Can you substitute whole-wheat flour for all-purpose? As whole-grain baking becomes more popular, so does this question. The answer often goes something like: Well, yes, and no.
“You can take your recipes and start substituting whole-wheat flour for a portion of the white flour,” the team at King Arthur Flour writes in Whole Grain Baking. But, “In most cases, you can’t just take out white flour and put in whole-wheat flour.”
Other sources agree with this go-small mentality. In BakeWise, Shirley O. Corriher says, “Using whole-grain flours can present challenges.”
In How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman says you can ditch “up to 50%” of all-purpose flour and replace it with whole-wheat. “Anything made with 100% whole-wheat flour will be heavy and dense, so most people like to combine it with some white flour for lighter results.”
Meanwhile, some sources caution against substituting, period. In The Baking Bible, Rose Levy Beranbau writes, “Be sure to use the flour specified in the recipe.” What’s more, she adds, “Don’t substitute ingredients before making it at least once to see the way it’s supposed to come out.”
Today, we’re going to ignore the usual advice and see what happens with a compare-and-contrast baking experiment: by using whole-wheat in recipes that were developed to use all-purpose. To the test kitchen!
All-purpose flour, also known as white flour, is usually made from a mix of hard and soft wheat, to achieve the ideal protein content (figure, 10 to 12 percent, but it varies by brand). The bran (exterior of the wheat kernel) and germ (part of the inner seed) are removed, leaving only the endosperm. You can buy bleached (treated with a chlorine gas) or unbleached (the former has a lower protein content, the latter browns faster).
Whole-wheat flour, as implied, is made up of the whole wheat kernel—endosperm, bran, and germ. Because of this, it has a higher protein content than all-purpose (up to 15 percent), as well as more fiber, nutrients, and flavor. Because the bran and germ get in the way of gluten formation, whole-wheat flour has a bad rap for making baked goods dense and stodgy.
How much protein a flour has determines how much structure a baked good will have. For instance, bread flour’s higher protein content encourages gluten strength, dough elasticity, and a chewier result. On the other end of the spectrum, cake flour has a lower protein content, for a light, tender crumb.
The bran and germ get in the way of gluten formation. This is one of the reasons why whole-wheat flour has a bad reputation for making bread heavy.
What happens when you give all-purpose recipes the whole whole-wheat treatment? I tried four different recipes and made each one three times: 1) as written with 100 percent all-purpose, 2) with 50 percent all-purpose and 50 percent whole-wheat, and 3) with 100 percent whole-wheat. All substitutions were determined by weight, not volume. I expected with each for the original to be best and the substitutions to be progressively worse. But, boy, was I wrong.
We’ll focus on crispy-chewy cookies, which don’t want to be light and fluffy. I had a hunch that whole-wheat would fare just fine here, and that turned out to be an understatement.
The original: Baking guru Dorie Greenspan calls these her “classic” and “best” chocolate chip cookies. (If you know Dorie, you know that’s saying a lot.) They are toffee-sweet from the brown sugar, very buttery, and loaded with vanilla. The texture is crisp along the edges and chewy-gooey in the center.
50% all-purpose, 50% whole-wheat: Slightly dark in color and drier in texture—but, overall, these were quite similar to the original. I loved the nutty flavor, which balanced the sweetness.
100% whole-wheat: Flour is an ingredient! is what I thought on first bite. In classic chocolate chip cookies, you can taste a lot of the main ingredients (brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and chocolate), but all-purpose flour isn’t one of them; it merely gives the cookies their shape. With whole-wheat, the flour’s flavors come through—and the cookies taste even better because of that.
The very concept of cake flour would indicate: no. Cake flour, which is milled from soft wheat and has a protein content of less than 9 percent, is designed for a fluffy, puffy, practically feathery crumb. Whole-wheat’s higher protein content and weighty bran and germ should ruin everything, right? Apparently not.
The original: This recipe, created by North Carolina–based baker Jodi Rhoden, is everything a pound cake should be: sturdy but not heavy, buttery to the extreme, and not-too-sweet thanks to tangy sour cream. It uses all all-purpose flour.
50% all-purpose, 50% whole-wheat: The texture here was incredibly comparable to the original and the flavor, more nuanced, with a nuttier vibe and balanced sweetness.
100% whole-wheat: Many surprised staffers, including myself, named this their favorite of the bunch. What?! While its texture was tighter, the flour’s confident personality showed through, making the loaf all the more interesting.
BraveTart author Stella Parks swears by bleached all-purpose flour for her pie dough, largely because of its reliably lower protein content (read: lower gluten formation). So, we can assume that higher-protein whole-wheat will create a tough, chewy crust, yes? Not quite.
The original: This is my go-to pie dough, in bite-size form. Its high ratio of butter to flour means big flavor. By bringing it together in a stand mixer, you eliminate the stress of, Are my hands melting the butter too much? and end up with a flaky, shattery crust.
50% all-purpose, 50% whole-wheat: Like the cake and cookie, this test is hard to distinguish from the original with respect to texture, but the flavor is more enjoyable to eat.
100% whole-wheat: Slightly denser and tougher, but not a disaster! This has me thinking that a 75% whole-wheat, 25% all-purpose could be a great pick for savory hand pies.
100% whole-wheat bread is so notoriously difficult to pull off well, many bakeries don’t even offer it. My experiment confirmed as much—but had a surprise twist at the end.
The original: A no-knead bread that’s so fast and fuss-free, it’s Genius. This recipe from Alexandra Stafford uses instant yeast for snap-to-it rising and generous hydration for a hole-speckled crumb.
50% all-purpose, 50% whole-wheat: Like the original, this bread was fluffy and light. But, while the original has a milky-mild flavor, this version is distinctly wheatier and nuttier.
100% whole-wheat: The most disappointing test of the whole experiment. The bread’s rise was completely stunted, making the the crumb tight and dense.
100% whole-wheat, with an extra water: Okay, I cheated. When I mixed the 100% whole-wheat dough, it was significantly drier than its all-purpose counterpart. So, in another just-for-fun round, I added ½ cup more water, which basically turned the dough into porridge (oops, too much). The result? A super fluffy, almost English muffin–textured loaf. While the amount of increased water needs some refinement, this turned out to be my favorite of the bunch.