it helps create structure, and if too much starch is converted into sugar, the bread may collapse during the baking process,” she added. This is not problematic for all grain-based foods, just something to keep in mind for bakers who are developing a product that needs to maintain structure or shape.

“On the plus side, if you allow enzymes to convert starch into sugar within the grain, you have already created a food source for the yeast that leavens your bread.” Ms. Zammer said. “You may be able to reduce malted barley flour, often added for its enzymatic activity, and you may have generated enough sugar to provide a touch of sweetness, which may reduce the need for added sugars in your whole grain bread.”

Sprouting also yields grains that are nutritionally different than their non-germinated counterpart. For example, nutrient-binding phytic acids, often found in bran, are reduced during sprouting, thus making nutrients available to the growing plant. “When a sprouted grain product is consumed, these same nutrients are less bound and, therefore, more available to the body as well,” Ms. Zammer explained. “This may not show up in a nutritional analysis because the nutrients are always there; they are just freed up to be more easily absorbed.”

In other words, nutrients tend to be more bioavailable in sprouted grains compared with traditional grains, which appeals to today’s health- and wellness-seeking consumer. Another attraction is that the associated reduction in starch has been shown to improve the ­digestibility of the grain.

Market ready

Enhanced availability of sprouted grain flour suitable for commercial wholesale baking accompanies the emergence of the sprouted grain food category.

Bay State Milling produces sprouted wheat flour and steel-cut sprouted wheat kernels for the baking industry in conventional and organic varieties. “We offer a red spring wheat product that functions well in commercial and artisan baking,” Ms. Zammer noted.

“Striking a balance between starting the biochemical processes to improve the nutrient density of wheat and enabling too much enzymatic activity is challenging,” she explained, “but we identified a process to do this consistently. In addition, our process brings out the sweetness in the grain, which makes for a better-tasting whole wheat end product.”

Sprouted white spring wheat flour from Ardent Mills, Mr. Trouba noted, “offers excellent bread-­baking performance — including higher baking volume, lighter color and softer texture — along with a sweeter, less-bitter taste than non-sprouted wheat flours.”

In studies that compared it with non-sprouted control whole wheat flour, bread made with this sprouted white spring whole wheat flour exhibited a 50% increase in dough stability, a 10% decrease in proof time and an 8-to-12% increase in loaf volume. The nutrition profile matched that of the control whole wheat flour, with both being a “good source” of vitamins and minerals along with delivering 13% dietary fiber.

The company has worked with other varieties of sprouted wheat, Dr. Guo noted. “Preliminary studies using another sprouted wheat flour show that 100% replacement of regular pastry flour in cookies produced very similar spreading, along with a delicious taste,” Dr. Guo observed. “Similar results are possible in extruded goods such as breakfast cereal and cereal bars, chips and other snacks.”

Other specialty grains

Sprouted grain flours are just one of many specialty flours available to the modern wholesale baker. Others are milled from ancient grains, now slowly making their way into mainstream America, or from traditional grains that have been specially processed to impart unique attributes such as improved shelf life, enhanced baking performance and superior organoleptic properties.

Mennel Milling Co., Fostoria, OH, developed three specialty flours. “Our stabilized whole wheat flour comes in the form of hard red winter, hard red spring and soft red winter, with selection based on application,” said C.J. Lin, PhD, vice-president of R&D and quality assurance. “A special thermal treatment during conventional milling of whole wheat flour reduces the activity of endogenous enzymes and alters certain phytochemicals in the bran and germ.”

These stabilized whole wheat flours have a shelf life of 120 days compared with 30 to 60 days for conventional whole wheat flour. When stabilized whole hard wheat flour is used in a bread application in place of regular whole wheat flour from the same wheat source, it can save at least 2% of vital wheat gluten in the formulation without affecting baking performance.

Another offering is pregelatinized wheat flour. “It has the same nutritional profile as regular wheat flour yet functions to a large degree as a hydrocolloid,” Dr. Lin explained. “It has good hydrophilic properties and high cold viscosity.” It is used as a clean-label alternative in applications that require water-binding hydrocolloids because it can significantly increase the viscosity of batter systems such as muffins and pancakes when used at levels of 2 to 5%.

The company also produces thermally treated flour with reduced microbial counts. “It, too, has good hydrophilic properties and improved cold viscosity, as well as good binding capabilities for breading and batter applications,” Dr. Lin said. Such low microbial flours are intended for foods that might be consumed without being fully cooked, like the cookie dough used in ice cream or the breaded chicken nuggets in kids’ lunchbox meal kits.

Further afield

There’s still more to the specialty flours story.

“Ardent Mills offers a proprietary identity-preserved barley that is the highest-fiber whole grain,” Dr. Guo reported. “It is low in starch and high in soluble, heart-healthy beta glucan and total dietary fiber. With three times the fiber of oats and corn flour, and 10 times the fiber of brown rice, it’s the ideal way to add whole grain nutrition and fiber to a variety of applications.”

This barley is available in fine flour, quick flakes, 100% hard, 100% soft, high-performance and custom blends. Applications include all types of baked goods, breads, breakfast cereals, energy bars, flatbreads, ­pastas, tortillas and grain-based extruded foods.

South Asian flatbreads require atta, a specialty flour. “Freshly milled from specially selected durum wheat, our atta flour delivers two times the fiber of refined flour and meets traditional South Asian specifications for taste, appearance, texture and functionality,” Mr. Trouba said. “Atta flour delivers authentic taste and texture to a variety of flatbreads, including chapati, puri, paratha and roti.”

When working with sprouted grains and specialty flours, most formulations require some adjustments. “For example, less yeast and less vital wheat gluten are needed because of the stronger dough our sprouted whole wheat flour produces,” Dr. Guo said. “In general, because of the unique physicochemical and structural attributes of specialty flours, one should expect changes in water absorption, use of food additives or conditioners, and process conditions like mixing and proofing.”

The future for specialty flours is strong, Ms. Zammer observed. “Consumers are seeking new flavors and textures, and these products can deliver on those needs,” she said. “We encourage bakers to listen to their target consumer to determine what benefits they are seeking.

“If they are looking for protein, then amaranth and garbanzo flours are excellent choices,” she continued. “If a better-tasting whole wheat product is desired, then sprouted wheat flour is the way to go. If avoiding gluten is the objective, and at a reasonable price point, then millet and buckwheat are good choices. Each alternative grain or flour has many benefits to the baker and consumer, and the best one to select depends on what the consumer is seeking and what format the manufacturer is planning to deliver it in.”