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By Cook's Illustrated Published February 2017

100% Whole-Wheat Bread

Published February 2017

How we tested

Whole-wheat bread has a flavor and nutrient profile many times more complex than that of white bread. But wander the bakery aisle of your local supermarket and you’ll find multitudes of “whole-wheat” breads that list refined flour—regular white flour used to make white bread—as their primary ingredient. What’s the deal?

White flour and whole-wheat flour are both made from wheat, but that’s where the similarities end. The kernel is the wheat seed’s edible portion and consists of three parts: germ, bran, and endosperm. White flour is made by isolating and grinding only the starchy endosperm. In contrast, whole-wheat flour is made by grinding all three parts of the kernel. Because it includes the bran and germ, whole-wheat flour contains proteins, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that refined flour lacks. But there’s more to the story.

“Whole wheat” isn’t a term strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, as long as some whole-wheat flour is included, a bread can be called “whole wheat” even when the main ingredient is white flour. But “100 percent whole wheat” is a regulated term, and it is what you should seek out if you want bread with no white flour. But once you’ve bypassed the imitators, you will still find dozens of authentic 100 percent whole-wheat products on supermarket shelves. Which should you choose?

To find out, we purchased seven widely available varieties of 100 percent whole-wheat bread and ran a series of blind taste tests. Our tasters sampled them plain, in ham and cheese sandwiches, and as buttered toast. All were acceptable, but our tasters did have a preference for those with cleaner, deeper flavors. We also liked a touch of sugar. Three of the five lower-rated products had 1.9 grams or less per serving (the last-place bread was an outlier and had the most sugar of all the breads due to the inclusion of reconstituted potato), and tasters thought the whole-grain flavors in these samples were a bit too forceful. Our top two breads had 3.5 grams of sugar per 50-gram serving and balanced the savory wheaty, toasty, nutty flavors with a satisfying hint of sweetness.

Tasters downgraded products for the mildly sour, bitter, or chemical notes that are all too common in store-bought bread. These unwelcome flavors can come from the host of stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives found in most supermarket bread (every bread we tasted had at least some of these additives) or from the wheat itself: Whole-wheat flour is a bit bitter on its own, and it’s much more prone to spoilage than white flour.

Even the worst breads we tasted—those with minor off-flavors—were passable; what really made a good bread stand out was its texture. Lower-rated products were airy, thin, and flimsy. They looked nice on the plate but became mush in the mouth. They weren’t resilient enough to bear the weight of a sandwich or dense enough to absorb butter without getting soggy. Our tasters favored moist, springy, chewy breads that were hearty enough to stand up to deli meats and butter.

To get to the heart of this distinction, we used scales and calipers to calculate the density of each bread by weighing and measuring three slices of each and averaging our results. Our winner was at least 18 percent more dense (and our runner-up was 45 percent more dense) than the five lowest-rated products. We could see the difference, too. The bottom five breads were more traditional supermarket loaves, with square slices and wide, airy crumbs. In contrast, the top two breads featured wide, rectangular slices and dense, narrow crumbs.

Ultimately, Arnold Whole Grains 100% Whole Wheat Bread emerged the winner. With a full wheaty flavor, no discernible off-notes, and a dense, springy texture that welcomed and stood up to butter and sandwich fillings, this wider loaf was our top choice. This bread also has small flecks of bulgur on the crust and in the crumb, which deepened the whole-grain flavors and added a pleasant crunch to each bite.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tasted seven widely available varieties of 100 percent whole-wheat bread. We conducted three blind taste tests: plain bread, ham and cheese sandwiches, and buttered toast. We obtained nutritional information from product labels. The average density of each bread was calculated by weighing and measuring three slices of each.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*