When it comes to baking healthy bread, the simplest way to boost nutrition is to use whole-grain flours.

By Rebekah Denn
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Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Brown Bread | Photo by Kim

Bread, like most foods, is generally healthier when made with whole, unprocessed ingredients without a lot of additives. I'll show you how to choose which flours and other ingredients are best for making healthy breads, and how to work with them so your bread turns out just right. I'll also point you to top-rated bread recipes that are packed with nutrients and taste great, too.

What Are Whole Grains and Why Are They Better For You?

Grains are the seeds of certain types of plants, and whole grains contain three essential parts:

  1. An oily inner germ, which can sprout into a new plant
  2. The starchy endosperm around the germ, meant for the new plant's food supply, and
  3. A tough outer layer called the bran. The germ contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes, healthy oils, and some protein. The bran has fiber and vitamins.

When whole grains are milled into refined flour, the bran and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm. The flours are sometimes fortified by adding back vitamins or some amount of bran and germ, but it isn't really the same.

Whole-grain flours, on the other hand, are made by grinding the entire kernel. Whole-grain flour keeps most of the nutrients the grains started with. Whole-grain flours also have a lower glycemic index than refined flours, meaning that they don't raise blood sugar as quickly or as much. Foods with a higher glycemic index increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to reliable sources like Harvard's School of Public Health, so aim for a lower index when possible.

Top Tips For Making Healthy Breads

Start with Small Substitutions. Don't just substitute whole-grain flours for all the refined flour in your favorite bread recipes. Doughs made with a large percentage of whole-grain flours don't behave the same as doughs made with refined flours. Start out by swapping out small amounts of refined flour for whole-grain flour and see what it does to the taste and texture.

Add Moisture. Once your flour mix contains one-third to one-half whole grains, most bread recipes will require more liquid.

Experiment with different whole-grain recipes to find the flavors and textures you like best. Many interesting flour options are widely available now at markets or from online sources like Bob's Red Mill. Adding even a small percentage of whole-grain flour to your recipe will add some nutritional value to your bread, plus some bonus flavor, color, and texture.

Give DIY a Try. Some serious bakers have countertop flour mills at home, but you can also grind your own flour in a powerful blender or, for small amounts, a dedicated coffee grinder.

Add-Ins. Seek out other nutritious additions to your breads, whether you swear by seeds, nuts, or other favorites. Ezekiel breads, one popular choice, incorporate protein-packed ingredients like beans and legumes. (This Ezekiel bread, also known as Bible Bread, includes cooked lentils, while this Ezekiel bread and this bread machine version call for finely ground dried beans and lentils.)

Ezekiel Bread II | Photo by carami4

Troubleshooting Whole Grain Breads

Problem: Bread is dense.

The biggest problem most people face is that their breads are squatter and denser than what they're used to seeing. What can you do about it, besides adjusting expectations?

1. In recipes that mix whole-grain and refined flours, consider using high-protein bread flour rather than all-purpose flour.

2. Some people add vital wheat gluten to whole-grain recipes to improve the texture, as with this Irresistible Whole Wheat Challah.

Irresistible Whole Wheat Challah | Photo by rbenari

Problem: Bread is dry.

"Healthy" breads don't have to be crumbly and dry. Making a "soaker" for the dough can improve the texture and even flavor. That's when bakers soak some or all of the flour in liquid before combining it with the other ingredients. This Simple Whole Wheat Bread uses a variation on that strategy.

Photo by LynnInHK

Problem: Bread falls apart.

To help whole-grain loaves hold their shape better, try giving the dough a long, slow final rise in the refrigerator rather than a shorter rise on the counter.

Be aware, if you are using small-batch flours or home-ground ingredients, that they may not produce consistent results. Use your own judgment and adjust recipe variables like rising time as needed.

Which Whole Grains Are Best For Breads?

Some whole-grain flours are better suited for baking breads than others, especially if you want to bake mostly or entirely with whole grains. Here are some of the most commonly used whole grains.

Meredith

Whole Wheat Flour

Easy to find, and tastes familiar. It's also relatively simple to make a good bread entirely from whole wheat flour, even though many recipes do cut it with all-purpose or bread flour. White whole wheat flour has a milder flavor.

Fabulous Homemade Bread | Photo by pomplemousse

Try these recipes:

Spelt Flour

Made from an ancient grain in the same family as wheat, has a pleasantly nutty flavor and is high in protein. Although spelt is lower in gluten than regular wheat, it is not safe for those with celiac disease.

Spelt Bread | Photo by rcandeias

Try these recipes:

Oats and Oat Flour

Oatmeal bread often incorporates rolled oats. Oats can also be ground into flour, adding heartiness and sweetness to flour blends.

Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Brown Bread | Photo by Kim

Try these recipes:

Rye Flour, Rye Meal, and Pumpernickel

This high-fiber grain can be ground into flour which may or may not contain all of the bran, germ, and endosperm which would qualify it as a whole-grain flour. White, light, and medium rye flours are not whole grain; dark rye flour is whole grain IF it says so on the package, Rye meal can be ground from coarse to fine, and is usually whole grain, but you should check the package. Pumpernickel flour or meal is coarse-grained and is usually whole grain, but again, check the package to be sure.

Real NY Jewish Rye Bread | Photo by BigshotsMom

Try these recipes:

What About Sprouted Grains?

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Remember how the germs in whole grains are capable of sprouting into new plants? Some people let those germs begin to sprout. Then they either grind the sprouted grains into a wet mixture or dry the sprouted grains to grind into flour. Fans believe sprouted grains are better for you and that their nutrients are also more accessible and digestible.

All you need to sprout your own grains are the grains (wheat berries are a common choice), a mason jar, and a piece of cheesecloth. Full sprouting directions are here. Just make sure you have a few days to sprout your grains before baking your bread! Or, if you don't want to DIY, sprouted grain flours can be purchased at some stores or ordered online. Essene bread, sometimes called Manna bread, is probably the most widely-known version of sprouted grain bread.

Essene Bread | Photo by Vixen Portia

Try these recipes:

  • Essene Bread gives you directions for sprouting and grinding wheat berries; you'll want to allow several days for the entire process. The result is a dense, moist, sweet loaf. Reviewers recommend not letting the berries sprout more than the quarter inch specified in the recipe, otherwise the bread starts tasting a little grassy.
  • Essene Bread For The Bread Machine uses a combination of ground sprouted wheat berries and whole wheat flour.

Healthy Gluten-Free Breads

Even if you're sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease, you can make healthy bread with whole-grain flours. Some whole-grain flours are naturally gluten-free, including sweet sorghum, earthy buckwheat, nutty amaranth, teff (used to make injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread), mild millet and slightly bitter quinoa. Breads made with just these flours, though, won't have the open crumb and lofty rise that wheat flours provide. (In some cases, they won't even hold together.) Most recipes combine these whole-grain flours with other ingredients to bind and shape the loaf. Generally speaking, these breads are still healthier than gluten-free flours that aren't made from whole grains.

Additionally, nut flours like almond flour and hazelnut flour are packed with protein and are useful both for gluten-free bakers and for carb-conscious breadmakers living the Paleo life.

Wonderful Gluten Free White Bread | Photo by ksaystalk2me

Try these recipes:

How To Store Whole-Grain Flours

Whole-grain flours spoil faster than refined flours. This is mainly because they contain oils that turn rancid. For best results, store them in the freezer. Depending on the types of flour, the non-profit Whole Grains Council says freezing will keep them fresh between 2 months and 6 months, doubling their pantry shelf-life. Keep the flour in an airtight bag or container regardless of where you store it. Ideally, buy the flours from a high-turnover business so that they haven't already spent too much time on the shelf.

How to Buy Ready-Made "Healthy" Bread

Meredith

Read the label. Watch out for added sugar or other sweeteners, even if they're labeled as "natural" sweeteners. When buying breads, choose options that are free of artificial preservatives or flavorings. Salt is an essential ingredient in bread, but packaged breads sometimes contain too much -- the nutrition label will tell you how much of the recommended daily amount each slice contains, making it easier to compare different choices. Finally, take a closer look at terms that sound good but are hard to define. For instance, a bread can be "multigrain," which just means that it contains more than one type of grain, without necessarily being good for you.

Ready to go? Try these popular picks for healthy breads:

You can't go wrong with a Chef John recipe, like this one for Whole Wheat Ciabatta. Watch the video to see how to make it.

We have a whole bakery's worth of whole grain bread recipes waiting for you.