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Successfully baking with whole grains can be regarded as the holy grail of baking. Using whole grains has several attractions. The first is improved nutritional value; per the American Diabetes Assoc., “whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber.” And whole grains can add additional flavor elements, including nutty, caramel, earthy, buttery, and sweet overtones. But whole grains present tough challenges to the baker.
Baking Issues with Whole Grains
Baked goods made with whole grains often are too dense, tough, or the grain’s flavor dominates. The culprit behind the first two issues is the lack or insufficiency of gluten found in non- and whole-wheat flours. Since gluten gives strength and lift to baked goods, insufficient gluten results in flat, heavy, and leaden cakes and cookies. And many of these flours have strong flavors that can be overwhelming—think of rye as a good example. Or the flavors can be unusual, violating the childhood taste memories that people expect and crave in a familiar cookie, biscuit, or pancake.
As a result of the challenge of dealing with these problems, whole grain baking books are among the least popular cookbooks to publish. This relative scarcity alone makes Kim Boyce’s book, Good to the Grain—Baking with Whole-Grain Flours, worthy of attention. And once opened, other elements add to its attraction.
An Experienced Pastry Chef Tackles Whole Grains
First, unlike many authors in this genre who are motivated by a need to preach healthy cooking and/or to condemn white flour and processed sugar, Kim Boyce has strong credentials as a premier pastry chef. She formerly worked at Spago and Campanile, (two high-end restaurants in Los Angeles) and carries no such prejudices.
Further, unlike many chefs’ cookbooks, these recipes are truly designed for the home cook, presenting uncomplicated techniques and reasonable preparation time. Boyce developed the recipes for her small children and for everyday eating. The biggest challenge in the book may be finding the flours.
But it’s her approach that makes this a unique book. Boyce looked at baking with whole grains not as a mandate to impose healthier ingredients, but rather as an experienced baker stimulated by the challenge of using new ingredients to maximize flavor and introduce new context to familiar recipes. Her solution to this challenge was balance, made possible by the fact she doesn’t feel any need to condemn using white flour or processed sugar.
As she writes, “Baking with whole-grain flours is about balance, about figuring out how to get the right combination of structure and flavor from flours that don’t act the same way as regular white flour.” And the balance element goes beyond the flour; she uses fruit, honey, molasses, and homemade jams (recipes included) to complement the tenderness that white sugar contributes.
Recipes in Good to the Grain Deliver Both Education and Taste
Of course, ultimately a cookbook is only as good as the recipes. While there is an educational element in this book—it’s fascinating to learn about some of these flours—the finished product has to taste good. A good first test is to try out recipes for familiar cookies, etc.
The first recipe I tested were the chocolate chip cookies made with 100% whole wheat. They were excellent; chewy and moist with authentic flavor and without any greasiness. Plus, they remained fresh and flavorful for several days. My tasting panel of four tasters agreed they would happily take these cookies in lieu of any others.
A second tested recipe was sweet potato muffins; chosen because two of my tasters dislike sweet potatoes, presenting an interesting challenge. However, I followed instructions to use roasted sweet potatoes cooked until very dark, and the resultant caramelization gave a deep, earthy flavor that pleased all my tasters and, as an additional attraction, reduced the amount of sugar.
A good second test is to read through the cookbook, marking recipes that simply sound good. This book has a remarkably high desirability quotient. In fact, the chocolate chip cookies and sweet potato muffins are only the first and fourth recipes, and I fully intend to try the second and third recipes (Drop Biscuits with Strawberries & Cream and Gingersnaps) soon, and look forward to going forward.
An Addendum: The Recipes Needed Better Editing
With so much thought given to the recipes, I was disappointed with two factors. Most serious baking books give two measurements for baking ingredients, weight and volume (cups and spoons). This book doesn’t. While the author acknowledges that using a scale is the most accurate way to bake, she states, “However, since many people don’t own scales, myself included, in this book you will find measurements using cups and spoons.” However, the two measurement types are not exclusionary and, in an expensive baking book, the absence of a weight measurement is inappropriate.
The recipes also need better editing. The sweet potato recipe alone demonstrated three violations of recipe writing rules. First, ingredients should be listed in the order in which they’re used (the buttermilk and yogurt is out of order). Second, the amount of sweet potato is based on an abstract measurement (2 small or one medium sweet potatoes); the recipe should have given the quantity of sweet potato pulp as a check. Third, recipes should give two methods to determine doneness. This muffin recipe only gives one—looking at the color of the bottom of the muffin—which isn’t even practical if the muffins are baked in papers.
Good to the Grain is Recommended for Experienced Bakers
Even with these qualifications, I give this book a strong recommendation, especially for experienced home bakers. In fact, with its unique ingredients, this book can revive a dormant interest in baking, stimulate a current interest, or just help feed a family with nutritious products that truly taste good. However, because of the editing issues, I can’t recommend this book to a beginning baker.
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