Whole-Wheat Flour | Cook's Illustrated
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Whole-Wheat Flour

Published March 2011

How we tested

Unlike refined white flour, which is derived from just the grain’s stripped-down inner core, or endosperm, whole-wheat flour is made from the entire wheat berry: endosperm, germ, and bran. Because of this, it boasts a brown color and more pronounced wheat flavor. To see if there was any difference from bag to bag, we chose five brands, working them into our recipes for whole-wheat sandwich bread and pancakes.

Before the breads even reached the oven, we noticed that the dough made with one whole-wheat flour was loose and sticky and more difficult to handle. Once baked, the loaf crumbled in hand, though tasters praised its “bold,” “unapologetic” wheat flavor. At the other extreme, the breads made with our two least favorite whole-wheat flours had overly soft textures. Tasters also criticized their flavors for being “muted”; some even went so far as to say that one loaf could practically have passed for white bread. These results more or less tracked with the pancakes, too: The wheat flavor from these latter two brands was relatively underwhelming, while the flapjacks from two of our favorites were robustly flavored. Only one brand had it all, earning praise for a “sweet,” “nutty” flavor, tender, airy pancakes, and bread with just the right soft yet hearty crumb.

Hoping to explain why the flours performed differently, we started by dumping a sample from each bag into a bowl and running our hands through it. One of our flours stood apart, with grains that resembled tiny flakes, whereas the other flours felt finer and more powdery. When we examined its label, we learned that this particular flour is a graham flour, the coarsest type of flour available. The other four flours were either stone-ground or steel-rolled into much finer particles and felt almost identical.

The Whole (Grain) Truth

It made sense that the coarsest flour produced a denser, more crumbly loaf. Bread texture is directly related to the development of gluten, the network of proteins that give it lift and structure. But the gluten-producing proteins in flour exist only in the endosperm, not in the germ or the bran that also make up whole-grain flour. In fact, the bran contains sharp edges that shred the strands of gluten that develops in dough, thereby allowing air to escape. The bigger pieces of bran in a coarser grind only exacerbate this effect, creating a loaf with less structure and a denser crumb.

That explained why the graham flour loaf turned out the way it did. But we still didn’t understand why our favorite flour produced a heartier texture than the three other brands when the grind size of each looked and felt very similar. We were also still curious about why the graham flour pancakes were tender when the corresponding loaf was coarse and crumbly. So we dug around for additional clues and made two other key discoveries.

First, there was the type of wheat used: Four of the five flours we tasted were ground from hard red wheat, whereas the graham flour combined both hard and soft red wheats. Further research revealed that hard red wheat produces stronger gluten networks and is therefore a good choice for yeast-leavened baked goods like bread. Soft red wheat, on the other hand, is known for producing a tender texture in baked goods that use chemical leaveners—including pancakes.

Second, there was the quality of the wheat itself. If a wheat berry is allowed to germinate (or sprout), it produces an enzyme that makes dough sticky and less prone to rising. A representative from one company told us that to measure wheat quality, manufacturers perform a “falling number” test, in which a plunger is sent to the bottom of a test tube filled with a hot paste of wheat meal and water. The longer it takes for the plunger to fall, the higher the quality of the wheat and the lower the amount of the enzyme amylase. Our runner-up flour reported that the company looks for a falling number score of at least five minutes. Our winner surpasses this minimum: According to the company, its whole-wheat flour must achieve a falling number score closer to 10 minutes. We can only assume that there’s always a correlation between good-quality wheat and demanding a relatively high falling number: None of the other flour producers would provide information about their requirements.

Bottom line: Our winner is the best bet for those seeking an all-purpose whole-wheat flour. For those who want more wheaty punch—and don’t mind a crumbly loaf—the graham flour makes a good alternative.

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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.)*