Choosing Flour – Are Whole Grain Flours Traditional?


by Kathy | Disclosure

When we think of Grandma in the kitchen cookin’ up something good, that something good probably involves flour. Yet, people know very little about flour. How it’s made, how long it keeps or how to care for it. There are many shades of difference for the sake of flavor or cooking characteristics but for today’s post we’ll stick with learning more about the differences that affect health. The common understanding about health and flour goes something like this: whole grain is good, white flour is bad. This is overly simplistic. I thought a post going over the finer details would be helpful :-). I’m certainly no expert, though over the years I’ve learned a little to help make my use of flours more healthful and tasty!

Are Whole Grains Traditional?

In short, the eating of grain and flour is traditional though I’m not sure that whole grain products available today are like flours eaten prior to the industrial era. Bread and the flour it’s created from are mentioned in writings from antiquity. The sifting (boulting) of flours to remove bran is also noted in writings as far back as the Romans. This sifting was common throughout the North America and Europe. In some places a separate building (a boulting mill) was used and a different person did the boulting. Boulting was a specialized trade … that’s where the surnames Boulter and Boulton come from. But what did primitive cultures do? The healthy primitive cultures Dr. Price studied? Weston Price simply states they ate whole grains that were soaked or fermented. Is it possible that their whole grain flour was sifted to remove bran? Rami Nigel studied primitive cultures for evidence of how they handled whole grain flours. He found that many primitive cultures also sifted out bran and recommends that we do the same.

This sifted flour would be a far cry from modern white flour. It wasn’t really possibly to create a light white flour until the industrial age when roller milling was introduced. This happened around 1870. But still prior to that mills did sift flour and charged customers according to the grade of flour received, with lighter flours being more expensive … They were regarded as a status symbol, with coarser flours reserved for poorer folk. The resulting flour would have had much of the bran removed with most of the germ remaining. The proportions would vary according to grade.

The idea of whole grain flours with the bran being healthful and desirable was introduced by the Reverend Sylvester Graham as part of a regimen designed to curb alcoholism and “lust”. He promoted a vegetarian diet and was the man who created the “Graham Cracker”. He inspired Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg in their invention of corn flakes one of the first modern processed foods. So whole grain flours with the bran included came into awareness through the first health food movement beginning in the 1820’s. They are not traditional, really. But neither is modern white, bleached, enriched flour. So what kind of flour is traditional? What were traditional flours like?

Freshly Ground is Best

Prior to the modern era most American towns and European villages had a gristmill. This mill was the source of flour for the village. Farmers brought in their grains and the flour was sold back in differing grades according to the grain type and coarseness. This flour was sifted (boulted) to the degree it could be with a simple sifter or cloth. This process would remove much of the bran. The flour was made on demand, not stored for long periods of time. It still contained much of the germ and would go rancid fairly quickly. The modern flour most similar to this is whole grain pastry flour ground at home. This is what I use for most things in my kitchen at this point.

It wasn’t always this way though. I started out baking with store bought bulk whole grain flour, then much later moved to grinding my own. Finding wholesome whole grain flour is a bit of a chore and I found it easier to make at home. Why so difficult? White flour became wide spread due to it’s long shelf life. The converse of this is that whole grain flour isn’t shelf stable and doesn’t have a long life. But many distributors seem to treat it as if no special handling is required and many times I’d find that the flour I just bought was already rancid.

Whole Grain Flours and Rancidity

In buying whole grain flours it’s important to consider how they’ve been handled. Whole grain flours include germ which is the part of the grain containing oil. Before it’s ground mother nature has it’s own packaging to keep the germ fresh. Grinding into flour crushes this natural packaging releasing the oil. This nutritious germ oil in the flour goes rancid easily. To prevent this whole grain flours need to be refrigerated, frozen, or gas flushed and vacuum packed. This makes finding a whole grain flour that is fresh somewhat difficult.

Years ago, back when I made bread very regularly I generally bought whole grain flour from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. I wondered why some batches seems sweet and others kinda bitter. I mentioned this to the owner of a health food store in Houston, and he told me how he kept all his flours and nuts in refrigerator to prevent rancidity. He also went the extra mile to ensure they were refrigerated on the way. Well, after that I bought my flour from him :-) and my loaves were uniformly sweet.

Now I had become aware of what that rancidity tasted like. I found it in a number of whole grain products. I had learned that that flavor was not “just how whole grains taste” but was in fact rancidity. After moving from Houston I found it hard to locate any flours that seemed fresh to my palate.

How I Make Flour

So, in the pursuit of freshness, I bought a grain mill of my own :-). At first, it was just a simple cheap hand mill which just didn’t make flour fast enough for me and was tiring to use. Then, I lucked upon a Diamant Grain Mill on ebay at a fraction of it’s cost new. I love the old fashioned look of this thing … it still makes me smile everyday :-). We used it for several years, though it is still tiring to use you can produce much more flour with it than my old mill. Production of flour though was still lower than I liked though.

After many years of use I retired the Diamant, made it into a conversation piece and bought a Nutrimill which I’ve been thrilled with. It grinds many cups of flour very quickly. From this I get a fresh ground flour complete with bran. This is what I used for most purposes up till last year when I learned a little more about the history of flours and bran from reading several books (which I highly recommend): Cereal Killer, Fiber Menace and Cure Tooth Decay. Now I go one extra step. I bought the new sifter attachment for my Bosch Universal Kitchen Machine and use it to sift this flour into a healthy, freshly ground whole grain pastry flour with much of the bran removed. It has a 16-opening per inch mesh filter which only removes the bran. I do this in batches and either freeze or refrigerate the resulting flour. Adding this extra step removes much of the phytic acid present in the flour even prior to soaking or fermenting. The greatest concentration of phytic acid in grains is in the bran. Reducing phytic acid is the main reason for the soaking and fermenting of grains.

Now I know not everyone has access to these tools. Heck, I myself didn’t have half of it till last year :-). And I still buy some flour at the store, mostly organic unbleached white flour for use in small quantities where soaking isn’t likely to happen in my kitchen. Let’s look at some options, and there are many. The group of middling options here are pretty evenly balanced nutrition-wise in my view, though you may find that you are more concerned about one issue over another. They do vary considerably in price.

How to Choose the Best Flour

  • Excellent ($$) – Whole Grain Pastry Flour made at home from organic bulk purchased grains. Bonus points for sprouting the grains prior to grinding. Organic ensures it hasn’t been irradiated. As I understand it much of the conventional grain supply is irradiated. If grain isn’t sprouted prior to grinding it requires fermenting or soaking.
  • Pretty Good ($) – Whole Grain Pastry Flour made at home from conventional grains, sprouted preferably. If grain isn’t sprouted prior to grinding it requires fermenting or soaking.
  • Pretty Good ($$$$) – Whole Grain Pastry Flour in vacuum sealed and gas flushed packages. Or if you can verify that the flour has been kept cool from factory to your kitchen. Preferably sprouted. If grain isn’t sprouted prior to grinding it requires fermenting or soaking.
  • Good ($$) – Whole Grain Flour with bran made at home from organic grains, sprouted preferably. If grain isn’t sprouted prior to grinding it requires fermenting or soaking. I’d recommend against eating the bran for very long though, a large capacity hand sifter would handle the problem if the Bosch isn’t an option.
  • Good ($) – Whole Grain Flour with bran made at home from conventional grains, sprouted preferably. If grain isn’t sprouted prior to grinding it requires fermenting or soaking.
  • Okay, in small quantities ($$$) – Unbleached white flour from organic grains. This flour will not need to be soaked as it’s stripped of phytic acid along with nutrients.
  • Okay, in small quantities ($$) – Unbleached white flour from conventional grains. This flour will not need to be soaked as it’s stripped of phytic acid along with nutrients.
  • Absolutely Avoid – Bleached, brominated, enriched white flour. This is the conventional grocery store white flour.

Does the Specific Grain Matter?

Wheat, corn, spelt, rye, amaranth, buckwheat, Kamut, barley, oats, etc … Does it matter which one you pick as far as nutrition goes? Well, yes and no :-). Each one of these grains has it’s own intricacies of flavor and nutrition. Some like corn need to be soaked differently and so will make a difference in your kitchen routines. There is also some controversy over hybrid strains of wheat with some arguing that we need to buy heirloom varieties or avoid wheat altogether. The jury is still out on this. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion about it and I buy bulk organic wheat for the most part. I’m still mulling it over and so far I haven’t seen strong enough evidence to justify the difference in price.

I hope you’ve found this overview helpful! I’d love to hear any thoughts on bran in whole grain flours or heirloom vs. hybrid, pro or con :-).

Links to More Info on Grains, Flours and Traditional Milling

Subscribe to Granny's Vital Vittles
and get Granny's Kickstarter Meal Plan, for free!

  • Includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks
  • Matching shopping list complete with prices
  • Choose your own price range and quality of ingredients based on your own budget.

Find out EXACTLY how much a week of real food costs.

Talk With Us!

Granny LOVES a great discussion! A thoughtful, in-depth look from all angles benefits us all. If you disagree let us know! But please remember you're in Granny's house and be respectful of that. If you wouldn't say it in your Grandma's hearing please don't say it here! No name-calling or foul language. Those comments that don't respect Granny's home will be deleted.

Angela June 4, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Great article! I’m doing most of it, but have a lousy grinder and so end up using the unbleached white organic flour to make sourdough out of. It may be not as nutrient dense as wholewheat, but between the fact that made from fermented overnight sourdough starter it has vitamin b’s, probiotics and no phytic acid, I don’t feel too guilty eating a much tastier flour.

Kathy June 5, 2012 at 10:28 pm

A bad grinder can be really frustrating! I think sourdough is the way to go, I love my sourdough too :-)

cher August 19, 2013 at 10:23 pm

This is a fabulous article about sourdough bread and organic vs. non organic flour!

Diane June 5, 2012 at 7:56 am

Great article. I have been milling my own grains for over a year in the nutrimill. I love the fresh milled smell and taste. Thank you for the great information. I certainly learned a few things today :) Thanks for linking up at The Gathering Spot today.

Katrina June 5, 2012 at 9:19 am

Can we sift our flour through a regular flour sifter (you know that you turn the little handle on the side) to remove bran? I have an excellent grinder- but have also wondered about removing some bran.

Kathy June 5, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Katrina … Yes I believe that would help quite a bit. Depending on how fine the screen is and how finely ground the bran is coming from the grinder. My Mom told me that when she was a little girl in the thirties all the flour they bought still needed to have bran sifted from it using a standard kitchen sifter. Sounds like white flour still had a bit of bran left in it even in those days.

Katrina June 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Awesome- I’ll try it. Thanks!

Megan of June 15, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I tried to use a sifter like that, but my wheat flour/bran was so fine it just fell through the screen. I have my grinder set on the finest grind setting. Should I grind it a bit more coarsely to then sift it or is that defeating the purpose? Thanks and God bless!

Kathy June 17, 2012 at 6:14 pm

Hi Megan … You know I’ve not tried it but it seems like it would help. It certainly couldn’t hurt anything. I wonder if anyone else has tried this?

Alice June 5, 2012 at 9:34 am

Thank you so much for this article. I wasn’t very clear on the bran issue. This article was just what I needed. I also may FINALLY be able to purchase a grain mill and wasn’t sure where to start so your links to what you’ve purchased are a big help! :)

Kathy June 5, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Thanks Alice! Writing this really helped clarify my thinking and brought up a few new questions too …

Annie June 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Thank you for another great and informative article. You are helping so many people get in touch with real food. My co-op carries a flour that I use a lot called Montana Milling Wheat Flour, Unbleached (with germ), Organic. It’s a “white” flour (sifted of its bran)) made from milled hard red wheat. It’s wonderful.
I am just a bit confused about your use of the term “pastry” in describing a type of flour that you say you use a lot for bread making. I have been led to assume for many years that “pastry” flour is made from a soft wheat variety which doesn’t have as much gluten in it as the hard varieties. And that difference makes it more suitable for making tender things like coffee cakes, pastries or anything that you want to fall apart more easily (like to eat with a fork). Whereas hard wheats are used for bread making allowing the abundant gluten to develop, stretch and hold the gas bubbles necessary for a good rise.
Can you clear this up for me? Maybe I have been missing some important information and/or experience.

PS: I have recently started soaking my flour but now I want to sprout, dry and grind my own. Just got some whole berries to work with and I’m excited!

Kathy June 5, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Thanks so much Annie for the kind words :-) … You bring up a very good question and one that I think will take a little time to answer. I’m hardly an expert baker and have tended to only use one kind of flour for pretty much everything. I know you get better results if you differentiate. I haven’t used anything other than 1) general purpose whole wheat flour, 2) whole wheat pastry flour and 3) white flour both bleached and unbleached. I’ve made bread from all three. So I know that you can make bread from commercial pastry flour … maybe the rise isn’t quite as good. Since I haven’t tried it for awhile I’m not sure from my own experience but expert bread bakers indicate that it makes a difference in their baking.

The pastry flour I make at home is “pastry flour” in the sense that the bran content is low to none. Low bran is one of the attributes of pastry flour though it seems the most talked about quality is low protein. Higher protein is what helps with the rise, as I understand it. My homemade “pastry flour” is made with red winter wheat (high protein) since that’s what I’ve had a bulk bin of. So it’s a high protein flour with virtually all the bran sifted out. I’m about out of the hard winter wheat though and was planning to try out soft white wheat instead for my bread. I think I remember Wardeh mentioning using soft white for most everything. If my experiment makes great refrigerator bread I report back here :-). I’m an all-purpose kinda gal and prefer to use the most versatile type rather than keep multiple types stocked in my pantry.

Now you’ve got me wondering about what mills like Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur do concerning bran and pastry flour. I’m pretty sure they are using the soft white for pastry for the low protein tender results. What I’m less clear on is just how much of the bran is sifted out. It’s possible they leave more in than it seems and simply grind it finely. But I would think if they left anywhere near the amount that is in general purpose whole wheat flour pastries wouldn’t come out well. When you sift the freshly ground flour you can see that a lot of the bulk is bran … I think about 20%. I checked their websites but didn’t find any mention of bran related to pastry flour specifically. I think I’ll write them for clarification and post what I learn back here for everyone :-).

The most accurate technical name for the pastry flour I make at home is “high extraction flour” which it looks like is highly desired by bread bakers and hard to find commercially flour type. This type is somewhere between white bread and general purpose 100% whole wheat flour in the amount of bran/germ content. The ratio of bran and germ to endosperm varies.

Anne @ Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy June 5, 2012 at 7:22 pm

I have just been writing about very much the same topic this week! I also recently started grinding my own wheat, but in my Vitamix dry blade container.

Kathy June 8, 2012 at 7:24 am

Great post Anne! Thanks for letting us know about it :-). More info on rancidity and making flour with a vitamix! June 6, 2012 at 3:19 pm

THANK YOU for educating me on how to make my own pastry flour (and for leaving a comment on my blog)! My husband and I have talked about it and just didn’t know how to do it. I appreciate all the details that help me understand the pros and cons of doing things in different ways. Great education makes all the difference in our lives. Thanks for a great article!

Kathy June 8, 2012 at 7:26 am

Awe shucks, Thank you! :-)

Lori June 9, 2012 at 12:00 am

Great post! The question of what flours are truly traditional is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I have several old recipe booklets from the 1800s and most of them specify “Graham flour” when referring to a recipe that uses whole wheat flour and just use the word “flour” for everything else. I’ve also seen the term “superfine” used to describe 19th century flour. I had always wondered, though, how close the regular non-Graham flour and the superfine flour was to our modern day white all-purpose flour. I had also always wondered what the term “unboulted” flour meant, so thanks for clearing that one up for me :) I wish my town had an old-fashioned grist mill! Since I can’t go back in time, though, I guess I’ll have to settle for getting my own grain grinder :)

Jamie June 12, 2012 at 4:26 am

Thanks so much for posting this! I too have a grain mill and both grind and sift my own flour. I came to the process slowly, as I gathered information various places. This post will be a great resource to help others skip the searching and get everything they need to know at once! :)

Penniless Parenting June 26, 2012 at 3:30 am

I really enjoyed this one! People look at me twice when I tell them white rice is the standard grain in our diet, and they’re like “White rice? That’s terrible for you!” But seriously, I had known about the phytic acid in the bran, etc… and its nice to read an article confirming that.

Anita March 25, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Someone passed me this link today and gleaned through your article. I’ve been avoiding most grains for about a year doing GAPS diet stuff–but have continued to make lots of sourdough bread for the family and for others as gifts etc. I also read the WHEAT BELLY book and so decided to do some testing on myself with grains. For sourdough I generally use organic unbleached wheat (white) flour, and add a cup or so of fresh ground spelt flour. Have had to add a few grains back in and am sensing I can much more tolerate the ancient Einkorn grain than I can Organic Spelt, Unbleached white and possibly even sprouted spelt. The verdict is still out, but seem to just feel very “well” after eating a bit of Einkorn sourdough vs any other kind. It is pricey for sure–but I don’t need much of it to feel quite satisfied and don’t have to eat it daily so it lasts a while. That’s where I’m at with the ancient grains. Have used Kamut, Spelt and Einkorn and although there is definitely a gluten difference in Einkorn, it seems to be good stuff both in bread and in pasta!

teancum144 June 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I now sift my flour using the same L’equip sifter that attaches to my Bosche. I stick to rye flour because I seem to digest it better. I don’t do well with yeast, so I use home made baking powder (cream of tartar + baking soda). However, the rye flour is very, very sticky. So sticking that I can’t get it off my hands. It is very challenging to work with. Any suggestions?

Julie Harding August 4, 2013 at 10:42 am

Thank you SO much for this article! I am reading “Cure Tooth Decay” right now to try and heal my son’t cavities. I too have been milling my own flour at home for a while now thinking that it was healthy, but have learned that the phytates & lectins in the bran may have contributed to the decay. :-( I will obviously have to limit the amount of grains he eats, but I don’t feel like I can completely eliminate them. Therefore I want them to be as nutritious as possible when we do eat them. I have read that sprouting the grains is helpful as well as souring them. If you make a sourdough from sifted sprouted grain is that a double bonus? Is that the best way to remove the most toxins? Thanks!

Kathy August 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I think so Julie … double bonus points! I usually make sourdough from my milled and sifted flour.

Joy Bartel August 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Thank you so much for this post!!! I found it so informative and very helpful!! Will try some of these ideas right now!

Ann Rein September 25, 2013 at 6:32 am

I just wanted to add a little bit of adjunct information. What seems to be wrong with wheat today is the hybridization, growing methods and harvesting. If you’d like more information please see this Mother Earth News article on the subject In summary, wheat should be grown to the soft flint stage, cut from its roots, left to dry where it reaches the hard flint stage, then threshed. Modern industrial agriculture needs the grains to dry to hard flint on the root in order to harvest and thresh at the same time. One again it’s shown industrial agriculture isn’t feeding anyone properly.

Elle October 17, 2013 at 10:36 pm

You mentioned that when you bought store flour, it had already gone rancid – how did you tell it was rancid??

Kathy October 18, 2013 at 7:18 am

Elle, it has a bitter flavor when rancid but it can be a little subtle. The best way to familiarize yourself is to try some really freshly milled flour. Then you’ll see the difference.

Renee Bartnick March 29, 2014 at 1:58 pm

Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve been searching for information on the right grain mill that will make flour that isn’t so fine that I can’t remove some of the germ/bran. What setting do you use on your Nutrimill in order to be able to remove some of the germ? Will this flour be fine enough to make sourdough bread? Searching for answers before I make the investment in a grain mill….many thanks! Renee

BW January 6, 2015 at 5:19 pm

I run my Nutrimill on the finest setting then sift it using a very fine mesh sieve like this

Out of 4lbs 6oz of flour, 5oz was bran and 4 lbs 1oz was sifted flour last time I milled some flour. You still have much of the bran, somewhere near 80% extraction (meaning 80% of the grain is left in the flour). You can add some of the bran back in if you want to but I like the greater control of bran so I don’t have to add gluten or white flour (which seem to me to defeat the purpose of going with fresh milled flour).

And then you have the 00 flour caught in the filter. Super awesome.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: