You know it's good for you. You've wanted to do it forever. And this time you're determined: you WILL learn how to use whole wheat flour. Like, how to substitute it for all-purpose flour in all of your favorite recipes. How to make baked treats that actually pass the "family filter:" they look good, taste good, and disappear quickly.
Thankfully, substituting whole wheat flour for all-purpose flour is actually quite easy in most recipes. And quick bread is a great place to start (think banana bread, zucchini bread, pumpkin bread, those breads where you simply stir together batter and pour it into a loaf pan).
What are the three potential main differences between a typical recipe made with all-purpose (white) flour, and one made with whole wheat flour? Flavor, color, and rise. Something made with whole wheat may taste "wheatier;" it may appear darker; and it may rise differently.
These differences are most apparent in recipes where flour is the chief ingredient: e.g., bread. Yeast bread is a prime example; many yeast breads are made simply from flour, water, yeast, and salt.
But compare yeast bread to quick bread, which along with its flour usually includes sugar, butter, eggs, and mix-ins like mashed fruit or chocolate chips or nuts. While it's starkly apparent which loaf of yeasted sandwich bread is 100% whole wheat and which is made from white flour, the difference is much less pronounced in, say, a rich, dark loaf of banana bread. Or even in a delicate lemon bread.
Let's take a look.
How to use whole wheat flour: lemon bread
Here are two loaves of Quick Lemon Bread ready to go into the oven. I'm using this recipe because it'll be easy to tell if there's any discernible difference between all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour versions. The bread is naturally light-colored, and its flavor (sans glaze) is very mildly lemon.
You can definitely see a difference in color.
Here they are baked. The color difference in the crust remains.
Interior color? Ditto.
But it's not an in-your-face difference; if you didn't have the side-by-side comparison with a white-flour loaf, you wouldn't necessarily know the loaf on the right is whole wheat.
And rise? No difference.
What about flavor? The flavor of the whole wheat loaf is just slightly tannic: there's a tiny "bite" on the end as your taste buds interpret what you're chewing. But like the color, this isn't necessarily off-putting.
You also get a bit of gritty mouth-feel from the whole wheat flour's bran. Let the loaf rest overnight, though, and that bran softens, losing any texture-altering powers it might initially have.
Now let's try this same test with banana bread, a loaf chock-full of bananas, nuts, and spice: in other words, a more complex loaf than lemon.
How to use whole wheat flour: banana bread
I'm using our Whole-Grain Banana Bread recipe, which calls for a 50/50 combination of white whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour. For this comparison, I'm eschewing the combo and using straight-up all-purpose flour (left) and white whole wheat flour (right).
Difference in batter color? Yes.
Difference in color after being baked? Not as apparent, especially under a coating of cinnamon-sugar. Looks like the crust of the whole wheat loaf (right) is slightly darker.
Now, what about interior color?
No difference. Between the brown sugar and the bananas (which darken as they bake), any color difference is erased.
And rise? Negligible difference. The all-purpose flour loaf (left) domes a tiny bit more, but both rise nicely.
Finally, what about flavor and texture?
Hallelujah! No discernible difference. The assertive flavors of banana and brown sugar, cinnamon and toasted nuts erase any "edgy" whole wheat flavor; and the bananas' moisture softens the bran as the loaf bakes, eliminating any potential grittiness.
Want to use whole wheat flour in your favorite quick bread recipes? Go right ahead. If you're at all hesitant, start by substituting whole wheat flour for half the all-purpose flour. If you like the results, keep increasing the percentage — potentially right up to 100%.
Why we love white whole wheat flour
Let's get something straight right off the bat: white whole wheat flour is 100% whole wheat flour, with all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber of standard red whole wheat.
The difference? White wheat lacks a certain dark, strong-tasting compound (phenolic acid) in its bran layer. Without this compound, white whole wheat is milder-flavored and lighter-colored than red whole wheat. For those who don't enjoy the assertiveness of whole wheat, this is an obvious plus.
Remember the family filter? If you're trying to get your decidedly whole wheat-averse family to switch from all-purpose to whole wheat flour, substitute white whole wheat. In most recipes, they'll never know the difference!
Want to know more about how to use whole wheat flour? Read our “From White to Wheat: a Baker’s Guide” posts on bread, rolls, cinnamon buns, and pizza; breakfast; cake and cupcakes; and cookies, bars, and brownies.