Ancient Grain Flour vs Regular Flour—What’s the Difference?
Ancient grain flours are, well, ancient. The name itself implies they’re some of the oldest flours in the world.
Now, these humble grain-based flours are shooting to the top of the hot list when it comes to healthier baking ingredients. According to the Whole Grains Council, the term “ancient grain” refers to whole grains that have gone largely unchanged over the last several hundred years.
Examples of ancient grains include:
- Quinoa (technically a seed but used as a grain)
There are many reasons to love ancient grain flours, including the fact that many are gluten-free. “The growing trend of incorporating more ancient grains may be due to the fact that consumers are beginning to understand the need for fiber in their diets, and the shift toward eating more plant-based proteins,” says Susan Greeley, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
Health Benefits of Ancient Grain Flours
Whole grains offer nutritional advantage over highly refined ones. After all, the less processed a food is, the healthier it tends to be. All-purpose flour—even whole-wheat all-purpose flour—is very processed. The most nutritious parts of the grain are stripped away, leaving a flour that’s mainly starch with a little protein. When mixed with water, the proteins in the flour develop gluten.
Flours made from whole ancient grains, on the other hand, retain most of the nutrients that come from the grain’s three nutrient-dense components—bran, germ, and endosperm, says Greeley. As a result, the ancient-grain flour is higher in protein, fiber, and micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, and B vitamins, she adds.
Josh Allen, founder of Companion Baking in St. Louis, says he’s seen a push toward healthier, more nutritious options for baked goods, as well as increased demand for sourdough bread (said to be more digestible and good for gut health) and multigrain bread (more nutrient dense than white) as of late. Not only are these varieties better for you, they’re also interesting to eat. “These loaves provide complex flavors and tend to feature whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits, which create more flavorful and visually appealing breads,” Allen says.
Baking With Ancient Grain Flours
So you’ve stocked your pantry with a few ancient grain flours: Now what? Greeley says gluten-free ancient grain flours, such as sorghum, teff, and buckwheat, are easy to substitute in quick bread (muffins, sweet loaves, etc.) and pancake recipes, since they’re fairly forgiving. Pizza dough recipes can be another fun place to experiment with ancient grain flour substitutes.
However, if you’re making bread, you’ll need to get more scientific, keeping a careful watch on liquid, fermentation, and dough strength (i.e., how developed the gluten is) when making any substitutions, says Allen.
He recommends substituting a 20 to 30% portion of regular flour with ancient grain flour in bread recipes. (For example, if a recipe calls for three cups of regular flour, use two-thirds to one cup of ancient grain flour and the rest regular flour.) Additionally, ancient grains can bring an earthy—sometimes bitter—flavor to bread recipes. To balance this out, Allen recommends adding a touch of maple syrup or honey to the dough.
Popular Ancient Grain Flours & How to Use Them
Laurel Almerinda, pastry chef and director of operations at Huckleberry Bakery & Café in Santa Monica, California, advises baking with ingredients that have been least altered from their natural state. “I try to rely on whole-grain flours over white flours stripped of the bran and germ; in other words, the flavor and nutrition,” she says. Here are her tips for using four common ancient grain flours in baking recipes.
Mild, sweet spelt flour is a nice beginner flour, says Almerinda. It's the perfect way to sneak more nutritional value into a cookie recipe, whole-grain breakfast cake, muffin, or teacake. Spelt is the whole-wheat flour of the Biblical era, but with none of the bitterness you might associate with health food store baked goods. In recipes, substitute a 25 to 75% portion of the white flour with spelt flour and add a splash more of your liquid ingredient.
Einkorn is the caveman whole wheat from which all wheat is derived. It has a nutty earthiness that balances well with berries or a sweet, tart peach. Try making einkorn pie dough with a 50/50 mix of regular flour and einkorn flour and about 50% more liquid, added sparingly, until the dough comes together.
Most people associate rye flour with deli bread and confuse the flavor of caraway seeds with that of rye—but the flavor of rye is actually malty and mellow, says Almerinda. It gives depth to anything made with chocolate. You can easily replace 75 to 100 percent of the white flour in a brownie or chocolate cake with rye flour. For a cake, add a few tablespoons of milk, too.
Save buckwheat for last as it’s an acquired taste, says Almerinda. Though it acts like a grain, buckwheat is not a grain at all—and it’s gluten-free. It has an assertive, mineral, grassy flavor that’s simply not for everyone, but it does play well with honey, caramel, apples, or pears in recipes. Pancakes or waffles are a good vehicle for buckwheat flour. Try subbing only 25 percent of the white flour to start.