Whole grain and alternative grain flours have a reputation as heavy and boring, somehow mysterious and for favouring nutrition over taste.
But I grew up with atta as a staple – the wholemeal flour made from hard wheat used for rotis, chapatis, parathas and the like. My mother and grandmother made such flatbreads almost daily. I never realized they were supposed to be good for me; I only thought of them as tender and especially good with ghee. My father has made bread since I was in my teens as well.
I think it was the proximity of bread and baking, and the collection of flour bins in my childhood kitchen, that inspired an experimental attitude with flours I’ve carried into adulthood.
And these days, Canadian baking aisles and bulk-food stores boast a multitude of flours, from double 00 durum to spelt, rye, buckwheat and more.
Shira McDermott, co-founder of Flourist, a dry-goods company offering freshly milled flours, has seen a steady growth in business since it started milling its own flour, but a marked uptick in the past six months. (Formerly known as Grain, it sells primarily online, with routine pop-ups in Vancouver; it will open its first brick-and-mortar shop this spring.)
As consumers we rarely consider the type of wheat we are using in standard flours, but just as a red delicious apple has different characteristics from a Honeycrisp, the same is true with wheat. With so many flours available, and without an understanding of how they will perform in cooking and baking, it can be difficult to know where and how, to begin.
“We always suggest people start with our Sifted Red Spring Wheat Flour if they are baking any kind of bread and, if not, the Sifted Red Fife Wheat Flour," McDermott says. "These flours are the closest to the commercially available all-purpose flours on the market. In nine out of 10 home-baking situations, recipes can be made using a 1-for-1 ratio [substituting our flours for a basic all-purpose flour].”
Both flours are made from varieties of modern wheat, using the whole grain but sifted so that the texture resembles that of commercial all-purpose. “Red spring and red fife are versions of the same wheat variety,” McDermott continues. “The real difference we find is in the handling. The gluten is more forgiving in the red fife, which is perfect for achieving a delicate crumb in everyday baking like quick breads and cakes. … For baking bread, we always recommend starting with the Sifted Red Spring Wheat Flour, since the gluten structure is stronger and it responds really well to kneading and folding.”
Exceedingly popular in Europe rye flour produces denser baked goods. It has a distinctive taste, well-suited to sourdoughs and a surprising match to chocolate.
Einkorn is an ancient grain, with a different molecular structure than modern wheat. As such, it is best suited for scones, cakes and muffins – items in which gluten development is not essential. McDermott describes its flavour as “savoury and nutty” and recommends it for pastry dough.
“Spelt is a grain that is also quite popular,” she says. “… Spelt is really delicious in crackers, shortbread and simple recipes like cookies.”
Spelt is often mistaken as gluten-free. It is not, though it has less gluten than modern wheat. The gluten it has is water soluble and much more fragile. Some with gluten sensitivities thus find it easier to digest, but it is not an option for those with intolerance or celiac.
Teff flour, from a grass native to Ethiopia and Eritrea, is the foundation of injera, the delightfully airy, crêpe-like flatbread made with a lightly fermented batter. With its mild sweetness and lack of gluten, teff is my secret for fudgy brownies in recipes that only use a small amount of flour. (Flour-heavy recipes may need the gluten for structure; a portion of buckwheat is a brilliant addition in those.)
Buckwheat flour is probably most associated with blinis and Breton galettes. Buckwheat is intense, with a bitter depth. It is also a grass and gluten-free; its groats can be made into porridge called kasha and the flour can be paired with wheat flour for pancakes and waffles.
Another gluten-free flour is chickpea (also known as gram, cici and besan). It has a subtle legume grassiness and takes on a nutty edge when fried. It is commonly used in griddle cakes such as Ligurian farinata and Provençal socca. I keep it on hand for pakoras or bhaji, Indian vegetable fritters with a tempura-like batter.
I’ve started to sneak a mix of flours into my recipes. Sometimes with an eye on nutrition, but equally with an aim for a certain texture or hint of flavour that a white flour won’t deliver. So, it’s a scoop of buckwheat in my banana bread, rye flour in chocolate muffins or spelt in cookies like those I’m offering today.
These oatmeal cookies are snappier than most; they are almost woolly textured, with a chew that comes from an unabashed serving of oats tumbled together with fragrant coconut strands and densely fleshed dried cherries. Surprisingly restrained in their sweetness, the cookies allow the subtle nuttiness of the flour to come through.
Mixed Flour Black Forest Oat Cookies
Ingredients (Makes 24 cookies)
- 1 cup whole-grain wheat flour (not cake and pastry), sifted
- 1/4 cup spelt flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut, sweetened or not
- 8 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, chopped
- 1/2 cup dried cherries
Preheat oven to 350 F with racks in the top and bottom thirds. Line quarter sheet pans with parchment paper and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Using a stand mixer with the paddle attached, beat the butter, sugar and molasses together on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl and beater down once.
Knock the motor down to medium and beat in the egg, followed by the extracts.
Stop the machine and scrape down the beater and bowl. Tip in the flour mixture. Set the mixer to stir, and run until the dry and wet are almost incorporated. Scrape down the beater and bowl again, then spill in the oats, coconut, chocolate and dried cherries. Stir to combine, either with the machine or by hand.
Use 2-tablespoon scoop or similar to form 24 portions of dough (or a generous 2½ tablespoons to make 18 larger cookies). Roll each into a ball. Arrange 6 balls on a baking sheet, with space in between. Gently press each to flatten slightly to a generous 3/4-inch. Repeat with the second baking sheet.
Bake the cookies in the hot oven until truly golden brown, about 15 minutes, rotating the trays from front to back and top to bottom halfway through. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.
Let the trays cool to room temperature (run them under cold water, then dry, if looking to expedite the process). Then bake the remaining dough as before.
The cookies are best the day they are made but can be stored up to a week in an airtight container at room temperature.