Will the Real Whole Wheat Please Stand Up?

You may have thought you had whole wheat bread before or ordered a “whole grain” pizza at your local shop.  But that loaf or pie is typically less than 30 percent whole wheat, with the rest just regular old, bleached white flour.

Now Community Grains—an adventure begun by Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland and Certified Foods of Woodland, California—hopes to slowly change the world of wheat as we know it.

For the last 60 years, industrial wheat has been solely bred for yield and size and refined in huge industrial mills, according to Oliveto owner Bob Klein.  But like tomatoes or beef, consumers today are more interested in the flavor and nutrition of their grains too and want to know where their food comes from and how it is grown.

“It’s like we are in the 1970s again, standing in the Safeway looking at rubber tomatoes and thinking we are happy,” says Klein.  “But now we know better and we want to be able to evaluate our wheat for taste and texture and to make ‘local’ mean something. We want to re-establish a local grain economy in Northern California.”

To this end, Klein brought together local millers, distributors, farmers and bakers including Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread, California farmer Bruce Rominger, and Joe Vanderliet of Certified Foods.  It quickly became apparent there was a desire to grow, mill and bake with local wheat—but how?

So, over the past three years, Community Grains evolved.  Last summer, the Rominger farm grew test plots of heritage Italian varieties and will continue next year with rare California wheats.  Certified Foods refined a proprietary system of stone grinding wheat into whole grain flour.  And Oliveto’s bakers and chefs started cooking,with startling results.

“I used to call whole wheat bread or pasta a ‘hippy experience in your mouth,’” said Oliveto’s Executive Chef Paul Canales, of the gritty texture of whole grain products that tried to cross the 30 percent whole wheat threshold.  “So when Joe [Vanderliet of Certified Foods] started claiming we could use 100 percent of his whole grain flour in everything, I laughed.  But it turned out, you really could.”

Canales started simply, making 100 percent whole grain penne with butter and herbs and it was delicious.  He made pizza and focaccia and they also turned out just the way they should be—chewy, yet crusty.  Other bakers, like Craig Ponsford, Master Baker and Chairman of the Board of the Bread Bakers Guild of America, then used the flour for ciabatta, croissants, and even palmiers.

“Before, I honestly didn’t care about whole wheat flour, it wasn’t very interesting,” said Ponsford.  “But now, after 20 years of baking, my whole state of mind is changed about
whole grain flour.  I am super excited it is whole wheat that actually tastes super great.”

Most “whole wheat” sold at the supermarket is “rolled,” a process of milling that separates the bran, germ and endosperm of the wheat.  Only after the wheat is refined are the parts reconstituted, bringing back together the ratio of bran, germ and “flour” desired by the miller.

But with true whole grain flour, the kernel is stone ground whole, preserving all parts of the seed in the proportion nature intended.  “For us, whatever goes into the milling process, should come out the other end as flour,” said Klein.

Maintaining the integrity of wheat is not only important in creating a flour with more fiber.  Refined flour also looses numerous micronutrients as well, such as Vitamin E, Zinc and Magnesium (see chart 1 Whole v Refined).  Even the protein content of whole grains is much higher than white flour. Coincidentally (or perhaps not?) the major micronutrient deficiencies in the U.S. are the same nutrients we take out of our flour in the refining process.

While its nutrient content is clear, the process that makes Community Grains’ whole grain flour so much more user friendly than other stone ground wheats is more murky. Vanderliet insists it is a mix of choosing a good wheat variety, the degree and style of milling, and the final granulation of the flour.  In other words, wheat is a complex food, a fact Americans have dummied down by insisting on white flour and chewy “whole wheat” pizza.

For the first few months, Community Grains flour and heritage corn polenta will be available only for wholesale purchase. But until you can bake your own, virtually every piece of bread, pasta and pizza available at Oliveto is made with 100 percent whole grain flour, including the shortbread cookies and they are divine!

Photos: Teal Dudziak

9 thoughts on “Will the Real Whole Wheat Please Stand Up?

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  2. Most people don’t really like whole wheat. A milled flour creates a more tasty bread and other things. While you might think nothing but whole wheat is good for you not everyone has that bias. I have tried who wheat pasta and it totally ruins the taste. While whole wheat bread isn’t bad I cannot even imagine what French bread would taste like if it were made from whole wheat.

  3. Now I know why the shortbread cookies at Oliveto are so amazing…not to mention everything else.

  4. Sunny –

    I’ve found a huge variation in the taste and texture of store-bought 100% Whole Wheat Pastas. Some are horrendous, tough, and downright awful. Others are much lighter and are actually delicious, with a nutty, rich flavor that isn’t overpowering. It might be worth your trying another brand?

    I’ve been baking at home with White Whole Wheat flour (instead of the more traditional “Red” Wheat. It’s still whole wheat, but it’s a little lighter and has a less-strong flavor. I wonder if some of the pastas are using this species of wheat instead? (I don’t usually see a designation on the package).

    I hope that helps!

    – Andrew

  5. No! It just doesn’t taste good. I’m stumped as to why? Why would you use whole wheat which is unsuited for something like French bread or pasta? Are you that biased? Why not just use what works? Whole wheat works in whole wheat bread. I go to the store I see the different breads and I make my choice based on taste. Why would I want someone to sneak something into my favorite bread or pasta that tastes all wrong?

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  7. Hi Sunny and others,
    The point I was trying to make is that this whole wheat flour tastes nothing like the whole wheat you are speaking about. It does not “taste wrong,” I promise.
    Beth Hoffman

  8. Another thing to consider, Sunny, is that just as we’ve allowed ourselves to be “trained” to like the taste of nutritionally-void bleached white flour, we can re-train ourselves to like whole wheat. Our grandparents or great-grandparents certainly wouldn’t balk at whole wheat.

    There’s also a mounting grassroots movement to re-introduce less-commercialized “ancient” forms of grains for their health properties. There have been some very compelling informal studies done that show that ancient wheats like Einkorn and Emmer do not cause the radical blood sugar spikes that modern hybrid, They’ve also been shown to contains many times more beta-carotene, Vitamin A, lutein, riboflavin, and a host of other antioxidants.

    I’m really hopeful that there can be enough interest in these alternate wheats to drive them into the mainstream. Living in an agriculturally-lacking region of the country, it’s quite difficult to even get organic grains, much less these niche products. (Out here in dusty West Texas, we don’t even have the kinds of farmers’ markets others take for granted.)

  9. I am a firm believer in 100% whole wheat bread and pasta. I have even convinced myself that I really like “the hippy experience in my mouth”. But sit me down with a crispy loaf of white flour ciabatta and I have to admit it is GOOD. I’d love to get my hands on some Community Grains flour and have it both ways. Thanks for the reporting Beth!