Published October 1, 2012. From Cook's Country.
At the supermarket, these loaves range from pale and fluffy to dark and hearty, packed with everything from quinoa to wheat berries. With so many options, which multigrain bread tastes best?
“Multigrain” is a vague term in the bread industry. It’s printed on bread bags holding everything from downy off-white loaves to dense and wheaty walnut-colored ones. Unlike with the term “whole wheat,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to set parameters about what constitutes a multigrain product; in fact, the matter is under review as we go to press. A grain is defined merely as wheat or any other cultivated cereal crop used as food. Some manufacturers stick a number on their breads (“7-grain,” “15-grain”). If you’re having trouble naming 15 grains—no worries, we were, too—think of such things as barley, triticale, buckwheat, amaranth, and brown rice. With such a range, we set off to define what we expect from multigrain bread and which brand offers the best flavor and texture.
We bought seven top-selling multigrain breads, each containing from 10 to 15 different types of grains, and invited 21 editors and cooks from America’s Test Kitchen to taste them plain and toasted with butter. A strong preference for heartier loaves emerged. Tasters praised “substantial” and “wholesome” slices with naturally “sweet, wheaty” flavor. We checked the labels and found the key: In general, we liked brands with more whole-wheat and less white flour, and if white flour was high on the ingredient list (listed by weight), other grains must be, too, to achieve the wholesome texture tasters preferred. (All but one of the loaves we tested include some white flour.) Along the way, we noticed that some products counted wheat twice and one product included nuts and seeds as two of its “12 grains”; while nuts and seeds may be healthy, the FDA doesn’t classify them as grains, so this label is misleading. Only four products had grain counts that matched their labels.
In addition to grains, every multigrain bread we tested included some combination of nuts and seeds (and sometimes whole wheat berries). The more the better, according to our tasters. To compare, we carefully picked through a slice of our winning loaf and the last-place finisher, plucking out every seed or nut we found. The winning brand had 4 1/2 times more by weight than the losing brand. We also preferred larger, denser slices of bread; the slices ranged from 37 to 45 grams, and heavier slices rated higher.
Heftier slices combined with more whole grains also spelled success in our final challenge: the tuna test. To see how the breads would hold up until lunchtime, we made tuna salad sandwiches with slices from each loaf and put them in an insulated lunch cooler with ice packs. When we unpacked the sandwiches four hours later, we found that our top-ranked breads held up fine. But slices from loaves that contained the most white flour, as well as those that weighed the least, were soggy.
Our winning brand starts with whole-wheat flour and then adds lots of whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It passed the tuna salad test with flying colors, remaining springy and fresh despite the mayonnaise-laden filling. We wanted our multigrain bread sturdy, nutty, wheaty, and wholesome, and our winning brand delivered on all counts. In sum, we recommend all of the products (three with reservations). That’s in strong contrast to our white sandwich bread tasting, in which we recommended only two of the eight supermarket loaves we tasted.