It’s been about 50 years since commercially produced whole wheat bread appeared on retailers’ shelves. While many children at first dissed the brown-bread lunchbox sandwich, health-conscious moms and dads insisted, and today those children have kids of their own and want better bread and baked foods for their offspring.

It’s no wonder whole grain baked foods have gained significant traction since going mainstream at the turn of the century. Today’s shoppers gravitate toward packages making “made with whole grain” claims, and ancient grains are now part of the momentum.

While there is no official definition of what qualifies as an ancient grain, the Whole Grains Council describes them as ones that have been largely unchanged since the beginning of time. This definition suggests modern varieties of corn, rice and wheat, which are products of years of selective breeding, are not ancient grains.

“Ancient grains cover a wide array of cereals and pseudo cereals,” said Colleen Zammer, senior director of marketing and product development, Bay State Milling Co. “There are ancient wheats like spelt, einkorn and emmer that some call ancient and others call heirloom grains. Barley and rye sometimes fall into this category as well. These grains all contain gluten and therefore provide the structural benefits of gluten that traditional baked foods require but vary in terms of flavors, colors and even texture due to the different ratios of glutenin and gliadin.”

Other ancient grains that don’t contain gluten, such as amaranth, quinoa, millet and sorghum, function well in applications such as crackers, flatbreads and extruded snacks, she explained. They also offer a range of flavors and textures that provide consumers with some excitement beyond the rice and corn typically found in gluten-free foods. They can be used as the base ingredients in flour form or inclusions and toppings in the whole grain form.

Like other whole grains, the kernel of ancient grains contains three nutrient-dense components — the bran, germ and endosperm. These grains can be ground into whole grain flour. Refining removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. Without the bran and germ, about one-fourth of the protein is lost, as are many important nutrients including fiber.

Field of grains

Bakers have a diverse toolbox of ancient grains, with each one contributing a unique appearance, flavor and texture. Navigating their use in traditional recipes may pose some challenges. Zammer suggested that before a baker starts formulating with ancient grains, the end consumer and application should be defined.

“Understanding if your target is gluten-free will help to narrow the field of choices,” she said. “From there, what flavor and texture profile are you trying to achieve, and what nutritional benefits are you trying to offer? Having this information in advance will allow you to select the optimal ancient grain or blend.”

Incorporating these nutrient-dense grains used to be time consuming for bakers, as it often required specific reformulations to prevent the grains from stealing moisture, accelerating staling, impacting taste or reducing shelf life.

“Now innovative bakery solutions make it easier for bakers to add visual appeal, texture and flavor while enhancing the overall nutritional benefits and artisanal feel of their products,” said Christopher McClellan, global marketing manager, bakery, Corbion.

Most ancient grains are available individually as whole grain flours or in whole grain multigrain blends. They can also be milled to desired granulations or not milled at all. Pre-soaked and pre-cooked grains are a value-added option.

“We remind our customers that a variety of grains is important,” said Angela Ichwan, senior director, technical solutions for The Annex by Ardent Mills. “We recommend trying many grains, combinations and formats — whole, flakes, crisps — to find that ‘sweet spot’ in terms of flavor, texture and visual appeal. Whole sorghum flour, for example, works well in foods that are comparatively higher in moisture, but a high inclusion level of sorghum can impart grittiness, so it’s important to conduct a lot of trial-and-error to achieve the best ratios for each grain and each finished product.”

Many ancient grains’ small size allows them to be used in whole format for doughs or as a topping.

“They come in an array of shapes from round — millet, amaranth and quinoa — to triangular, such as buckwheat,” Zammer said. “They provide an extensive color palette, including shades of yellow from cream to canary as well as reds and browns, when considering quinoa and teff.”

In whatever format, the grains contribute an array of flavors to satisfy consumers from corn-like millet to peppery amaranth and earthy quinoa. Teff has a unique chocolate-like flavor that lends itself to sweet goods. Spelt has a mild flavor profile and does contain gluten. But spelt has a different ratio of proteins, which creates a more extensible dough, preferable for flatbreads and tortillas.

“Many of these grains provide nutty, earthy flavors that blend well with sweet ingredients such as nuts, dried fruits and natural sugars and syrups that are typically used in baked goods formulations,” said Don Trouba, senior director, go-to-market, The Annex by Ardent Mills. “Some ancient grains bring texture to a product, such as chewiness or pops of crispness.”

Finding the right flour

In flour format, some ancient grains may be direct substitutes for wheat. However, they may often require the addition of other ingredients in order to maintain desirable sensory appeal.

“Unlike traditional wheat flour, ancient grains can be challenging for bakers since they may require special enzymes to avoid low-volume production and can also impact product flavor, texture and mouthfeel,” McClellan said. “Bread made with ancient grains tends to stale quicker than conventional white bread. All these factors can lead to unfavorable eating experiences, so it’s important to get the process parameters correct.”

The Annex by Ardent Mills recommends bakers experiment with each grain or grain flour mixes to learn how each takes and holds water through baking. Moisture levels are crucial for the finished product, in terms of texture and shelf life. When introducing different flours and grains to dough formulations, it’s important to work with ingredient ratios to find how to maintain the flavors of whole grains without changing the dough structure too much.

“The fineness or coarseness of the grains also has an impact on every step of the baking process,” Trouba said. “Again, trial-and-error is required as each one performs differently. Adjusting water levels and choosing a coarser milling can avoid gumminess in the dough.”

Some general formulation considerations include increasing water 5% to 10% (baker’s percent) in the formula and decreasing mix time by 20% to 30%, Ichwan said.

“Most whole grains processed with the germ have a short shelf life, generally under six months,” added Nicole Rees, product director, AB Mauri North America. “This isn’t difficult for bakers to accommodate if they are accustomed to working with whole wheat.”

Ancient grains play a role in the evolving food system in the United States, but many consumers who are seeking new flavors and textures in their foods have yet to explore them. Bakers who incorporate these ingredients in their formulations have an opportunity to introduce them to this new world.